Updated: May 23
John Henry Holliday (1851 – 1887), known in the West as Doc, lived in the shadow of his friend Wyatt Earp. If it had not been for Earp, Holliday would have been just another frontier gambler and sometime dentist who died of TB, like so many, and he would have been pretty well forgotten. He was arrested several times for various misdemeanors but no one would have troubled to look up those records. He had no ‘reputation’ to speak of before teaming up with Earp, and later tales of the dozens of men he killed were wildly exaggerated. If it hadn’t been for Dodge and Tombstone, Doc Holliday would have been a nonentity.
Yet he became one of the legendary ‘gunfighters’ of the Wild West and the subject of fascination for those who took an interest in such matters. He appeared on screen – in feature films and on TV - many times, played by a whole host of actors, and he is now one of the most famous figures of Western lore.
For years accurate facts on his life were hard to come by. Talking to Earp writer Allen Barra (whose 2005 book Inventing Wyatt Earp has a chapter on Holliday), one of the best screen Docs, Val Kilmer, said, “Trying to flesh out his character is like trying to put clothes on a ghost.” Early mentions in books such as Billy Breakenridge’s Helldorado (1928) or Stuart Lake’s Frontier Marshal (1931) were highly unreliable and partisan. Even basic data such as place and date of birth, where he was educated, and so on, were got wrong. There was little or no serious research done. Some of the early books on Holliday were dreadful tripe, reading more like lurid novels with the occasional footnote than serious biography.
The first half-decent book on Doc (that I’ve read anyway) was The Illustrated Life and Times of Doc Holliday (1994) by Bob Boze Bell, editor in chief and part-owner of True West magazine. I bought a copy on a visit to Arizona in 2003. It is a large-format paperback written in an accessible, not to say popular style, full of incidental asides and mini-articles which are quite interesting, as well as necessary, I suppose, to pad out the relatively few hard facts about Holliday that were available.
Since then there have been two serious biographies worth reading, Doc Holliday, A Family Portrait, by a distant relative, Karen Holliday Tanner (1998), and Doc Holliday: The Life and Legend by Gary L Roberts (2006). Both these have actually carried out research.
Taken together, these more recent books give us as accurate a picture as I guess is possible of the gambler-dentist.
Myself, I am more interested in how Doc Holliday was portrayed on screen, and how these Docs compared with the real-life one (mostly, hardly at all).
The first appearance (that I know of) was a 1937 Buck Jones epic, Law for Tombstone. Doc was played by third-billed Harvey Clark. Alamo Bowie (Jones) arrives in Tombstone hired by the local stage line to get to the bottom of a string of robberies of gold shipments (though I guess silver would have been more likely). Doc doesn’t seem to be duded up as a gambler, though, or a dentist, just a tough in range duds.
Actually, in a way Doc had appeared in a Western before this. In 1932 Universal put out a picture directed by Edward L Cahn based on the book Saint Johnson (1930) by novelist, short story writer and screenwriter WR Burnett. This came out between Helldorado and Frontier Marshal and had as its central characters not Earp and Holliday as such but, in a tale of brotherly vengeance, clean-up-Tombstone Marshal Frame ‘Saint’ Johnson (Walter Huston) and his top-hatted gambler friend Ed Brandt (Harry Carey). These were Earp and Holliday by any other name. It was actually an excellent film and it remained the best Earp/Holliday treatment for many years. Brandt isn’t called Doc and doesn’t cough. He is a firebrand, always wanting to have at ‘em with his sawn-off shotgun.
Hollywood took a great interest in Lake’s Frontier Marshal when that came out and already in 1934 the first version was released, by Fox, with George O’Brien as ‘Michael Wyatt’ and Alan Edwards as ‘Doc Warren’. So he’s still not Holliday but at least he’s Doc. With several members of the Earp family (especially Wyatt’s widow Josephine) still very much alive and jealously guarding their rights, it wasn’t easy to use the real names of the characters that were, nevertheless, obviously portrayed. The film wasn’t actually, rather surprisingly, a big hit and soon sank without trace.
That didn’t happen to the 1939 remake. Even in a year of the resurgence of the A-picture Western with nearly all the big studios bringing out big-budget oaters like Fox’s Jesse James, Warners’ Dodge City, Universal’s Destry Rides Again and so on, the more modest Frontier Marshal was a big hit. Randolph Scott got the honor of playing the first named Wyatt Earp on screen - well, strictly speaking that’s not true: a certain Bert Lindley had a cameo as Wyatt Earp in William S Hart’s now lost 1923 silent Wild Bill Hickok, but this was the first time Wyatt led the cast by name in a movie. Fox got highly experienced Allan Dwan to direct it. Lake himself was on the set as advisor. I don’t know what he achieved, though, because history was cast completely aside and radical changes to the story were made. Josie Earp was also hired as consultant by Fox, a decision the studio certainly came to regret for she spent the whole time saying, “Oh, Mr Earp would never have done anything like that” and insisting on rewrites. Doc is played by Cesar Romero. He is perfectly splendid. He’s called Doc Halliday for some reason so even now we don’t get Doc Holliday exactly, and he comes from Illinois, not Georgia, but it’s Doc Holliday alright. Dark and powerful (so not very Doc-ish physically), charismatic, Romero is menacing and tragic in equal measure. It was a great performance. Wyatt and Doc become friends (no mention of Dodge or previous acquaintance) and Doc saves Wyatt’s life by shooting a heavy aiming at Wyatt’s back in Tombstone, not in the Comique in Dodge in ’79 as actually happened. This was really the beginning of the legendary screen Doc.
The next appointment for Doc was in 1942 when Paramount got in on the act with its Tombstone, The Town Too Tough To Die. In this, Richard Dix was Wyatt Earp and Kent Taylor was ‘Doc Holiday’ – oh, so close. Stuart Lake being a Fox pet, Paramount went with another book, one by Walter Noble Burns, a Chicago journalist who was now safely deceased and thus unable to be tiresome on the set. Burns had had a hit with a popular read, The Saga of Billy the Kid (1926), responsible for much of the enduring legend/myth surrounding that character, and in 1927 he applied the same techniques to Tombstone: an Iliad of the Southwest, a tale of the gunfight at the OK Corral and subsequent shenanigans. As with Lake’s book, Burns's portrayal of Earp and Holliday profoundly influenced subsequent generations of historians, novelists, and screen writers, and is a blatant blend of fact and sensational fiction. I’m afraid though that a weakness of this film version of the myth is the Doc by Kent Taylor, whom Brian Garfield described as “inadequate” for the role. Still, if I may mangle Julius Caesar, the fault, dear Brutus, is not in our movie stars, but in our screenplay. Doc is just given an insignificant part. Very disappointing.
Actually, Doc is often shown in movies with a shotgun. It may be because Marshal Virgil Earp handed him one, taking instead Doc’s cane, just before the gunfight on the vacant lot near the OK Corral, and Doc seems at least to have begun the fight using it. Or it may have come from an account by Bat Masterson, who wrote a profile for Human Life and told of the swimming hole in Georgia. Masterson recounted how so offended was Holliday by finding Negroes swimming in the water hole reserved, he thought, for his family, or whites anyway, that he used a shotgun on the boys. “Holliday waited until he got a bunch of them together,” says Masterson, “and then turned loose with both barrels, killing two outright, and wounding several others.” This story has since been discounted by most authors, and perhaps Holliday fired a revolver above the boys’ heads, or perhaps not.
In reality, though, it seems that Holliday favored a small .38, a nickel-plated double-action 1877 Colt Lightning, according to Bell. Stuart Lake writes (so it may be putting words in Wyatt’s mouth), that Wyatt told him that Holliday hated shotguns. “He practiced with a Colt for hours at a time.” Much more interesting for your Jeff, though, is the picture Bell shows of a .41 Remington Derringer, inscribed ‘To Doc from Kate’. Now, a slick gambler like Doc Holliday definitely ought to have a derringer. They were pretty well standard equipment for slick gamblers in them days. Whether he actually did have one, though, is another matter. The salerooms are full of firearms that ‘definitely’ belonged to this or that frontier figure and that inscription looks suspiciously definitive.
The following year The Outlaw (mostly shot in 1940) was finally released, unfortunately. I say unfortunately because it was complete trash. It was a Billy the Kid story with Jack Buetel as a very weak Billy, Thomas Mitchell as the worst Pat Garrett there has ever been and Walter Huston as Doc Holliday (so Huston played both Wyatt and Doc). Well, finally they got Doc’s name right. What’s Doc doing in a Billy the Kid story? Don’t ask. In any case Huston’s performance was dire, almost as bad as Mitchell’s, but once again it was the junk script and bad direction (mostly Howard Hughes, Howard Hawks having been fired early on) that was chiefly at fault. We shall say no more about this dreadful film.
However, in only three years’ time, with John Ford back at Fox after the war, we got one of the best Docs there has ever been. Like all Ford Westerns, My Darling Clementine deals with the images and ideas of American myth; it’s a marvelous tale of good and evil which is unburdened by actual adherence to the truth. Ford himself said that it was historically accurate, a frankly preposterous claim (exaggeration and false claims were part of Ford’s stock in trade). He recounted how, as a young man, he had met Wyatt Earp who “told me about the fight at the OK Corral. So in My Darling Clementine we did it exactly the way it had been.” He also said in an interview with Bertrand Tavernier that his Westerns “always” followed the historical facts. This simply wasn’t true. Ford’s Doc Holliday is a surgeon, not a dentist, and from Boston, not the South. Furthermore, he perishes in the so-called gunfight at the OK Corral. So it was baloney.
But Victor Mature, an unlikely casting choice perhaps (although Vincent Price, Tyrone Power and Douglas Fairbanks Jr were all considered by Ford, which would have been interesting) was a remarkably powerful Doc Holliday, from his storming entrance onwards. Ford heightens the unlikelihood of the friendship between Wyatt (Henry Fonda) and Doc by making them opposites in so many ways. Doc is theatrical and flamboyant, and ruled by his emotions, whereas Wyatt is measured, calm and controlled – and Fonda was supremely good at characters with some reserve. Take the way they both deal with an unwanted gambler: Doc sweeps the hat off the man’s head and runs him out of town by shouting and blustering, silencing the saloon. Wyatt deals with an ‘undesirable’ gambler who steps off the stage by quietly telling him to be on the next stage out; he remains seated in the shadow and no one else hears. Or compare Wyatt walking sedately down the street with Clementine to the church social with Doc flying wildly down the same street after Chihuahua.
As Robert Lyons points out in a 1984 essay on the film, My Darling Clementine as History and Romance, all Doc’s ‘good’ qualities – his erudition, doctoring skills, courtly language – are Eastern, and left behind, while his bad ones – drinking, gambling, violence, impetuousness, flouting of the law – are of the West.
In Clementine Doc is a highly cultured man, able, for example, to finish reciting a Hamlet soliloquy when a professional actor forgets the words. In reality, Holliday probably was a man of some education at least. He seems to have attended the Valdosta Institute, a private school where the classics were taught, and although we have no details, even the dates of his time there, he probably did study French, Latin and perhaps some Greek. Movie Docs liked to make much of this, and correspondingly his Tombstone arch-enemy Ringo’s erudition is inflated too, so that the two may ‘duel’ with words in an erudite way, quoting Latin tags at each other and so on.
In the early 1950s there were radio and TV appearances for Doc, such as by Harry Bartell in the thirteenth episode of the CBS’s Gunsmoke (July 19, 1952) and Kim Spalding in the syndicated television series Stories of the Century (1954). In the latter, Holliday is described as “the Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde of the 1880s” and “a fatalistic, ruthless and deadly killer.” In cahoots with Ike Clanton (Frank Richards), Doc wrecks a train in order to steal the strong box and of course railroad detective Matt Clark (Jim Davis) is hot on his trail. In Dodge (not sure what Ike was doing there) Holliday practices dentistry wearing a gunbelt. He threatens to pull Frankie’s teeth one by one till she starts telling what she knows, then he beats 6' 2½" (1,89 m) Matt up in a fistfight. Billy Clanton and Billy Claiborne are henchmen. Ike and Doc fall out and Doc says he must go to Tombstone to warn Wyatt (James Craven) that Ike’s after him – Wyatt is the marshal, of course, with Virgil a mere sidekick. Ike and Doc are wounded in the gunfight at the OK Corral. Later Matt tells Frankie that Doc died in a sanitarium (he didn’t) in 1885 (it wasn’t). So, about normal for Stories of the Century, i.e. nonsense.
Doc’s next screen appearance was in 1954 in Masterson of Kansas, impersonated by the excellent James Griffith (pretty well the picture’s sole asset). He manages to transmit murderous menace and cynical don’t-give-a-damn, with a hint of charm (very little) and a soupçon of tragedy. I always thought Griffith was a much better actor than many of the parts he took on warranted. Holliday has come to Dodge from Tombstone, so the chronology is out of kilter, despite being posted by Sheriff Bat, and the movie opens with a stupid Masterson vs. Holliday walk-down, and a lethal quick-draw gunfight between them being stopped at the last moment by Wyatt Earp. Doc is a medical practitioner again, not a dentist.
The next big-screen Doc was one of the most famous, Kirk Douglas in Paramount’s John Sturges-directed Gunfight at the OK Corral (1957). Kirk is very good as Doc, to Burt Lancaster’s Wyatt. Douglas doesn’t overdo the tubercular coughing. He is dapper in his frock coat and silk vest. He comes across as charming, cynical and deadly. His lifestyle is pretty lethal too, with alcohol and tobacco featuring prominently (he says that his idea of healthy living is to be up by noon and take a twenty-yard walk). He knows he is dying and it is that which makes him reckless of his own safety. He might even prefer to go out in a blaze of gunfire than die coughing in bed. It’s a very good performance and Douglas must go down as one of the better Docs, though of course this movie was hardly more accurate than the others – for example, Doc kills Ringo at the OK Corral.
How sick Holliday was in reality is difficult to know. He is thought to have contracted TB from his mother, who probably died of it, as did his adopted brother Francisco. Many people suffering from lung disease did head for the dry climate of the south-west for the health benefits. Holliday survived into his late thirties anyway. It was common to seek sulfur cures, and Holliday seems to have done this in both Las Vegas, NMT and Glenwood Springs, Colorado. Unfortunately, however, it is likely that the fumes would have further damaged lung tissue rather than restoring it. Certainly screen Docs could heighten tragedy by coughing into a handkerchief and looking pallid and sweaty.
Before, during and after the release of Gunfight at the OK Corral, the Wyatt/Doc legend was in full flow on TV in ABC’s The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, which aired for no fewer than six seasons (a remarkable 229 episodes) from 1955 to 1961. We are told that “[Hugh] O'Brian was chosen for the role in part because of his physical resemblance to early photographs of Wyatt Earp” but confusingly, there were two Doc Hollidays. Douglas Fowley was Doc in 49 episodes but Myron Healey took the role in 10. To add to the confusion, Healey had earlier in the show played Clay Allison. The episode first aired April 23, 1957 (S2E33) bore the title Wyatt Meets Doc Holliday, while S3E5 was Wells Fargo vs. Doc Holliday, S3E34 was Doc Holliday Rewrites History, S4E16 was The Reformation of Doc Holliday, and S5E35 was The Court vs. Doc Holliday. So Doc got quite a good showing. This show was a huge influence on me as a boy and my introduction to the tubercular dentist. I hunted out all the other ones later.
In 1959 Adam West played Doc three times, in episodes of Sugarfoot, Colt .45 and Lawman. So Doc was becoming a regular on TV and his rep was growing. Holliday would also crop up, played by different actors, in The Tall Man, Tales of Wells Fargo, Death Valley Days and Bonanza. Jack Kelly was Doc in The High Chaparral, but when Jack was Bart Maverick in Maverick, Gerald Mohr was Doc. Holliday sure got about.
The next big-screen Doc was another Sturges Earp/Holliday/Clanton tale, Hour of the Gun in 1967, and it was another excellent Holliday, Jason Robards (with James Garner as Wyatt). This one starts with the mendacious statement THIS PICTURE IS BASED ON FACT. THIS IS THE WAY IT HAPPENED. As if. As the picture has some preposterous hokum about Wyatt and Doc going down to Nogales and having a showdown with Ike Clanton, leaving him dead in the dust, it shouldn’t really have claimed so much. Why can’t Westerns just be entertainments and have fun? Why do they have to claim factual truth? Still, we mustn’t be too picky. The Edward Anhalt screenplay is tight, and unusual in the sense that the story begins, rather than ends, with the OK Corral. There’s action and the characters are well-drawn. It’s is a decent Western and a perfectly respectable version of the Tombstone legend, and Robards is dandy as Doc.
Back on TV, Doc strayed into sci-fi when Star Wars did a version of the OK Corral in 1968 and back in 1966 the British TV show about the time traveler Doctor Who had the Doctor (not Doc) land in Tombstone just at the wrong (or right) time. It’s hilariously bad. I’ve seen it on YouTube and the ‘American’ accents of the British actors seem to getting their revenge for Dick Van Dyke’s cockney.
By the early 70s Westerns had got all revisionist on us, and former Western heroes like Custer, Wild Bill, Billy the Kid and Wyatt Earp were now crazed bloodthirsty idiots. Doc in 1971 had Stacy Keach as the dangerous dentist and the gorgeous Faye Dunaway as a way-too-attractive Big-Nose Kate. Interesting anyway that the title was Doc, not Wyatt, and Holliday was center-stage for once. Doc was in many ways not a very good film, and it too falsified history, but it was certainly fair enough to portray an unattractive, even crooked Earp. It was in many ways a necessary corrective. Wyatt had become absurdly saintly. Harris Yulin gives us an almost creepy corrupt politician Wyatt Earp. Dressed slickly but in an unusual brown, with two tie-down guns, one of them a Buntline Special, he comes across as a very nasty piece of work. Ringo (Fred Dennis) says at one point, “That Wyatt Earp ain’t right in the head.” And Ringo does seem to have a point. There is a hinted-at homosexual relationship between Wyatt and Doc, or at least Wyatt is certainly jealous of Kate. It's all very 70s.
Keach, though too beefy, is actually quite good as Holliday, with an outer shell of cynical toughness, a man made hard by the violent and dangerous West, yet who gradually hints at an inner vulnerability. He has a spark of decency that he is struggling, almost vainly, to keep alight. But the cold winds of corruption and hatred blow too strongly. At least, that’s my reading of it. He coughs blood into a handkerchief and frequents opium dens for relief.
The language is 70s-salty. Doc and Kate have a bantering insult-trading dialogue. “Bitch!” he says. “Bastard!” she replies. Doc draws a derringer on Ike Clanton in the first reel (so that’s good) and threatens to give him another asshole, that kind of thing. It was probably rather daring for the time, and maybe authentic to the less refined elements of 1880s Arizona, who knows.
In 1976 the respected University of Arizona Press published I Married Wyatt Earp, purporting to be the memoirs of Josephine Earp edited by Glen Boyer (already the author of one of the many very iffy books about Doc Holliday). It became the second best-selling book about Wyatt Earp ever sold and was regarded for many years as a factual account This manuscript was later shown to be bogus and withdrawn by the press but a made-for-TV version of it was screened on NBC in 1983 starring Marie Osmond as Josie and Bruce Boxleitner as Earp, with Jeffrey De Munn as Doc Holliday.
The next screen Doc Holliday was a bit embarrassing. It was Willie Nelson in the made-for-TV remake of Stagecoach in 1986. You may wonder what Doc Holliday was doing on the stagecoach in the first place but incidentally (and not as a justification) I think there was something Doc Holliday-ish about John Carradine’s character of Hatfield in the John Ford original. Hatfield was a ‘gentleman’ of sorts and a Southern gambler. (Oddly, Mr Barra seems to think that Carradine played the pompous banker Gatewood, but never mind). I wish Carradine had played Doc properly in a movie (My Darling Clementine, for instance) because I think he would have done it rather well. He even looked like Holliday, a bit, inasmuch as we can tell from the authenticated photographs.
Talking of which, there are only two of those, Holliday’s graduation photograph from the Pennsylvania School of Dental Surgery in March 1872, age 20, and one taken in Prescott, Arizona in 1879, age 27, which is almost certainly him. There are several others of dubious provenance, which doesn’t prevent some books from using them, even on their covers. They could be Doc, I guess. He was certainly a slight man (Bat Masterson said Doc was “a weakling who could not have whipped a healthy fifteen-year-old boy”) and casting robust and beefy types like Vic Mature as him didn’t do him many favors. I reckon Val Kilmer gets the prize for the most look-alike.
In the early 1990s two films were made about Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday. First to come out was Tombstone, directed by George P Cosmatos, written by Kevin Jarre and starring Kurt Russell as Wyatt and Val Kilmer as Doc, and that was followed by Wyatt Earp, directed, produced and co-written by Lawrence Kasdan, starring Kevin Costner as Earp and Dennis Quaid as Holliday. Because they were released so close together the pictures inevitably came in for comparison. Tombstone is more colorful, probably more fun, and I think had the better Doc, while Wyatt Earp was longer (it was first designed as a six-hour miniseries and like Gunfight at the OK Corral it tried to telescope much of Earp’s life into its runtime) and more earnest. Tombstone did much better than Wyatt Earp at the box office. Quaid’s Doc was also pretty good in Wyatt Earp but Kilmer in Tombstone got it just about right. Both pictures went for more accuracy than had previously been the case, though of course both also took liberties, as movies always do. Cosmatos was highly focused on accurate historical detail, including the costumes, props, customs, and scenery, to give them authenticity, and Wyatt Earp too was praised at least for its production values.
Dennis Quaid’s elder brother Randy was the next Doc (the only case where two brothers have played the same Western character?) in Purgatory (1999), a ghost-fantasy about a gang of outlaws who find their way to a hidden valley and a peaceful town where residents shun swearing, alcohol, guns and any kind of violence but uncannily resemble dead Western heroes. Sam Shepard is Wild Bill, Donnie Wahlberg is Billy the Kid, JD Souther is Jesse James and Quaid is Doc Holliday. It’s OK, I guess.
In our own century Doc Hollidays have not gone away. Wilson Bethel played Doc in more historical twaddle, Wyatt Earp’s Revenge (2012), not terribly convincingly, I fear. He is a doctor, not a dentist, who enjoys inflicting pain. The picture has Val Kilmer as an elderly Wyatt reminiscing, so he was doing Walter Huston’s thing of playing both Wyatt and Doc.
And talking of revenge, William McNamara starred in Doc Holliday’s Revenge (2014), which I haven’t seen; the blurb says “While taking a stand against one of the West's greatest legends, Elizabeth Cooley will discover that justice comes in many forms.” If you say so.
Ryan Kennedy was Doc in Hallmark’s Hannah’s Law (2012). It wasn’t good but Kennedy as Holliday wasn’t at all bad, in fact, and the scene where he deliberately loses to an uncouth card player was well handled.
Tim Rozon was Doc Holliday in another ghost-fantasy drama, the series Wynonna Earp. I tried to watch it but it was too bad.
Apparently Jeremy Renner is to be Doc in a forthcoming biopic based on Mary Doria Russell’s books. She wrote Doc in 2011 and Epitaph: A Novel of the O.K. Corral in 2015, which I may get round to reading at some stage.
I’m quite sure the above list is not exhaustive. Doubtless I have omitted some stunning Docs. But that will do for the mo.
Whether any of them really captured the true Doc Holliday is hard, if not impossible to say. That’s because even in his own time opinions were divided as to his character. The Daily Optic of Las Vegas, NMT described Doc as “a killer and professional cut-throat and not a whit too refined to rob stages or even steal sheep.” The San Francisco Examiner of May 11, 1882 called him “as quarrelsome a man as God ever allowed to live on earth”. Bat Masterson (who never liked him) said he had “a mean disposition and an ungovernable temper, and under the influence of liquor was a dangerous man.” Bat added, “He was selfish and had a perverse nature –traits not calculated to make a man popular on the early frontier.”
Yet the Denver Republican reported Doc’s passing by saying, “Doc Holliday is dead. Few men have been better known to a certain class of sporting people, and few men of his character had more friends or stronger companions.” The obituary added, “He was a very mild-mannered man, was genial and companionable, and had many excellent qualities.” Virgil Earp called him “gentlemanly” and “a friendly man”. A fellow Georgian who knew him called him “a warm friend” and added, “He did not have a quarrelsome disposition.”
Then as now, opinion is divided.
But I think directors, writers and actors of Western movies ought to be free to put their own interpretation on such men. They are not producing documentaries after all, but entertainments. And if the Doc Holliday or Wyatt Earp or whoever you see on screen doesn’t conform to your idea of those guys, well, they’re still entitled.
So long for now, e-pards.