MARCO ISLAND — Someone’s impersonating the greatest gunfighter that ever lived in “Wild Bill! An Evening with James Butler Hickok” presented by The Island Players. Walt Willey, of “All My Children” who played Jackson Montgomery for 25 years, will create the personage of Hickok and explain theatrically the man and the myth.
“Hickok was the very first media darling and had to deal on a large scale with his reputation,” said Willey in a recent interview. “Some of the things written about him were fabricated out of whole cloth.”
Hickok kept the American Frontier on its toes, and word of his showdowns and killings reached epic proportions.
“In truth, he was just a boy from Illinois who rose to fame on his legends,” said Willey, “but it’s true that he was the most accurate shot that ever lived and probably killed 10 people.”
Willey chose Marco Island to unveil his creation of Hickok because he remembered and enjoyed the readings he performed while part of the Soap Festival. The daytime drama event, organized annually by Pat Berry, featured television’s soap stars in informal and close-up activities. Berry is one of the founders of The Island Players.
“It’s not a premier because I’m testing out my material and will take questions and ask for a critique from the audience after the performance,” Willey said. He wants to refine the one-man show for an opening performance in Abilene, Kan., in May and an official premiere as part of celebrations for Hickok in the fall.
The scene for his narrative is the “Number 10” Saloon in Deadwood, S.D., the town and place of Hickok’s death. Tourists have arrived at the saloon that he haunts. They get the real experience as Hickok, who is tired of being a ghost and wants to “cross over to the other side,” decides to reveal the truth about his life.
“There are many things about Hickok that people just don’t know,” Willey said. “He would stand up for the weaker every time. He came from a family of devout abolitionists.” Hickok’s father came from Vermont and his mother from New York State.
Hickok was the first gunfighter, as depicted in Westerns, to call out an adversary into the street. He did so to protect innocent bystanders, Willey said. As Hickok aged, his greatest asset and reputation became his greatest detriment. Losing his eyesight and now a notorious target for reputation builders, Hickok had to continuously watch his back.
“There’s some question about whether he intentionally allowed himself to be shot,” Willey said. Hickok died at the age of 39.
Willey’s fascination with the legend came from the chance reading of a sign indicating the birthplace of Hickok close to his hometown and from various character similarities.
“I was driving by a sign near my hometown and there it was, the birthplace of James Butler Hickok, he said. “Hickok was 6 foot 2, blonde and blue, just like I am.”
Hickok held many professions including lawman, spy, scout, sharpshooter, gunfighter and gambler. To keep his reputation intact, he had to be a good actor as well as a good gunfighter. Willey will explore the character through his lifetime in first-person narration.
Evening performances will begin at 7:30 p.m., Thursday through Saturday, March 22-24, at the Rose History Auditorium in the Marco Island Historical Museum, 180 South Heathwood Drive. A Sunday performance on March 25 will take place at 2:30 p.m.
Tickets are $20 per person and can be purchased at Centennial Bank, 815 Elkcam Circle, the Marco Island Historical Society Gift Shop, or online at www.theateronmarco.com.