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The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp

Wyatt Earp

Hugh O’Brian as Wyatt Earp and Adele Mara, 1961.

The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp is a western television series loosely based on the adventures of frontier marshal Wyatt Earp. The half-hour black and white program aired for 229 episodes on ABC from 1955 to 1961 and featured Hugh O’Brian in the title role. An off-camera barbershop quartet sang the theme song and hummed the background music in early episodes. Incidental music was composed by Herman Stein. The series was produced by Desilu Productions and filmed at the Desilu-Cahuenga Studio. Sponsors included: General MillsProctor and Gamble, and Parker Pen Company.

The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp can currently be seen in re-runs on Monday through Friday at 3:30 p.m. ET on the Encore Westerns Channel.

O’Brian in 1964

O’Brian was chosen for the role because of his physical resemblance to early photographs of the actual Wyatt Earp; James Garner, for much the same reason, later played Earp in the films, Hour of the Gun (1967) and Sunset (1988). On the series, Earp carries a Buntline Special, a pistol with a twelve-inch barrel, which triggered a mild toy craze at the time of the original broadcasts of the series. There is no credible evidence that the real Earp ever owned such a gun. The myth of Earp’s Buntline Special is found in Stuart N. Lake‘s spurious 1931 biography, Frontier Marshal, purported upon publication to be based on actual interviews but later admitted by the author to be highly fictionalized.

O’Brian recreated the role of Earp in two episodes of the CBS television series Guns of Paradise (1990), alongside Gene Barry as Bat Masterson, and again in 1991 in The Gambler Returns: The Luck of the Draw, also with Barry as Masterson. An independent movie called Wyatt Earp: Return to Tombstone was released in 1994 featuring new footage of O’Brian as Earp mixed with flashbacks consisting of colorized scenes from the original series.  The new sequences co-starred Bruce BoxleitnerPaul Brinegar (Rawhide), Harry Carey, Jr., and Bo Hopkins.

A major actor from the silent era with a similar name was the first man to play the character in a film version of the book upon which the television series was based. George O’Brien, star of F.W. Murnau‘s 1927 masterpiece Sunrise, played the title role in 1934’s Frontier Marshal three years after Stuart Lake’s book appeared. Other actors to fill Earp’s boots on film include James StewartHenry FondaKevin CostnerRandolph ScottJoel McCreaRichard DixWill GeerKurt Russell, and Leo Gordon.

The theme song, beginning each of the 224 episodes, went: Wyatt Earp, Wyatt Earp … brave, courageous and bold. Long live his name, and long live his glory, and long may his story be told.

Notable guest stars

Buddy Roosevelt (June 25, 1898 — October 6, 1973) and Jimmy Noel appeared as unnamed townsmen in sixty-five and sixty-three episodes, respectively. Randy Stuart was cast in twelve episodes in the 1959-1960 season as saloon owner Nellie Cashman, a romantic interest for Earp. In five episodes, John Anderson played Earp’s brother, Virgil Earp. Between 1958 and 1961, Morgan Woodward portrayed loyal deputy “Shotgun Gibbs” in forty-two episodes. Douglas Fowley and Myron Healey were cast forty-nine and ten times, respectively, as Earp’s close friend, John H. “Doc” HollidayAlan Dinehart, III, was cast in thirty-four episodes between 1955 and 1959 as Bat Masterson, a role filled on the NBC series of the same name by Gene Barry.

Paul Brinegar played Mayor Jim “Dog” Kelly in twenty-four episodes, and Don Haggerty was cast in the role of Marsh Murdock in twenty-one segments. James Seay was cast sixteen times as Judge Spicer. William Phipps was cast ten times as Curly Bill Brocius.  Steve Brodie played Sheriff Johnny Behan in nine episodes; Lash La Rue, five times.

Walter Coy appeared twice on Wyatt Earp, as Henry Mason in “The Doctor” (1960) and earlier as Ben Thompson in “Dodge Is Civilized” (1959). In eight other episodes, Denver Pyle was cast as Ben Thompson, the gunfighter who was Earp’s sometimes rival and friend and who later became the marshal in AustinTexas.

Lloyd Corrigan played the western author Ned Buntline in three episodes.  James Coburn portrayed another historical figure, Buckskin Frank Leslie, in the 1959 episode “The Noble Outlaws.”

Other notable performers appearing on the series include Jim Bannon (three times), Roy Barcroft (three times), Lane Bradford (six times), Robert Bray (three times), Andy Clyde (as Billy Buckett), Tris CoffinFrancis De Sales (three times), Richard Devon (twice),Ron Foster (as Johnny in “Arizona Lottery”), Ron HagerthyRobert HarlandBrad Johnson (twice, including the role of Ed Masterson).

Continued: Ed HintonJonathan Hole (twice), I. Stanford Jolley (six times, including “A Papa for Butch and Ginger”), Brett King (twice), Jimmy Lydon (twice), Tyler McVey (seven times), Gregg Palmer (five times as Tom McLowery), John M. Pickard (three times), Bing Russell (twice), Stuart Randall (seven times), Glenn Strange (five times), John VivyanGloria WintersGrant Withers (twice), Sheb Wooley (twice), Anna May Wong, and Carleton G. Young (four times).

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