A Billion Billy the Kids

Today in 1859, according to some, the natal of Henry McCarty a.k.a. William Bonney a.k.a. Billy the Kid. Long storied as a ruthless killer, I have always found his tale somewhat sad. He fell into crime out of desperation. Born in New York, his father died when he was a young child, and his mother remarried, moving to Indianapolis, then Witchita, then Santa Fe. Then his ma died when he was 15 and his stepdad absconded. Henry initially had an OK situation working at a rooming house for room and board. But then he was caught stealing food and then stealing clothes and then escaped from jail and then fell in with bad company and then finally killed his first man in a bar room brawl. It just kept escalating. Now: it is likely he was pretty bad to begin with. He is said to have killed eight men outright and an additional three in the Lincoln County War, over and above more quotidian crimes like theft and robbery. But it’s hard for me to hear “an orphan went wrong after stealing some food” and not have some sympathy for the Kid. He was only 21 when finally shot and killed by Pat Garret in 1881. The embroidery on his legend began almost immediately, through dime novels and such. Then came movies.

I thought I would mark today with very brief looks at some of the actors who’ve played Bonney in westerns over the years. Personally, I think few historical characters have been so ill-served by representation in movies. Almost every single actor who has played him has been either vastly too old, or too good looking or both. My personal favorite is Michael J. Pollard in Dirty Little Billy, but even he looks too well fed, though he’s certainly filthy enough. Anyway, here are most of the key ones.

Lawrence Trimble was roughly the appropriate age (26) when he played the title character in Vitagraph’s silent 1911 Billy the Kid

Former football star Johnny Mack Brown played him in King Vidor’s 1930 Billy the Kid. Wallace Beery was Pat Garrett.

In Republic’s Billy the Kid Returns (1938), Roy Rogers was the Kid.

Sorry! One of the best known Billys is one of my least favorites. Robert Taylor played the title character in Billy the Kid (1941). He seems twice too big and twice too old for the part.

Bob Steele and Buster Crabbe both played Billy in low budget PRC serials (1942-47)

Lucky Jack Buetel got plucked from obscurity by Howard Hughes and cast as Billy in The Outlaw (1943) alongside Jane Russell, Thomas Mitchell, and Walter Huston

If Robert Taylor seemed old, Red Barry seems like Billy the Geezer in I Shot Billy the Kid (1950)

Audie Murphy was The Kid from Texas (1950) even though the Kid was from everywhere BUT Texas and his main stomping grounds were Arizona and New Mexico. Interestingly, two years previous to this a guy named Brushy Bill Roberts emerged, claiming to be the real Billy the Kid, and even opened a Billy the Kid Museum. 

Scott Brady, Larwence Tierney’s brother in The Law vs. Billy the Kid (1954)

This one is the opposite of a B movie: adapted from a Gore Vidal teleplay, directed by Arthur Penn (who later directed Little Big Man), The Left Handed Gun (1958) starred Paul Newman as the Kid. Still miscast, but well acted.


Good looking Geoffrey Deuel (brother of Pete Deuel of Alias Smith and Jones) played an ahistorically sensitive, good-hearted, misunderstood “Kid” in the late John Wayne classic Chisum (1970). He was good in the role; one wonders why he wasn’t tapped to take over Pete’s part on Smith and Jones after his suicide the following year. After all, he looks so much like him that when I watched Chisum I assumed it was Pete. But I guess such a thing was taboo, both because it could be perceived as ghoulish and because he had his own successful acting career in television,

Like I said, Michael J. Pollard in Dirty Little Billy (1972) is my favorite portrayal. I wrote more about the film here. 

Kris Kristofferson in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973) is still too glamorous and good-looking, and though he certainly projects “young man”, a young man ain’t no kid!

I shock even myself to say this, but I do believe Emilio Estevez in Young Guns (1988) and Young Guns II (1990) gets mighty close to the mark — well cast and well acted. I genuinely enjoyed him in these silly movies.

Val Kilmer in Gore Vidal’s Billy the Kid (1989) also comes close to nailing it. And for the first time, we see an actor wearing the right costume for the character!

Donnie Wahlberg brings a little New York to the role in Purgatory (1999) — even though he’s from Boston.

And now, honorable mention (and my favorite although he’s not Billy the Kid per se: Manfred Schulz, the murderous little punk in McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971). Now that’s a kid what IS a kid!