Were you of “Deadwood” back when it aired? Television has been going to real life figures of America’s Wild West for nearly as long as there has been television. “Deadwood” may have been a little more accurate than most or then again maybe not. You do have to wonder if all those F-bombs dropping every five seconds accurately reflected the morality of the time. But if a little looseness in the vernacular was the biggest flaw in authenticity that “Deadwood” ever made, then consider it well ahead of the game of most westerns based on real life figures that appeared on TV screens across the country on a weekly basis.
The LIfe and Legend of Wyatt Earp
This hugely popular precursor to the serial drama of our age was much more the legend of Wyatt Earp than it was the life. Although the six years of Earp’s life that the series spanned included many of the actual events of Earp’s life, even that level of authenticity is subject to question. That’s because most of what was thought to be historical fact associated with the life of Wyatt was based on the biography of Earp written by Stuart Lake. The problem is that much of the detail that appears in Stuart Lake’s biography was supplied by a figure not exactly objective on the issue: Wyatt Earp himself. When you understand that “The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp” premiered just 26 years after Earp’s death, it becomes much easier to see how the legend of Wyatt Earp portrayed on the show far exceeded any legitimate reality.
The uniquely named Bat Masterson was a friend of Wyatt Earp and he, too, lived well into the 20th century. Masterson actually worked for newspapers as a reporter and editor so it should not be at all surprising that his legacy that warranted a two year run on NBC as the 50s crossed over to the 60s did not exactly dwell on his more unsavory activities. What “Bat Masterson” most definitely seems to have gotten right on target is one of the aspects of his character that really set Bat Masterson apart from many other Old West figures. Gene Barry presented Bat as something of a dandy, replicating his signature look that include a derby, vested suit and cane.
It may seem as illogical to us today to make a TV western in which George Armstrong Custer is a heroic figure as it would be to make a show in which John Wilkes Booth is presented as a hero. The year was 1967, two years before “Little Big Man” would help to forever change the image of Custer in the minds of Americans. But in 1967, Custer was clearly seen by the white people in charge of TV as worthy of becoming the hero of his own TV series. It was not long before those white guys discovered that some darker-skinned Americans who could trace their heritage in this country centuries farther back were not quite so convinced of that Custer deserved a TV show. When enough Native Americans raised their voices in disapproval, “Custer” was quickly became a three month wonder.
The Legend of Jesse James
And you thought that making a hero of Custer was crazy! Two years earlier, ABC granted a half hour on their Monday prime time lineup to “The Legend of Jesse James.” One has to imagine they were required by legal contract to put the word legend in the title. Making a hero of Jesse James is on roughly the same scale of morality as making a hero of John Wilkes Booth. Nevertheless, ABC gamely tried to turn cold-blooded racist killer Jesse James into an American Robin Hood. Didn’t quite take.
The Adventures of Kit Carson
Kit Carson was one of the frontiersmen who went out west early and did the hard work that make the untamed territory tame enough for all those gunslingers and lawmen and gamblers to make their way into the history books decades later. “The Adventures of Kit Carson” should just as rightly have been titled “The Legend of Kit Carson” but at least this show had a reasonable excuse for lightening the darker load carried by its titular figure. Whereas these other TV shows about real life Old West figures were aimed at viewers of all ages, these tales of Kit Carson were specifically geared for children.