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Mything In Action

Looking Backward: Jeff Bridges' Wild Bill Hickok

How dime novelists and nickelodeons made a legend out of Wild Bill

By Allen Barra

The name of George Ward Nichols is little more than an obscure historical footnote today, but Tina Brown, Entertainment Weekly and Geraldo owe him spiritual homage. When he died in 1885, Nichols was president of the Cincinnati College of Music and the faintly remembered author of The Great March, a book on General Sherman's Civil War campaign (he had been a Union officer in Sherman's army). Nichols had one other great accomplishment to his name, though--one that he probably died without appreciating. Nichols was the father of celebrity journalism.

Wild Bill, a new movie by director Walter Hill, features Jeff Bridges as the 22nd (as near as anyone can count) actor to star as the man George Ward Nichols made world famous: Wild Bill Hickok.

It all started with Nichols. While writing for Harper's new monthly magazine in 1867, Nichols gave America its first vivid look at the frontiersman as he was evolving into the gunfighter--actually "shootist" or "pistoleer," in the parlance of the time.

Intrepid and unswervingly fair, twin Colt revolvers stuck in his red-sash waistband, the handsome, courtly, long-haired, mustached James Butler Hickok of Nichols' prose was the first great peace officer of the American West. And civilization followed in the wake of the carnage created by "The Prince of Pistoleers."

Nichols' profile of Hickok paved the way for the dime novels of writers like Ned Buntline, which in turn created an audience for Western movies. In other words, the myth of the gunfighter went from east to west, not the other way around.

Based strictly on his abilities as a policeman, the real Hickok, according to historian Leon Metz, "would have had a hard time getting a job as a dog catcher." No matter. Nichols' profile was not of Hickok but of an archetype that America wanted to believe in.

Not that the real-life model wasn't a pretty impressive specimen. Hickok was a scout for the Union army in the border states during the Civil War, an Indian scout and fighter, a buffalo hunter, and a much-fabled if overrated peace officer. He was so famous in his own lifetime that the explorer Stanley, of "Dr. Livingstone, I presume" fame, sought him out and enjoyed telling Hickok stories to his friends.

Three quarters of a century later, Hickok's memory was still strong enough to inspire President Eisenhower, when talking of his boyhood heroes, to tell an audience, "If you don't know about Wild Bill, read your Westerns more."

The glory of Wild Bill began to fade in the '50s as his image was replaced by that of a more modern gunfighter, one who lived long enough to help shape his own image: Wyatt Earp. When Wild Bill Hickok was murdered in 1875, Wyatt Earp was a virtually unknown assistant marshal in Dodge City, Kan.

When Earp died in Los Angeles in 1929, Hickok had already been portrayed in a dozen feature films while the screen had yet to see a Wyatt Earp. But by the late '50s, when The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp with Hugh O'Brian was a hit TV show and Gunfight at the O.K. Corral with Burt Lancaster was a box-office draw, Wild Bill Hickok had been reduced to the status of a kids' TV Western. Such are the politics of Western myth; it's not who you kill, it's who you know. Earp's legend continued to grow all the way through Tombstone and Kevin Costner's Wyatt Earp. Thanks to Hill, however, Wild Bill finally has a chance to catch up on screen as in life.

The reason Nichols picked Hickok to write about was that he was held in awe by his own contemporaries. Standing more than six feet tall, Hickok was said to have powerful hands and broad shoulders and a graceful, athletic body.

He had a hawklike nose and piercing blue eyes. He wore his brown hair long in the manner of numerous frontiersmen of the 1860s, daring his Indian enemies to take it. (Bridges, in Hill's movie version, with an artificial protuberance on his nose, bears a startling resemblance to the existing photographs of Hickok). But he kept the locks after his days as a buffalo hunter and Indian scout were over, becoming a living anachronism of a frontier that had already left him behind by the mid-1870s.

Even then, in his mid-40s, he was admired by friends and strangers alike. Period descriptions of him most often use the words "noble" and "gentlemanly." A long, tailored frock coat replaced the buckskins of his hunter-scout days, but the long hair, handlebar mustache and wide-brimmed sombrero of Nichols' description survived.

Trying to live up to his image, Hickok became something of a dandy--as a peace officer, he carried two ivory-handled Colts (he preferred the old Civil War .36 caliber "Navy" model, even when the new .44 Peacemakers were issued) tucked butt-forward into a red sash tied around his waist. By the early 1870s, the frequency with which he made use of them began to alienate even his staunchest allies.

His war record, his courage and his fame got him jobs keeping unruly cowhands in line in cow towns like Abilene, Kan., where unreconstructed Southerners, usually Texans, wanted to fight the Civil War all over again. But Wild Bill never really took to the dirty, dangerous job of "lawing," and his nerves often got to him. His idea of keeping the law often involved shooting first and not asking questions at all.

In 1871, he killed a Texas cowhand, Phil Coe, in a gunfight in Abilene in which he also gunned down his friend and deputy, Mike Williams, as the latter ran to his aid. Something went out of Hickok after that incident. For the last five years of his life, he seemed more and more like a caricature of his own legend. This late period is largely the subject of Hill's movie, which takes much of its material from Pete Dexter's novel Deadwood.

Hickok tried touring in a Wild West show run by his friend "Buffalo Bill" Cody, but he was uncomfortable mouthing lines like "Fear not, fair maid! By heavens, you are safe at last with Wild Bill, who is ever ready to risk his life in defense of weak and helpless womanhood!" Wild Bill re-creates one of the period theater scenes with a sharp cameo from Keith Carradine as Bill Cody.

He drank and missed shows and finally had a falling out with Cody. There were fewer buffalo to hunt, and in truth, Wild Bill was never a particularly good gambler. "A passion rather than a profession" was how one of his friends described his relation to poker. By the mid-1870s, the Great Hickok found his eyesight failing, a somewhat serious handicap for a gunfighter. A companion of the period described his constant expression as "one of sadness and kindness." In 1875, he hit the skids, arrested for vagrancy in Cheyenne, Wyo.

Son of a Gunfighter: The swaggering image created by Wild Bill fueled the fame of another shootist, Wyatt Earp (depicted here by Kurt Russell).

The next year gave promise of something better. For the first and only time, Hickok married. His bride was Agnes Lake, a circus performer he had met in the show-biz circuit. When gold was discovered in the Dakota territory, Hickok went to the mining camp of Deadwood to see if he could cash in. But there was an air of impending doom about him, and it was recorded that he told some friends that Deadwood was his "last camp."

On Aug. 2, he was involved in a serious card game and lost heavily. By late afternoon, his luck turned better or worse, depending on how you look at it. He was dealt aces and eights but never lived to play them. A 25-year-old gambler and buffalo hunter named Jack McCall slipped behind Bill, who for once was not sitting with his back to a corner, and shot him in the head. Hickok's final unplayed cards, two aces and two eights, would forever be known as "Dead Man's Hand," the most famous draw in poker history.

No one ever learned why McCall, who was later strung up by Hickok's friends, murdered the greatest gunfighter of the Old West. Several fantastic theories, some involving elaborate conspiracies, were advanced, possibly because Americans had always found it difficult to accept that someone so insignificant could end a life so glorious. Perhaps Lee Harvey Oswald would have understood Jack McCall's motives.

It's fitting, in a way, that Wild Bill's end should remain shrouded in mystery, since so much about his life is still unknown to us. We don't even know for certain how a man named James Butler came by the name of "Wild Bill," except to say that someone called him that early in life and it stuck.

We know nothing of his relationship with the colorful Army scout and buffalo hunter Martha Jane Cannary, better known to American folk lore as Calamity Jane. She claimed to be Wild Bill's lover, drinking companion and gambling partner, but no one knows for certain what their relationship was. She's been described by those who knew her (or claimed to have know her) as everything from a beauty in buckskins to the "the ugliest female God ever abandoned on the American frontier."

Whatever the real Calamity Jane looked like, Hollywood has served her well: Jean Arthur, Jane Alexander and now Ellen Barkin in Wild Bill have all played the role. One recent theory is that Calamity Jane was actually a hermaphrodite who had a fixation on Hickok. She did finagle her way into being buried next to Wild Bill in Mount Moorish, S.D. One old-timer who never approved of Jane was heard to mutter, "Wild Bill would never a'stood for this."

But though Bill was a flop in show biz during his lifetime, in death he was a box-office smash. Buntline, the New York-born "dime" novelist, made him the hero of numerous tales, some of which actually had a basis in fact. Since everyone on the frontier claimed to have known him, there was ample grist for Buntline's mill.

In the 1930 biography of Wyatt Earp, Frontier Marshal, either Earp or his collaborator, Stuart Lake, claimed that Wyatt had learned to shoot from Hickok's personal instruction, which as far as anyone can ascertain is pure fiction, rather the equivalent of Mickey Mantle saying that he had learned to hit when Babe Ruth stopped through on a tour.

The early silents featured more Wild Bills than anyone has ever accurately tabulated, the most famous being William S. Hart in 1926. When the early talkies came in, Hickok was a natural.

Gary Cooper played the classic Wild Bill in Cecil B. DeMille's 1936 potboiler, The Plainsman. Charlton Heston played him alongside Forrest Tucker's "Buffalo Bill" in 1953's Pony Express, and the same year saw a singing Wild Bill, Howard Keel, as the object of Calamity Jane's (Doris Day) secret love in Calamity Jane. In 1970, character actor Jeff Corey wittily played the first revisionist Wild Bill in Arthur Penn's Little Big Man.

Director Hill's screenplay for Wild Bill is the most comprehensive treatment given to Hickok's career to date. All the famous gunfights and confrontations are reproduced with surprising attention to historical accuracy, and if some incidents--a scene with Bridges and Barkin doing the hoedown on a barroom table come to mind--are pure conjecture, remember what the reporter tells the senator in John Ford's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: "This is the West. When the fact becomes legend, print the legend."

All this myth-making, no doubt, would have angered the real Wild Bill Hickok, who was bewildered by his own fame and never knew how to deal with it. What might his reaction have been to any of these celluloid or video reincarnations? Probably the one he was famous for whenever, as a town marshal, he said, "This nonsense has gone far enough."

Wild Bill (R; 98 min.), directed and written by Walter Hill, photographed by Lloyd Ahern and starring Jeff Bridges and Ellen Barkin.

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From the Dec. 7-14, 1995 issue of Metro

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