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Buffalo Bill and Billy the Kid; or, The Desperadoes of Apache Land

(1906, by Eugene T. Sawyer)

Forget Pat Garrett. Here Billy falls to none other than Buffalo Bill Cody, in the company of an all-star cast: Wild Bill Hickok, Texas Jack Omohundro and Nick Wharton. (Nick Wharton?) Of course, this Billy resembles the Apache Kid more than Billy the Kid. But, hey, Ned Buntline based his first novel about Buffalo Bill more on Hickok than on Cody. Author Sawyer (1846–1924) was a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle who became known as “King of Dime Novelists”; earlier he wrote the outlaw biography The Life and Career of Tiburcio Vásquez (1875).

Billy the Kid

(1906, by Walter Woods)

 When Woods revised his 1903 play (possibly never produced) into a four-act melodrama co-written by Joseph Santley, it became a nationwide smash, playing before 10 million patrons before ending its run in 1918. Billy’s evil dad frames his son for murder, but by the final act a posse kills Daddy and mistakenly identifies the body as that of Billy, leaving the Kid and his true love free to live happily ever after.The play appears in the 1940 compendium The Great Diamond Robbery and Other Recent Melodramas.

Riata and Spurs

(1927, by Charles A. Siringo)

Siringo mentions Billy in a few chapters—most of which he had previously covered in A Texas Cowboy; or, Fifteen Years on the Hurricane Deck of a Spanish Pony (1885) and A Lone Star Cowboy (1919).What makes this volume interesting is Siringo’s inclusion of Dr. Henry F. Hoyt’s account (in a chapter titled “A Medico’s Memories of Billy the Kid”) and Siringo’s argument that Jim Miller murdered Pat Garrett (“Murder for Money”).

Pistols for Hire

(1941, Nelson C. Nye)

 A co-founder of the Western Writers of America, Nye takes a different approach to the Kid legend, calling Billy “the Dillinger of 1879.” Making Billy a bad guy in fiction isn’t unique, but Nye is sympathetic to Lawrence G. Murphy, James Dolan and George “Dad” Peppin and paints Alexander McSween as the epitome of evil. The novel was reissued as an Avon paperback in 1950 under the title A Bullet for Billy the Kid.

Pardner of the Wind

(1945, by N. Howard “Jack” Thorp)

In one of the first attempts to correct the myths about Billy, cowboy songwriter/song collector Thorp relates his autobiography to Neil M. Clark. “Billy the Kid was just a little, small-sized cow and horse thief who lived grubbily and missed legal hanging by only a few days,” said Thorp, who died in 1940 before Caxton Printers published this story of the Southwestern cowboy.

The Outlaw

(1943, on DVD, multiple sources)

An awful movie known for the furor it caused with censors. Completed in 1941, the movie had a limited run in San Francisco in 1943, was released again in 1946 by United Artists and finally by RKO Radio Pictures in 1949 after producer-director Howard Hughes took over the studio. Jack Beutel plays Billy; his career went nowhere. Jane Russell plays his lover; she became a star. Hughes reportedly had two versions of the film—one for commercial release and another, showing Russell naked from the waist up, for Hughes’ private screening.

Return of the Bad Men

(1948, on DVD, Warner Archive)

The more the merrier. Billy joins up with the Daltons, the Youngers, Bill Doolin and the Sundance Kid to rob and plunder in Oklahoma. Randolph Scott’s out to stop ’em. Billy, as played by Dean White, has scruples. He doesn’t like Sundance (a cold-blooded Robert Ryan) and rides off early in the picture. And White, a former Navy pilot and Broadway actor, would ride into the Hollywood sunset, too, disappearing from movies after 1949.

The Kid From Texas

(1950, not available on DVD)

Billy might have hailed from New York, Indiana, Kansas or Missouri, but Texas? The movie’s not good (few Billy films are), but this one happened to be Audie Murphy’s first starring role in a Western, a genre he would dominate (in second-tier productions) through the 1960s. And World War II hero Murphy was indeed a kid from Texas.

Strange Lady in Town

(1955, on DVD, 20th Century Fox)

Another cameo by Billy. He brings a buddy with a toothache to visit Santa Fe’s new doctor, played by Mrs. Miniver herself, Greer Garson.When it’s tooth-pulling time, Billy clubs his buddy with a six-shooter. Billy’s gone after that, but the actor who played him, Nick Adams, would earn a starring turn in ABC’s hit Western series The Rebel (1959–61).

The Outlaws Is Coming

(1965, on DVD, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

In the Three Stooges’ last feature film, the producers cast kiddie TV show hosts as the outlaws, to be reformed by the Stooges, Annie Oakley (Nancy Kovack) and a bumbling magazine editor (future Batman AdamWest). Johnny Ginger (born Galen Grindle) of Detroit’s Curtain Time Theater played Billy. It wasn’t Ginger’s first turn in a Western. He’d had a role in “Two Ounces of Tin,” a 1962 episode of The Rifleman, with guest star Sammy Davis Jr.


Originally published in the August 2012 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.