5 Aug 2014
Walt Willey: From All My Children to Gunslinger
Catching up with Walt Willey -- All My Children's Jackson Montgomery
By Paulette Cohn
Walt Willey in character as Wild Bill Hickok.
American Heroes Channel
It's no secret to fans of Walt Willey, who played Jackson Montgomery on All My Children for 25 years, that he has a passion for the wild West. So much so, that he stars in a one-man show that he wrote about Wild Bill Hickok, profiling the sharpshooter from his humble beginnings in Illinois to his times as farmer, trapper, scout, guide, sheriff, marshal and actor.
Now, Willey has the opportunity to play Hickok, who could do amazing things with his six guns, in the six-part series, Gunslingers, from American Heroes Channel, which also features episodes on Wyatt Earp, Billy the Kid, Jesse James, John Wesley Hardin, and Tom Horn.
"Hickok's a hero," Willey told reporters at the Television Critics Association press tour. "That much I can guarantee you, but a very complicated one. I think that these [men] are heroic icons. I think when you look at Jesse James, who was a bandit, a robber, he had a Robin Hood kind of a feeling to him. You have to take [who they are] within the context of the time in which we're visiting. Clearly, I think John Wesley Hardin was the Charles Manson of the Old West, but I think you need villains for [there to be] heroes."
James Butler Hickok, aka Wild Bill, was the most famous sharpshooter of his era, always eager to tell his story, whether true or not. As his tales were told in the newspapers of the day, Wild Bill played every adventurous role one could find on the frontier: Indian fighter, gambler, lawman, prospector, and scout. He was always spinning tales for an America clamoring for heroes.
"I don't think people to this day get that Hickok was the first media-generated celebrity," Willey says. "He gave an interview to a man named George Ward Nichols. He went out scouting for two years. He came back. Nichols had taken this conversation and written an article that appeared in Harpers Weekly. Every dime novelist, every paper printed it. All of a sudden, this guy, when he came back, was a rock star.
"People were paying him gold eagles to take them out to show them the West. He had no part of it. Now, he certainly contributed to it after that. He liked to say, 'Most of what you heard about me has been exaggerated, but all have come out of my mouth a time or two.' So I think that's a fascinating look into a man who then had to wear the mantle, the burden, in fact, of that notoriety. And, I think, it makes for a more bittersweet story besides just the hero and marksman, and, I think, people are going to be fascinated by it. I really do."
Willey's love affair with Hickok began when he was in his hometown of Ottawa, Ill. He was starring in a production of Arsenic and Old Lace¸ and he went to the Amtrak station to pick up his wife and daughter. The trip took them through a little town called Troy Grove, which used to be called Homer, Ill., when he saw the sign that reads: Welcome to Troy Grove, birthplace of James Butler, Wild Bill Hickok.
Willey, who grew up watching Westerns, said it was the first time he realized that Hickok was born in the same county that he was. Since he had been looking for material to turn into a one-man play, Willey did some research and discovered that Hickok was 6-feet 2-inches with blond hair and blue eyes. Not a bad match.
"I thought, 'Well, let me look into this guy," Willey recalls. "I found an author that made great pains into dissolving away the legend and presenting the real man, and he was the source material."
With the handwriting on the wall for the end of All My Children, Willey decided he had found his next project. But he also says that the year and a half of research he did, probably made him a director's worst nightmare for his episode of Gunslinger.
"I had just come off years of researching and writing a one man show about Hickok, so when I would go to [executive producer] Chris Cassel and say, 'I don't think this is quite right,' we would change it," he says. "I thought that was lovely, that the research had been done, the script written around the research, and now we're still allowing new research in to make adjustments. So, I think this is going to be the most factual rendition [of Hickok] that you're going to find today."
Hickok died at age 39 in the notorious city of Deadwood, and American Heroes Channel is cashing in on that by featuring Deadwood creator David Milch as a commentator throughout the episode.
Wild Bill Hickok: Marksman… and Marked Man, premieres on Sunday, August 10 at 10 p.m. ET/PT on American Heroes Channel.
Walt Willey as Wild Bill Hickok in Gunslinger.
American Heroes Channel