Wild Bill Hickok and the Show Business

wild bill

Today is the birthday of James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok (1837-1876). After years as a famous law man, soldier, scout and trouble-maker, in 1867 he followed in Buffalo Bill Cody’s footsteps by trying acting on the legitimate stage. To clarify, I am not talking about an outdoor Wild West Show in this instance in either man’s case (although that is what Cody later became famous for.) I am talking about acting in a role in a melodrama play (although usually a play that is an fictionalized version of real life frontier exploits).

In 1867, Hickok appeared in Niagara Falls in a play called The Daring Buffalo Chasers of the Plains. He was reportedly terrible, so this experiment was shortlived. However, starting in 1873, he appeared again with Buffalo Bill and Texas Jack Omohundro in Ned Buntline’s Scouts of the Plains, and toured with the show for several months. It was while touring with this show that he met tightrope walker, lion tamer, equestrienne and circus proprietor Agnes Thatcher Lake, whom he married in 1876. Within months of getting hitched, Hickok went up to Deadwood to try his luck at prospecting; that was when he was shot in the back by the cowardly “Broken Nose Jack” McCall.

From then on, all of the stage and screen depictions of Hickok would need to be played by somebody else. And he was! Actors who portrayed him on screens big and small included William S. Hart, Charles Middleton, Gary Cooper (sans long hair and van dyke), Roy Rogers, Howard Keel, Forrest Tucker, Adam West (!), Robert Culp, Jack Cassidy, Jeff Corey, Frederic Forest, Josh Brolin, Sam Elliott, Jeff Bridges, Sam Shepard, and Keith Carradine. Some lesser known actors who were identified with the part include: Bill Elliott, who portrayed him in a sries of B movies in the 1940s, and Guy Madison, who played him on the tv series in the 1950s. And that’s a truncated list!

To find out about  the history of early show bizconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever fine books are sold.


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