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Walt Willey Media > 'Wild Bill' now one of Willey's 'children'

17 Sep 2015


'Wild Bill' now one of Willey's 'children'

Walt Willey spent 25 years as straight-shooting lawyer Jackson Montgomery on ABC's premier daytime soap, "All My Children."

"About the only decent human being on that show, in fact," he laughs.

It's not as long a shot, so to speak, as one might think for Willey to trade in his Pine Valley, Pa., practice for the shoulder-length tresses and poker hand of one James Butler Hickok.

Or, as he was known to friends, family and more than a few foes: Wild Bill. 

It takes a straight shooter to know one, as Willey will prove when he brings his one-man show, "Wild Bill! An Evening with James Butler Hickok," for an afternoon performance at the Bloomington Center for the Performing Arts (2 p.m. Sunday).

The 64-year-old Willey is 25 years older than Hickok was when he was shot dead in the back by Jack McCall at the Number Ten Saloon in Deadwood, S.D., circa 1879. 

Even so, Willey shares an affinity with the man he plays through his upbringing: raised in Ottawa, Ill., just a rifle shot from Hickok's home town of Homer, now known as Troy Grove, also in LaSalle County, and not much bigger than it was as Homer (pop. 305, as of 2000).  

"It was serendipity," Willey says of his late-in-life discovery that he and Wild Bill grew up in neighboring towns. "I was doing 'Arsenic and Old Lace' here (Ottawa) in 2009."

During a family trek to Mendota, the Willeys passed through Troy Grove, where they were greeted by a sign saying "Welcome to the birthplace of Wild Bill Hickok."

"We grew up in the same county, and I never knew it until that moment ... or maybe I just forgot," Willey muses.

In any event, the actor had been looking for a one-man show to tour with following what he calls "the impending death of 'All My Children,'" the daily grind of which had kept him fully occupied for a quarter-century ... along with a lesser-known sideline begun in 1989 as a stand-up comic, the experience of which, he says, helped prepare him for the rigors of holding court on a stage for two 45-minute acts.

"It took a year of research and a little less than a year to write it, so it was ready to go in March 2012 after 'All My Children' was canceled in 2011."

He'd learned that Bill and Walt shared not only their LaSalle County roots, but that both were 6-foot-2, blonde-haired and blue-eyed. "He left home and became famous, which was just too weird."

Willey learned that Hickok, mythologized in the movies by countless actors (Gary Cooper, Charles Bronson, Roy Rogers, Howard Keel, Jeff Bridges, Forrest Tucker, Sam Elliott, Keith Carradine, etc.), "truly was one of the greatest shots in the West ... he was a hero, no doubt about that, but he was also a terrible drunk and a degenerate gambler."

What caught Willey's fancy is the fact that "Hickok was the first media-generated celebrity," who submitted to newspaper interviews and chronicles of his Civil War adventures as both a scout and sharp shooter.

In particular, an account published in Harper's magazine was "picked up by every East Coast paper, and when Hickok comes back from the war he's the most famous man in America, by default, since Lincoln's dead now." 

To dramatize this pioneering convergence of flawed hero and national celebrity, Willey opens his performance at the site of Wild Bill's assassination: the Number Ten Saloon.

Hickok is trapped there, between life and “whatever may await me, be it the pearly gates of Heaven or the deepest pit of Hell."

He's convinced that if he reveals to the “excursionists” in the audience his “real story, as best and as honest as I can … that a toll may be paid and I may – finally – be ferried to that far shore.”

What follows via Willey's portrayal is Hickok’s story, from his Illinois roots to his times as farmer, trapper, scout, guide, sheriff, marshal and, yes, actor. Themes of reputation, celebrity, heroism and bravery are all explored along the journey.

Though Jackson Montgomery was never shot dead playing poker or called a terrible drunk, Willey can draw the line connecting the two men separated in time.

"People always came up to me and said 'I love Jackson, he's such a great guy, such a straight-shooter, and takes no (bleep) from anyone.' "

Similar comments have followed his portrayal of Wild Bill around the country.

"They both did the best they could," agrees their portrayer. "And I do know I've grown to love them both." 

Follow Dan Craft on Twitter: @pg_dcraft