Actors who played Wild Bill Hickok

The Films of Wild Bill Hickok
By Henry C. Parke

Why have dozens of films been made about James Butler Hickok, aka Wild Bill Hickok, going back to silent movie days? Why is his appeal as strong as that of Wyatt Earp or Jesse James? Because in real life, he was the prototype for the Old West hero.

He was a scout for Custer (no, not on that day), a great marshal, a great marksman—he prevented a Sioux attack on a group of settlers when he killed Whistler the Peacemaker with a single shot at over 750 yards. He actually fought duels in the street, a rarity in real life. He dressed as sharp as Bat Masterson and had hair as snazzy as his friend Buffalo Bill. Like Buffalo Bill, he also had a stage career, and while he was a lawman at times, he died as dramatically as outlaw Billy the Kid.

Back in the days when the public knew a fair amount about Western legends, any schoolkid could tell you that Hickok wore his six-guns butt-out, had a relationship with Calamity Jane, and was murdered, back-shot, by no-account trash Jack McCall, while playing poker in a Deadwood saloon, holding pairs of black aces and eights, which became immortalized as the Dead Man’s Hand.

Which are the very best Hickok movies is, of course, subjective. What confounds the viewer again and again is that, with such an ample supply of history, how rarely the fascinating truth is chosen over the mediocre invention. One of the notable silent versions, 1923’s Wild Bill Hickok, starred William S. Hart and had the novelty of input by the still-living Hickok acquaintance, Wyatt Earp.

The first exceptional talkie about Hickok was Cecil B. DeMille’s The Plainsman (1936). Bill is played convincingly by Gary Cooper, with Jimmy Ellison as Buffalo Bill, and Jean Arthur as a love-sick and lovely—if inaccurate—Calamity Jane. DeMille noted in his autobiography, “I insist upon authenticity; and so, Jean had to learn to manipulate a 10-foot bullwhip as competently as Calamity Jane did when she was driving a stagecoach.” The two villains of the tale were tough Charles Bickford, selling arms to Indians, and his assistant, Jack McCall, played by weaselly Porter Hall. Incredibly, Paramount executives wanted Hickok and Jane to ride off into the sunset! “First the executives asked me not to kill Wild Bill. When I told them that I could not remake history to that extent,” they countered with, “Don’t let him be killed off by that little rat McCall. At least let Charles Bickford kill him!” Happily, DeMille held firm.

In 1940, Roy Rogers starred for Republic in Young Bill Hickok, as a Union sympathizer, when Hickok was a Union soldier, Redleg, guerrilla, and perhaps a spy for the Union, his friend Buffalo Bill recalled running into Hickok in a Confederate officer’s uniform. While entertaining, this story, involving Hickok foiling mysterious foreigners’ attempts to steal gold and possibly seize California, is pure fantasy.

Buffalo Bill (Charlton Heston) and Hickok (Forrest Tucker) got the technicolor treatment in Paramount’s exciting Pony Express (1953), trying to establish a safe mail route between St. Joseph, Missouri and Sacramento, California. Both men actually worked for the Pony Express, and there is plenty of entertainment and enough general truth to be acceptable if not real, history.

Between 1951 and 1958, Guy Madison became every kid’s image of the lawman in The Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok, with squeaky-voiced Andy Devine as his sidekick, Jingles. Remarkably, these shows had even less history in them than the Roy Rogers version, and their good guy/bad guy plots were interchangeable with those of The Adventures of Kit Carson.

Arguably, there hadn’t been a really good Hickok film since 1936, until Charles Bronson and director J. Lee Thompson revived the character in The White Buffalo(1977). It’s a bizarre tale of a man obsessed with a recurring dream about being attacked by a white buffalo, who decides he must track the animal down, and en route, teams up with a Sioux (Will Sampson) who has the same obsession. But the film is peppered with facts: Hickok is going blind from glaucoma; he’s hated by Indians for killing Whistler the Peacemaker. Numerous incidents from his life take place, including a pair of remarkable Hickok-against-many shootouts. The white buffalo of the title is a life-sized puppet made by Carlo Rambaldi, of E.T. fame. The strong supporting cast includes Clint Walker, John Carradine, and Slim Pickens.

Spurred by the success of 1988’s Young Guns, the Pony Express galloped back to TV as The Young Riders, featuring Josh Brolin in his first Western role as a teenaged Hickok, with Stephen Baldwin as Buffalo Bill for three TV seasons.

In 1995, Walter Hill’s Wild Bill took a look at a haunted Hickok. Jeff Bridges is an excellent choice for the lawman, who is first overcome by guilt—and this is true—when he accidentally shoots and kills a deputy hurrying to his aid. Later—and this is fiction—he realizes his abandonment of a woman (Diane Lane) and his killing of her fiancé, destroyed her life, setting her son, Jack McCall (David Arquette) on a deadly hunt for revenge. Ellen Barkin played the tragically-in-love Calamity Jane. Interestingly, 15 years later, two Hickoks, Josh Brolin and Jeff Bridges, would square off in True Grit (2010).

The same year as Wild Bill, in Larry McMurtry’s mini-series Buffalo Girls, Anjelica Huston would be Calamity Jane, and Hickok would be slyly portrayed by Sam Elliott. Although unthinkingly cruel to Calamity at times, he was so good that it seemed like a double tragedy that McCall murdered him in the first episode.

Another Hickok! John Terrell from Wild West Chronicles.

In 2010, the Deadwood pilot gave Walter Hill a second opportunity to tell the Hickok story, this time with Keith Carradine, Hill’s Buffalo Bill from Wild Bill, as Hickok, with Robin Weigert as Jane. Audiences felt a sense of déjà vu when, only four episodes into Deadwood, Hickok, the most interesting character in the show, was killed off; some feel the series never recovered.

The most recent portrayal of Wild Bill was in 2017’s Hickok, starring Luke Hemsworth, with a supporting cast including Kris Kristofferson, Trace Adkins, and Bruce Dern, who had a wonderful role in Wild Bill. Unlike the other more recent Hickok films, it focuses on his early years in Abilene before he became a tragic figure.

Which are the best Hickok films? I asked Bob Boze Bell, publisher of True West, who has written extensively about Hickok. “Unfortunately, I don’t think any of the 60-some-odd films about Wild Bill Hickok have really captured the man. Some come close: I think Jeff Bridges in Wild Bill is very, very close to the physicality of the real Hickok but the story doesn’t quite stick the landing for me. I love Keith Carradine’s Wild Bill in 2004’s Deadwood. That story captures a bit of the tragic nature of the character and the story. The problem is that the real Hickok was such a walking contradiction—a bigger-than-life character he half-invented crossed with the imagination of the writers of the day having a field day with the material. Perhaps the best version is yet to come?”

About Henry C. Parke

Henry’s new book, The Greatest Westerns Ever Made, and the People Who Made Them, published by TwoDot, is now available. The Brooklyn-born, L.A.-based writer has contributed articles to the INSP blog since 2016, been Film Editor for True West since 2015, and has written Henry’s “Western Round-up,” the online report on Western film production, since 2010. His screenwriting credits include Speedtrap(1977) and Double Cross (1994). He’s the first writer welcomed into the Western Writers of America for his work in electronic media. He’s done audio commentary on nearly thirty Spaghetti and domestic Westerns.