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Jean Arthur and Cary Cooper in The Plainsman, 1936.  They were also paired in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town.  http://www.rarefilm.net

The other night I watched a classic black and white western, The Plainsman.  Gary Cooper played Wild Bill Hickok, a gunslinger I always get confused with Doc Holiday and Wyatt Earp.  I was prompted to cybersearch after the movie was over to check how facts played into it.

Facts?  Sources concur that reliable information about Hickok (1837-1876), whose real name was James, is sketchy.  He as well as Martha Cannary (Calamity Jane) seem to have spread rumors about themselves, which were perpetuated by Eastern publishing companies.

A few undisputed things about him —

  • Born in Illinois, he served as a guide and spy for the Union Army in the Civil War.
  • He knew George Armstrong Custer, Buffalo Bill Cody, and Calamity Jane.
  • He was elected an officer of the law by citizens in Kansas towns.
  • He was quick with two pearl-handled revolvers he carried backwards in his belt.
  • He died at a poker table with black aces and eights in his hand, in Deadwood, South Dakota.

The Cooper movie and subsequent others used these facts, but wove the plot in imaginative ways.

In 1942 Bruce Cabot played him in Wild Bill Hickock Rides.

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In 1995 Jeff Bridges brought raw realities to the role in Wild Bill.

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With a masterful blend of music, cast and cinematography, TNT’s 1999 fantasy Purgatory placed Hickok with Holiday, Jesse James and Billy the Kid.  Sam Shepard had the main part in his hand.

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The most recent version of Wild Bill is played by Jeff Fahey in Wild Bill Hickok: Swift Justice, released just this year.  Lee Majors narrates the story.

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In these movies we see a bits of truth squeaked out of lives of flamboyant lawmen: they did protect us regular folks and try to uphold justice.

However stretched, it is assuring to hear along with flying hooves from an old movie in a dark room on a Thursday night.

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James Butler Hickok.  http://www.biography.com

Bit Players

Katharine Hepburn was terrific in Alice Adams, for which she received an Oscar nomination in 1935. But as we watched the black and white movie on TCM, my husband asked, “Isn’t that the guy who played Sam Wainwright on It’s a Wonderful Life?”

“I don’t think so,”  I said.  “Wonderful Life was at least a dozen years later.”  So I looked him up on the movie site IMDb, and yes, the characters of Katharine H.’s brother and Jimmy S.’s friend were played by the same actor, Frank Albertson.  He was the one always saying “Hee haw!” in the Christmas classic of 1947.

Then we noticed Charlie Grapewin in the part of the town rich guy.  He would soon be Uncle Henry in The Wizard of Oz.  Fred Stone, veteran stage and silent film actor, played Hepburn’s down-on-his-luck father in Alice Adams.  Stone was the original Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz on Broadway.  In 1902.  He’d started his career in show business with the circus.

There are all kinds of familiar faces in the movies and on TV.  They didn’t get the large salaries or the covers of magazines, but they made the stories what they were.  I think George Kennedy must have been in more movies than any living actor.  Charles Durning played memorable roles, the best of which I think is in The Final Countdown, a time travel flick about the attack on Pearl Harbor.  The beautiful Agnes Moorehead appeared in many, many motion pictures before she was  Samantha Stevens’ mother in Bewitched.

My favorite character actor is Jane Darwell, whose final role was the bird woman in Mary Poppins.  She was one of the older southern ladies in Gone With the Wind and probably best known for playing Ma Joad in The Grapes of Wrath.  There is only kindness in that face.  I could watch her in every movie ever made, if she’d been in them.

These are the people who make stories real.  They seem like family and neighbors, and we are fortunate to have known them.  Do you have a memorable character actor in mind?