|Hugh O'Brian as Wyatt Earp|
That show--The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp (and let's be honest: It was mostly Legend!)--was on ABC-TV from September 6, 1955-September 26, 1961. Basically, for me, from the beginning of fifth grade to the beginning of my senior year in high school. 8:30-9:00 p.m. on Tuesdays, I see in my indispensable reference book, The Complete Directory of Prime Time Network TV Shows, 1946-Present (the "present," when I acquired the book, was 1981).
The show began in the era of the TV Western. In 1955, says my trusty Directory, these were the other Westerns on the network schedules: Frontier, Brave Eagle, Lone Ranger, Sgt. Preston of the Yukon (not a true Western--a Northern?), Adventures of Rin Tin Tin, Adventures of Champion (a series about Gene Autry's horse!), Gene Autry Show, and Gunsmoke. Others would come and go the next decade. This was the era of TV heaven for me: An Oklahoma boy, I loved Westerns and had no doubt I would one day ride beside Wyatt.
I can still sing much of the theme song from Wyatt Earp. In fact, at a reading not long ago, the writer Mary Doria Russell (who has written two novels about Earp and Doc Holliday--Doc and Epitaph--I got to review the latter, which I loved) asked members in the audience to sing that song. Many of us did. YouTube is jammed with O'Brian tributes today--you can hear the song on just about any of their myriad links. (Here's one link to a full episode.)
As I look at the cast of the show, I don't see a lot of names of performers who did much else of note--with a few exceptions. Character actor Denver Pyle appeared as Ben Thompson one season; and old B Western hero Lash La Rue played Sheriff Johnny Behan one year. But that's about it. It was, after all, a show about Wyatt.
The show and reality, of course, were very distant cousins. But the 5th grade Me didn't care. I just loved the action--and how about that Buntline Special he wore dangling from his belt like a sword? Look at the length of that holster! I remember that he used that gun mostly for "long shots" and for whacking Bad Guys over the head. They stayed whacked.
I learned--years later--that the actual Wyatt, in retirement (he didn't die until 1929), had gone out to Hollywood, where he served as a consultant on some Western films. There, he met lots of stars, including Charlie Chaplin and, bizarrely, author Jack London, who was in town to try to straighten out a mess involving the filming of his novel The Sea-Wolf. (Not long afterward, in 1915, London was working on what some think was the first "novelization" of a film script--Hearts of Three--a novel he finished before he died in 1916 but was not published until 1919).
And 1919, coincidentally, was the year of my mother's birth. I tremble a little to think that my mother and Wyatt Earp were alive at the same time--as was my dad!
But anyway ... that obituary yesterday brought back so much: lying on the floor watching Wyatt on Channel 5 (Cleveland's ABC station), squabbling with my little brother about the Oreos we'd stolen from Mom's hiding place, hearing my dad laugh from his easy chair (he liked Wyatt, too).
So ... thank you for brightening my boyhood, Hugh O'Brian. And, to steal the final line of the Wyatt theme song, "long may his story be told!"