The experience of seeing late rock ’n’ roll star David Bowie perform as the title role in a stage production of “The Elephant Man” left a major impression on Walt Willey.
“I was mesmerized, not only by Bowie's incredible performance, but by the story itself, and by the play,’ the Ottawa actor said of the 1980 show at Chicago’s Blackstone Theatre.
As determined as Willey was to to forget that “Elephant,” he also wanted it showcased as the ninth annual WilleyWorld Community Productions show for Ottawa Riverfest. The drama was set to go, only to have one of the lead “Elephant Man” actors drop out the first week of rehearsal. The Riverfest play was dropped.
“We were going to take a summer off, but several people whose opinions I value greatly suggested very strongly that I put something up, as a placeholder, if nothing else. And I did feel a responsibility to do a show,” Willey said.
So the actor and Ottawa native turned to an old friend — Troy Grove native and Old West legend Wild Bill Hickok (1837-1876) — as a substitute for “The Elephant Man.”
“Wild Bill: An Evening With James Butler Hickok” is a one-man show written by and starring Willey with help from lifelong friend Kim “Howard” Johnson. It will be staged Thursday, Aug. 3, Friday, Aug. 4, and Saturday, Aug. 5, at the 807 Performance Space, 807 La Salle St., Ottawa.
“A few folks suggested doing ‘Wild Bill.’ I hadn’t thought of that,” Willey admitted. “It’s a play with a spirit. It’s a tribute to this area. People love this show and I’m happy to do it.”
“Wild Bill” debuted in 2012, and Willey has performed the play roughly 40 times. He last mounted it in March 2016 in Pontiac.
Hickok, a gunfighter, scout and law enforcement official, was a well-know Old West figure born and raised in Troy Grove. He was killed by gunfire at a saloon in Deadwood in the part of the Dakota Territory that now is South Dakota.
As a child, Willey was a fan of the television show “The Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok” (1951-1958), and in 2010, while passing through Troy Grove, saw a sign proclaiming the village as Hickok’s birthplace.
“I had no idea he was from there," Willey, the former "All My Children" actor, told the Times in 2012.
Willey had been looking to do a one-man stage show, which led him to read up on Hickok and even visit Troy Grove when it staged Wild Bill Hickok Day in 2011.
Further reading led him and Kim "Howard" Johnson — Ottawa actor-writer, WilleyWorld Community Productions partner and longtime friend — to focus on Hickok for the one-man show Willey desired.
The show wasn’t completely finished when Willey first staged it at the Mendota High School stage. Prior to that performance, school officials told him “There are Hickoks out there.”
“I was scared and asked ‘why didn’t you tell me earlier?’ ” Willey recalled with a laugh.
After the show he met Hickok relatives, who refer to Wild Bill as “Uncle James.” Post-play question-and-answer/meet-and-greet sessions with Willey and his “Wild Bill” audience members are part of every show.
Willey tried to continue with “The Elephant Man,” yet could not find an actor to replace the one who left the play due to work commitments. Shelving the production was one of the most difficult decisions Willey said he has had to make.
“After 10 days or so, we realized that it was much more important to us to produce this show well than it was to do it now,” he said. “We decided we didn’t want to put on a bad production.”
Willey plans to present “The Elephant Man” sometime in the future. “Wild Bill,” he said, is a good replacement.
“It’s a vital part of this community to have live theater, and I’m happy to do my part,” he said.
Willey World will continue its children’s theater presentation with a Thanksgiving-themed play this fall, and a regular adaption of the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life” during the holidays.
Willey will not be staging the play he originally intended this summer, but is glad to be bringing back “Wild Bill,” a production he has researched and continues to revise as needed.
“When I do it locally, I’ll localize. When I do it elsewhere I talk more about the Civil War and other things,” he said.
“I’m a Hickokaphile now.”
- “WILD BILL: An Evening with James Butler Hickok,” a one-man show by Walt Willey, will be presented Thursday, Aug. 3, through Saturday, Aug. 5, at the 807 Performance Space, 807 La Salle St., Ottawa.
- PERFORMANCES WILL BEGIN at 7:30 p.m Thursday and Friday and 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday. A question-and-answer and meet-and-greet session will follow each show.
- TICKETS WILL BE $20 in advance and $25 at the door. They can be purchased at waltwilleyworld.com, or at the Ottawa Visitors Center, 815-434-2737. Dinner specials at the Lone Buffalo, 821 La Salle St., Ottawa, also will be available.