30 Jan 2014
Soap star gone ‘WILD’
Walt Willey brings legendary lawman ‘Wild Bill’ Hickok to life
Walt Willey in “Wild Bill! An Evening with James Butler Hickok” COURTESY PHOTO Walt Willey’s attraction to the legendary Old West icon “Wild Bill” Hickok gunfighter is understandable.
After all, the long-time soap opera star shares more than a few things in common with Hickok, who was murdered by the dastardly young gunslinger Jack McCall in a Deadwood, S.D., saloon in 1876.
Both blonde-haired, blue-eyed men grew to a height of more than 6 feet, and their intrepid souls led them to leave home at a young age to seek their fortunes, gaining a measure of fame along the way. And both Mr. Willey, known best for playing lawyer Jackson Montgomery on ABC’s “All My Children” for 25 years, and “Wild Bill” hail from LaSalle County, Ill.
Mr. Willey’s discovery in 2011 that he and Mr. Hickok grew up in towns a mere 40 miles apart sparked an interest that led to 12 months of research and writing and culminated in his one-man show, “Wild Bill! An Evening with James Butler Hickok,” which he performs Friday through Sunday, Feb. 7-9, at the Island Theater Company on Marco Island.
Walt Willey, a former star on the soap opera “All My Children,” now tours as “Wild Bill” Hickok in the one-man show he researched and wrote. COURTESY PHOTOS “I love this thing,” says Mr. Willey. “It’s really been the best thing in my life in entertainment, to conceive and perform this. It’s a passion for me. I learned to love this man.”
Since “All My Children’s” 2011 demise, Mr. Willey has kept busy professionally by performing stand-up comedy around the country and touring with “Wild Bill!,” at times in conjunction with his “Wild Bill!” in-school program” for high schools. He has also co-founded a regional community theater, WilleyWorld Community Productions, in his hometown of Ottawa, Ill.
How the show originated
It was while performing “Arsenic and Old Lace” at the theater company that Mr. Willey first learned of his geographic connection to the iconic “Wild Bill,” a man whose skills as a gunfighter and marksman, exploits as an Indian fighter and stints as a marshal, scout, guide and star of Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West show made him a legend in his own time.
“I’d been looking for one-man show to supplement the comedy,” he says. “We were driving from my little hometown to another little town where there’s a train station to pick up my wife and children and I saw this sign saying this is the birthplace of James Butler ‘Wild Bill’ Hickok. When I was a kid, there wasn’t anything mentioned about him.”
What followed was two years of indepth research into Mr. Hickok, separating fact from the fiction popular in the magazines and dime novels of his day, with time for writing and occasional performances.
The show’s setting is Deadwood’s notorious Number 10 Saloon, the scene of Mr. Hickok’s murder at age 39 while playing cards, clutching the so-called “Dead Man’s Hand” of a pair of black aces and black eights, when the assassin’s bullet struck the back of his head.
Mr. Willey’s “Wild Bill” is trapped there, suspended between Heaven and Hell following his murder. But he believes his soul can be freed if he tells the audience his “real story, as best and as honest as I can.”
What follows is a two-act, 90-minute journey that starts with Mr. Hickok’s humble beginnings and expands into tales of his experiences in the Civil War, scouting for Custer, surviving shootouts and his stints as lawman.
Mr. Willey also delves into Mr. Hickok’s memories of fellow Wild West legends “Buffalo Bill” Cody — “‘How he got that moniker is a mystery to me. Took him six shots to even slow a buffaler down.’” — and “Calamity Jane” Cannery — “‘Always had this odd odor about her, Jane did.’”
A fascinating American hero
This will not be Mr. Willey’s first visit to Marco Island and the Island Theater Company. For years, he was a regular part of the annual SoapFest charity fundraisers organized by Pat Berry, a cofounder of the theater group. He also performed “Wild Bill!” at the theater two seasons ago, while road testing the play, and appeared in last year’s production of the two-person, Pulitzer Prize-winning play “Love Letters.”
Ms. Berry says his return will give local audiences an opportunity to see the finished product.
“We’ve had a lot people ask about it,” she says about the “Wild Bill!” show. “Also, it’s a historical play, and that ties nicely into the historical museum and what they’re doing on the island.”
Island Theater Company productions are staged at the Marco Island Historical Museum.
Mr. Willey views performing “Wild Bill!” at a history museum as a perfect match.
“So we’ll brush off our props and come down and do it again,” he says.
But his play, he adds, “is not a history lesson. I like to think it’s a very dynamic, if I may say so, one-man show about a fascinating, complicated American western hero. He was a storyteller. He would admit that when he was sometimes a little too lubricated with whiskey that he sometimes ran out of truth.” ¦
‘Wild Bill! An Evening with James Butler Hickok’
>> Where: The Island Theater Company at
the Marco Island Historical Museum, 180 S.
Heathwood Drive, Marco Island
>> When: 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Friday-Sunday,
Feb. Feb. 7-9
>> Tickets: $22
>> Info: 394-0080 or www.theateronmarco.com