Western lawman Wyatt Earp (1848-1929) is well known to movie buffs, having been portrayed in Hollywood movies and television shows by such stars as Henry Fonda, Randolph Scott, Richard Dix, Joel McCrea, Burt Lancaster, Hugh O’Brian, Jimmy Stewart, Will Geer, James Garner, Harris Yullin, Kurt Russell, Kevin Costner and Val Kilmer. What is undoubtedly less well known is that, much like real-life western heroes Buffalo Bill Cody, Wild Bill Hickok and Bat Masterson, late in his life Earp dabbled in show business himself.
In 1910, at age 62, Earp moved to the Los Angeles area where he worked for (and sometimes against) the LAPD and also panned for gold at his own little claim, the Happy Days mine. Inevitably, movie people sought out the living legend, and he became an informal, unpaid, uncredited adviser on western films. In 1915 he helped out on the Douglas Fairbanks movie The Half Breed, and wound up in the film himself as an extra. In 1916 he and Jack London, whom he had known since the Alaskan Gold Rush, visited Raoul Walsh on the set of The Silent Lie a.k.a. Camille of the Yukon. He also spent time on the sets of John Ford, where young John Wayne, then still just a stunt man and extra, met him. And he became a good friend and adviser to both Tom Mix and William S. Hart. Hart was responsible for the first cinematic portrayal of Earp, as a minor character in Hart’s Wild Bill Hickok (1923). Bert Lindley played Earp. With the encouragement of Hart, Earp was working on his autobiography with a co-writer during his last years, with the hope of eventual cinematic adaptation. When he died in 1929, Tom Mix and William S. Hart were among the pallbearers.
At this writing, there are so many movies about Wyatt Earp that there’s even one about this period in his life. Blake Edwards’ Sunset 1988 is a Raymond Chandler-esque murder mystery set in Hollywood in the 1920s. In the fictitious tale, star Tom Mix (Bruce Willis) and movie consultant Wyatt Earp (James Garner) team up to solve a whodunit. Garner had played the young Earp in Hour of the Gun (1967) and had worked with Edwards on Victor/Victoria (1982). Willis was still on Moonlighting and pre-Die Hard. His first starring film had been Blind Date (1987), which was also directed by Edwards. Edwards had written and produced the westerns Panhandle (1948) and Stampede (1949) at the beginning of his career, and directed the western epic The Wild Rovers (1971). Both The Wild Rovers and Sunset were shunned by audiences, and the latter was also trashed by critics, but these two are among my favorite of his films. I am not normally a Blake Edwards fan, but he brings an interesting approach to western themes, one I find far more palatable than his overwrought, self-conscious comedies. More trivia: Edwards’ step-grandfather was J. Gordon Edwards, a prolific silent film director, who included some westerns like The Lone Star Ranger (1919) among his large body of work. Was Wyatt Earp a consultant on any of them? I’d love to know.