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Walt Willey Media > ‘All My Children’ actor Walt Willey brings Wild Bill Hickok show to Hoogland

23 Oct 2014


‘All My Children’ actor Walt Willey brings Wild Bill Hickok show to Hoogland


  • Actor Walt Willey portrays Wild Bill Hickok in “Wild Bill: An Evening with James Butler Hickok.” The actor performs on the one-man show Sunday at the Hoogland Center for the Arts.

  • Photo courtesy Walt Willey.Actor Walt Willey portrays Wild Bill Hickok in “Wild Bill: An Evening with James Butler Hickok.” The actor performs on the one-man show Sunday at the Hoogland Center for the Arts.

  • By Ann Pierceall

  • Correspondent
    Posted Oct. 22, 2014 @ 10:00 pm

    Wild Bill Hickok died in 1876, at age 39 in Deadwood, S.D., where he was shot in the back of the head by an angry poker player.
    But on Sunday afternoon, longtime daytime drama actor Walt Willey (“All My Children”) will bring his fellow Illinoisan back to life in his one-man show “Wild Bill: An Evening with James Butler Hickok.” Showtime is 2 p.m. Sunday at the Hoogland Center for the Arts (see information at end of article for details).
    For Willey, 63, the role is a natural fit. Both men were born and raised in Illinois towns only a few miles apart. Both men are tall with blond-hair and blue-eyes. Willey, who grew up in Ottawa, said that as he began researching Hickok for the role, the similarities were “too weird.”
    “The more I learned, the more fascinated I was, not with the legend, but with the real guy,” he said. “Even with the myth and fable surrounding him stripped away, his life was as exciting as any fiction written about him.”
    Willey notes that Hickok, who was born northwest of Ottawa in Troy Grove, grew up in an abolitionist family that took part in the Underground Railroad. In his 39 years, Hickok was also a “farmer, a teamster, a trapper, a scout, a spy, a marshal, a sheriff, a gunfighter, an actor, a gambler and a legend in his own time.”
    “He was a hugely famous person. For better or worse he was the first media-generated celebrity,” Willey said, noting the sources he used to write the play are ones “that lean on provable truth.”
    The “real guy” Willey wrote about and portrays was a skilled marksman who is credited with bringing law and order to rough Kansas towns, and for winning gunfights against steep odds.
    The Hickok legend began after a writer from out East wrote a piece about the “hero of the West,” including tales, most exaggerated, about Hickok’s adventures. Soon, dime novels took the stories even further, and Hickok became an overnight sensation. He learned of his fame after returning from a scouting trip for the U.S. Army out of Fort Hayes, Kan. He was soon receiving telegraphs from around the world asking him to act as a guide.
    “It took on a life of its own,” Willey said of Hickok’s fame. He said his take on Hickok’s reaction is that after being raised in a Christian home, with parents who were abolitionists, that the extreme attention probably made Hickok “uncomfortable in his own skin.”
    “People were coming up and talking to him like then knew him,” Willey said.
    And even in death, the legend grew. The cards Hickok reportedly was holding when he was killed – two aces and two eights – became known as the “dead man’s hand.”
    Willey knows a little something about living with celebrity. For 25 years, Willey played Jackson Montgomery on ABC-TV’s daytime drama “All My Children.”
    Jack “loved his Erica Kane,” Willey said, noting his character was immensely popular with “All My Children” fans as one of the many loves of Susan Lucci’s Erica character. During his time on the show, Willey received three Soap Opera Digest Award nominations, including one for best supporting actor in 1991.
    But, Willey said, the celebrity he experienced as Jack’s popularity grew was a fraction of what Hickok dealt with.
    Hickok “never bought another drink or dinner after the article came out,” he said.
    It’s these elements of Hickok that Willey tries to bring out his play. And because Sunday’s performance is in Hickok’s home state, the play will contain many elements from Hickok’s years there.
    “Bringing this man’s true story to people is the greatest satisfaction I get,”Willey said. And he likes the challenge of the one-man show.
    “You have no one else to blame, especially when you are the writer, director and actor,” Willey said.
    But while he enjoys the “one man thing,” he’s also involved in many other projects.
    His most recent was appearing as Hickok in the American Heroes Channel’s series “Gunslingers,” which he co-wrote and served as historical consultant.
    Willey is also heavily involved in WilleyWorld Community Productions, a regional community theater based in his Ottawa hometown. He also serves as Starved Rock Country’s Community Arts adviser, and is co-founder of the nonprofit Illinois Valley Coalition on the Performing Arts.
    Willey continues performing in other various productions and has numerous theatrical, stand-up comedy, television and film credits. But his one-man “Wild Bill” production gives him elements of all those kinds of performances.
    “This is one of the most satisfying things I’ve done,” he said.
    “Wild Bill: An Evening with James Butler Hickok” (one-man show)
    When: 2 p.m. Sunday
    Where: Hoogland Center for the Arts, 420 S. Sixth St.
    Tickets: $25 adults, $23 senior citizens, $20 students, available at 523-2787 or hcfta.org