Wyatt Earp Secures Arizona's Place In Silver Screen History

Feb 14, 2012

 Today marks Arizona’s 100th anniversary of statehood. And throughout this centennial year KNAU will bring you stories of some of Arizona’s most notable events, places and characters. This morning, we start with Wyatt Earp. He became a legend in the late 1800’s after the infamous gunfight at the OK Corral in Tombstone. Since then, Earp has captivated the imaginations of people all over the world, including Hollywood filmmakers. Arizona Public Radio’s Gillian Ferris Kohl brings us the story of how Wyatt Earp secured Arizona’s place in silver screen history.

The character of Wyatt Earp has been portrayed by many A to Z list actors. Among the A-listers…Burt Lancaster in The Gunfight at the OK Corral. 

“…all gunfighters are lonely. They live in fear. They die without a dime, or a woman or a friend…”

Kurt Russell in Tombstone.

“…you gonna do something or just stand there and bleed?...”

And Kevin Costner in Wyatt Earp

“…I’m Wyatt Earp…who?...Wyatt Earp…who the (bleep) is Wyatt Earp?...”

Wyatt Earp was an entrepreneur and small town Marshall when he showed up in Tombstone around 1880. He and his brothers wanted to cash in on a silver strike that had turned the dusty desert town into a bustling hot spot, complete with gambling, oyster bars and the latest Paris fashions. But it was all that money and power that eventually led to the shootout at the OK Corral, a 30 second battle that would be remembered for more than a century…and counting.

“…I am convinced that if you walked into Red Square tomorrow and yelled out Wyatt Earp, Doc Holiday, or OK Corral, heads would turn, they will have heard of it…”

Jay Clark is a retired forensic dentist turned historical re-enactor and tour guide in Tombstone. He sits at a gazebo right next to the OK Corral, dressed head to toe in period clothing. Clark attributes Wyatt Earp’s long lasting public appeal to a powerful combination of machismo, good looks and a pioneering spirit.

“…it’s a passion play, it’s good vs. evil and the good guy always wears a white hat, the bad guy always wears a black hat. The good guy always gets the girl and rides off into the sunset with his best friend…his horse!...”

Wyatt Earp only lived in Arizona for only two years. But, Clark says his Wild West, gun slinging image has been immortalized by Hollywood.

“…westerns are the only original genre of American film. It’s the only thing that we can point out and say this is original to us..13/:40…and here’s this six foot tall Brad Pitt-like character who survived a barrage of bullets, he was gonna be the next person they wrote about…”

Fade out Tombstone ambi

And write they did. Shortly after the shootout, newspapers got wind of the story. Next were the dime novelists and then Hollywood filmmakers. The first feature films about Wyatt Earp were produced in the early 1900’s. Since then, dozens more have been made. Now, in the digital age, you can even watch some of the best clips on You Tube. Many are dubbed in different languages including German, Japanese and Spanish, showing the reach of Wyatt Earp’s appeal.

Spanish Earp clip

While Hollywood tends to focus on the dramatic 30 second shootout, a stage actor with a very familiar name tells the lesser known parts of Wyatt Earp’s 80 year life.

“…my name is Wyatt Earp and I’m the great grand nephew of Wyatt Earp…”

THIS Wyatt Earp was born about 20 years after his legendary uncle died. But he grew up hearing plenty of stories, which he showcases in his one man stage production, Wyatt Earp: A Life on the Frontier.

“…He was an amusing person, contrary to the stoic black and white image you get through the movies. He loved children and always wanted to have a family. He was always buying ice cream for other children without checking with their parents. It wasn’t all about the violence…”

After the elder Earp left Arizona, he settled in Los Angeles, where, ironically, he became a consultant for western movies. Though he didn’t want to be remembered solely for the shootout at the OK Corral, Wyatt Earp eventually resigned himself to the gun toting image Hollywood latched onto.

Bring up gunfight

“…y’all ready for a gun fight? Yeah!...Alright, we’re gonna start shootin’ and killin’ each other…”

More than 100 years after it happened, the gunfight at the OK Corral is still re-enacted daily in Tombstone. Some 500 thousand tourists visit the tiny town each year to get a taste of the Wild West through the eyes of Wyatt Earp. His appeal has clearly not ridden off into the sunset just yet.

For AZPR, I’m Gillian Ferris Kohl.