When John Wayne met Wyatt Earp

One of the greatest mysteries of the golden era of Hollywood was the apparent meeting between future cowboy film star John Wayne and real-life Old West lawman Wyatt Earp.

A 21-year-old bit-part actor at Fox Film Corporation met 79-year-old Earp in 1928. As silent movies began the transition into “talkies”, the retired lawman was on the set of one of the new “oaters” – the name for Westerns.

© Fox Film Corporation / wikipedia.org / Public Domain

Wayne’s career
Born in Winterset, Iowa, in 1907, Wayne had been set for a career as a football player. However, he suffered an injury in an accident which ended his career prematurely. He lost his football scholarship to the University of Southern California as a result.

Initially, he started out moving props at Fox Studios, but director Raoul Walsh saw him and was impressed by his 6ft 4ins frame. Wayne was elevated to actor and his first starring role was in the 1930 film, The Big Trail.

Going on to star in more than 140 films, mainly Westerns, Wayne became the nation’s best-loved cowboy. His appeal appeared to be that he represented the pioneering spirit of the early US settlers. He became a legendary star, with some of his most famous cowboy films including Stagecoach in 1939, The Searchers in 1956 and True Grit in 1969 – he won an Academy Award for Best Actor for his role as a cantankerous marshal in True Grit.

Earp’s colourful life
Earp was one of the most famous lawmen in the Old West. Born in Monmouth, Illinois, in 1848, he grew up to be a professional gambler and entrepreneur, who owned several saloons. He led a long and colourful life. He also mined for gold and silver, ran a brothel, was fined for “keeping a house of ill-fame” and was jailed for stealing a horse!

In 1875, he seemed to have calmed down after his wild youth and joined Wichita police force, but was fired after getting into a brawl with a politician! Undeterred, he followed his older brother, James, to Dodge City, in Kansas, taking up the post of assistant city marshal.

Always on the move, he left Dodge City in 1879 and moved to Tombstone with James and their other brothers, Virgil and Morgan, at the time of the silver boom. Known as being a posse of lawmen, they clashed multiple times with the local outlaws.

Morgan and Virgil were both killed in the line of duty, but Wyatt was never even wounded during any of the confrontations, which added to his mystique. He took part in the infamous gunfight at the OK Corral in 1881 in Tombstone, Arizona, where three outlaws were fatally shot.

Despite being a lawman, he remained a lifelong gambler. He was also a boxing referee at one time. He married Urilla Sutherland in 1870, but she caught typhoid fever and died in childbirth. He had a succession of common-law wives: Sally Heckell, Celia Ann Blaylock and Josephine Sarah Marcus, which added to his notoriety.

In later life, he became friends with some of the early Western actors in Hollywood. He was said to have been on the set during the production of the movie, Wild Bill Hickok, in 1923.

Momentous meeting
Five years later, John Wayne apparently met Wyatt Earp on a film set. They got talking and Earp related many of his hair-raising exploits to the actor known as “The Duke”.

Wayne was said to be spellbound, greatly admiring the elderly lawman’s code of conduct that had shaped his life. Earp was never trigger-happy like many of his contemporaries. He said a gun should be used only as a last resort.

It was claimed that even at the famous gunfight at the OK Corral, Earp and his brothers had tried to talk their adversaries into laying down their arms and finding a non-violent solution. The request was denied, and the ensuing shoot-out secured Earp’s reputation as a fast gun. Earp said later he didn’t think this moment should sum up his whole life. He wanted to be remembered for his earlier gunfights, as only one man had died in more than 100 shoot-outs!

It was said that after Wayne met Earp in 1928, the two became friends – in fact, after Earp died in January 1929, the actor was said to be one of his pallbearers.

Did it really happen?
No-one will ever know if their legendary meeting and subsequent events even took place. A controversial school of thought suggests they never actually met.

The public wanted to believe the romantic notion of the famous lawman meeting the young Western actor, but it was also claimed Wayne learned about Earp’s life second-hand from Ford and not in person.

Whatever the truth, Wayne’s acting style seemed influenced by what he knew about Earp. The early “talkie”, The Big Trail, made Wayne a box office attraction. He was soon an A-list star. Throughout the rest of his career, he always remembered Earp’s code of honour and tried to embody it in his on-screen personas.

Art meets life
In the 1975 film, The Shootist, Wayne’s character, gunfighter John Book, was scripted to shoot an opponent in the back. Wayne told director Don Siegel that Earp would never have done this and said he wanted the scene rewritten.

In the 1959 film, Rio Bravo, Wayne played sheriff John T Chance, who famously said that if he shot a man who hadn’t got a gun, it would be murder. Earp was said to have lived his life by a similar code that “seemed right to him”.

It was said that Wayne was irked when Ford chose Henry Fonda to play Earp in the 1946 film, My Darling Clementine. No-one ever found out why Wayne, who seemed the obvious choice for the role, was side-lined.

Wayne had played a young marshal who was mentored by an “old-timer” in Blue Steel in 1934. This mirrored Earp’s own life story, as he had been advised by Sheriff Whitney in Ellsworth, Kansas, in 1872.

In the 1932 movie, The Big Stampede, Wayne played a lawman who recruited and reformed a former outlaw. This was the case when Earp enlisted former gunslinger and gambler Ben Thompson as an ally.

The 1934 film, The Star Packer, featured Wayne as a sheriff who hired a Native American as his deputy. In reality, Earp was the first marshal to hire a Native American in Dodge City, despite the era’s racial prejudice.

Blurring the lines
More than 25 films have been made telling Earp’s life story. Most began when he became a deputy marshal, airbrushing out his early wild antics. Only the 1994 film, Wyatt Earp, starring Kevin Costner, depicted the true story of his earlier life of crime.

Some of Wayne’s greatest films also depict the transition of a fictional character from a law breaker to a law-enforcer. In the Old West, there were no clear-cut good guys or bad guys. Most men were a bit of both – and Wayne’s persona mirrored Earp’s real character in this respect.

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