Wild Bill Hickok is one of the most legendary names in the Wild West. Hollywood has been bringing his story to the screen for years with countless iconic actors playing the historic gunslinger, ranging from Gary Cooper in 1936 to Luke Hemsworth in 2017. Wild Bill served in the Civil War with Buffalo Bill Cody, was a lawman in the Kansas territory, and most famously lived in the famous town of Deadwood, frequented by numerous other legends of the Old West. He was a man who saw it all which is why over one hundred years later we're still drawn to his story.
Two of the most notable Wild Bill performances from over the years, in my opinion, came from Jeff Bridges and Sam Elliott. Neither actor is a stranger to western movies — Jeff Bridges might have been the only man alive to be able to follow up John Wayne's performance in the remake of True Grit — and Sam Elliott has appeared in everything from Tombstone to the upcoming Yellowstone prequel. So which actor was the better Wild Bill Hickok? Let's examine each of their performances.
In this 1995 western, Jeff Bridges takes on the legendary gunfighter and looks every bit the part — down to the signature long hair. Ellen Barkin does a pretty stand-up job taking on Calamity Jane with John Hurt appearing as Bill's friend Charley Prince. Diane Lane plays Bill's former flame Susannah Moore, and David Arquette plays her son, Jack McCall (i.e. the man who killed Wild Bill). It's honestly a really impressive cast that also includes a young Christina Applegate and even Bruce Dern. Funnily enough, Dern would later play a different role in the Luke Hemsworth-led Hickok alongside country stars Kris Kristofferson and Trace Adkins.
Wild Bill starts out at the western legend's funeral with his pal Charley looking back on the final days of his friend's life in the famous Old West town of Deadwood, South Dakota. Because it's a movie, there are countless shootouts where Bill shows off his gunfighter skills. In reality, he only killed a handful of men this way, but it works for the sake of the film. Bridges does a really impressive job of making Bill both likable and a scoundrel. The way he handles his relationship with Susannah (and even Calamity Jane) should be frowned upon, but at the same time he's a charming and whip-smart lawman who you'd never want to face in a showdown.
If this movie proves anything, it's that there's really no role that Jeff Bridges can't take on. His career is full of incredible moments from Crazy Heart to The Big Lebowski and every time he makes the character uniquely his own. I won't say this is my favorite western I've ever seen. I honestly wasn't that fond of the film's explanation for why Jack McCall shot Bill, since, in reality, it was mostly speculation. I'd almost have preferred it be meaningless over a game of poker instead of avenging his mother — that just seems more accurate of Wild West times to me. But regardless, Bridges' performance makes the film worth watching and I'd honestly consider it one of his most underrated roles.
Okay, so technically Sam Elliott wasn't playing Wild Bill in a western movie...it was a TV miniseries. So maybe it would be better to compare his performance to Keith Carradine in Deadwood but hey...he's a big box office draw just like Bridges so I feel like it's a fair comparison.
Buffalo Girls is largely focused on Calamity Jane (Anjelica Huston), based on the novel written by Lonesome Dove author Larry McMurtry. It chronicles the later days of her life towards the end of the Old West and follows her relationship with the madam Dora DuFran (Melanie Griffith) and even Annie Oakley (Reba McEntire). Really, Wild Bill is a supporting character in the story narrated by Jane. But it's Sam Elliott...and the man can do no wrong. As proven time and again somehow he continues to look cool with a long hairstyle and he manages to capture the effortless swagger we can only imagine the legendary lawman possessed.
When the miniseries was initially released it got some mixed reviews, though it did earn numerous Emmy nominations, including a Best Supporting Actor nod for Elliott. While it's no Lonesome Dove, I enjoyed Buffalo Girls, maybe mostly due to the fact that it was genuinely fun seeing people like Sam Elliott and Reba McEntire take on Wild West legends. I think Elliott did an amazing job given the limited screentime he had as a supporting player in the series. But, if I had to choose, my favorite performance came from Jeff Bridges. He just had more time (as the star of his own movie) to really become the character in my opinion. But as a diehard Sam Elliott fan, I'll never say he did a bad job...he just didn't get enough screentime.
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