Billy the Kid is one of the most legendary names in the Wild West. He was a famous outlaw in the late 1800s who gained a reputation for gunslinging his way through the west before he was killed at the young age of 21. Though born Henry McCarty, he took on the pseudonym William H. Bonney, which eventually turned into 'Billy the Kid' as his name started to appear on wanted posters. It's a fascinating story as Billy lived a hard and fast life out in the West, which makes him an ideal figure to bring to life on the screen.
Hollywood has tried to tell his story many times over the past century. From his rise from a young orphan to a famous outlaw surrounded by his friends Charlie Bowdre, Tom O'Folliard, and Dick Brewer, he certainly has a unique story to tell. Though there have been numerous films over the years, the MGM+ series Billy the Kid, currently in its second season, gives us a deeper look at the life of Billy that gives him a bit more heart than past adaptations.
Here's a look at some of the most notable actors who have played Billy the Kid over the years.
One of the most beloved western stars of all time, Paul Newman, played Billy in the 1958 film The Left-Handed Gun. Newman was in his 30s when he played the outlaw so it seems like the studio was trying to use his big name to draw audiences to the theaters. Unfortunately, the film was considered a box office flop at the time. Hollywood spun the story that Billy was a misunderstood youth who got bogged down by the violence in New Mexico from the ongoing war that ultimately led to his untimely death.
Country music star and beloved actor Kris Kristofferson brought the young outlaw to the screen in the 1973 western Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. He appeared opposite an all-star cast including James Coburn, Richard Jaeckel, Bob Dylan, Rita Coolidge, Chill Wills, L.Q. Jones, Katy Jurado, Barry Sullivan, Elisha Cook Jr, R.G. Armstrong, and Jason Robards. Bob Dylan composed the music for the MGM film that famously resulted in his classic song "Knockin' on Heaven's Door." Sam Peckinpah directed the film, previously best known for his other western The Wild Bunch.
Kristofferson was 36 when he played the 21-year-old Billy so it wasn't necessarily the most accurate depiction. But who doesn't love Kris? He definitely made a memorable gunfighter in the film.
Released in 1988, Young Guns followed Billy during the Lincoln County War in New Mexico. It even had its own sequel, Young Guns II, in 1990. Emilio Estevez brought Billy to the screen with Kiefer Sutherland, Lou Diamond Phillips, Charlie Sheen, Casey Siemaszko, and Jack Palance co-starring. John Wayne's son Patrick even took on the role of Sheriff Pat Garrett.
Estevez was 26 when he played Billy, making the casting pretty darn accurate compared to some of the other names on this list. Most critics panned the film for being too "Brat Pack" instead of Western, but I personally thought it worked. James Coburn, who had appeared as Pat Garrett in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid played John Chisum in the sequel.
Gore Vidal's Billy the Kid was a TV movie that aired on TNT in 1989. Though the film didn't receive as much attention as some of the bigger movies with a theatrical release, it steadily gained a positive reputation in the western fan community as one of the most accurate depictions of Billy the Kid ever made. A 30-year-old Val Kilmer stars as Billy during the Lincoln County War. Anyone who's seen Tombstone knows that Kilmer is right at home in a western and this was no exception.
This was written by Gore Vidal, who also wrote Paul Newman's The Left-Handed Gun. Vidal always felt the studio ruined his vision the first go around and wanted to chance to tell the story he wanted to tell. Not to mention, the original story was based on the assumption that Billy was left-handed based on a mirror photo. Years later, they realized he was actually right-handed.
Michael J. Pollard
33-year-old Oscar nominee Michael J Pollard, best known for his role in Bonnie and Clyde played a 17-year-old Billy in Dirty Little Billy. The 1972 film was definitely more influenced by rough spaghetti western movies and depicted a much more sinister portrait of Billy than previous films. Unlike some of the other depictions, this movie focused on his early days and how his rough beginnings impacted him. Fun fact, this was also Nick Nolte's film debut.
In 2019, Dane DeHaan played Billy the Kid opposite Ethan Hawke as the lawman Pat Garrett in The Kid. Chris Pratt and Vincent D'Onofrio (who also directed the film) co-starred as well as D'Onofrio's daughter Leila George. Like most of the adaptations of Billy's life on this list, DeHaan was in his early 30s when he played the young outlaw but the film has largely been praised for being a fun western and capturing two legendary characters of the Old West successfully.
British actor Tom Blyth is the latest to bring the legendary outlaw to the screen. He stars in the MGM+ series Billy the Kid from Vikings creator Michael Hirst. The series follows Billy from his origins in New York to his journey west, as depicted in Season 1, until he crosses paths with outlaw Jesse Evans, leader of the Seven Rivers Gang. Season 2 will see Billy during the Lincoln County War and potentially allude to what happened to the notorious gunslinger. Unlike most of the names on this list, Blyth is much more age-accurate, which makes the story feel more authentic. Hirst carefully executes his story by painting a picture of Billy as a sympathetic orphan who is a product of the cards life has dealt him.
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