The Legendary Doc Holliday

The “Wild West” is often glamorized as a gritty, masculine, all-American film genre we forget it was a real historic period. On October 26, 1881, an infamous 30-second-long standoff took place featuring the infamous Doc Holliday, a dentist, deputy, and outlaw.
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Doc Holliday has inspired many books, music, TV shows, and movies. But who was this legendary man? It’s been revealed to be true that Holliday was involved in several shootings, but he wasn’t the only one involved. He partnered with the Earp brothers to take down cowboys across the West, while he personally battled tuberculosis. Let’s take a look at the complex and mysterious, Doc Holliday.

A Wartime Childhood

He was born John Henry Holliday in August 1851. Holliday’s father, Henry Burroughs Holliday, served in both the Mexican-American War and in the Civil War. In 1862, with the threat of Union troops upon them, the Hollidays moved further south to Valdosta, Georgia.

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The Holliday family became prominent in the community, and his mother did her best to shelter him from the traumas of wartime living. Despite the difficult time in which he was raised, Holliday didn’t grow up fighting with his classmates or neighbors.

A Brilliant Mind

Given his future reputation, you might think that Doc Holliday was an unruly child, but that was far from true. As a child, Holliday actually suffered from speech impediments and a cleft palate. He overcame his disabilities, however, after corrective surgery and hours of lessons from his mother, Alice.

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It was recorded that Holliday was an exemplary student. He attended Valdosta Institute while only a teenager and devoured rhetoric, mathematics, and history. He also became fluent in Latin, French, and Ancient Greek. At just 20 years old, Holliday became a Doctor of Dental Surgery after studying at the Pennsylvania College of Dental Surgery.

An Unusual Romance

It is rumored that at one time, Doc was in love with his cousin Martha “Mattie” Anne Holliday.

 

It was said that Doc was planning to marry her but Mattie refused because, being a devout Catholic, it was forbidden for her to marry her first cousin. Despite the heartbreak, the two wrote letters to one another for years.

His Health Battle

In 1866, Holliday’s mother died of tuberculosis. Her death deeply impacted him as his mother played a very crucial role in his life and the two were very close. Only three months later, his father married Rachel Martin, who was eight years his senior. Shortly after this, Holliday’s father left the family to practice dentistry in Missouri and Georgia.

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During his teenage years, Holliday’s adoptive brother, Francisco, sadly also succumbed to tuberculosis. And soon he too, learned that he suffered from the disease and was given only a few months to live.

A Risk Taker

Holliday soon moved to Dallas and partnered with a family friend, Dr. John Seegar. The two won many dentistry awards. Miraculously, Holliday ended up living far beyond his initial diagnosis but occasionally suffered from coughing spells. In the 1870s, his dentistry work began declining.

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Resourceful Holliday resorted to gambling. He must have been clever and intuitive because he did quite well as a gambler. Soon, gambling became his main source of income. But here he encountered another struggle. In May of 1874, Holliday and 12 others were ejected from Dallas for illegal gambling.

A Fighter

Not much is recorded about Holliday being a combative man before leaving Dallas but that changed after 1875. Laced throughout Holliday’s gambling exploits, was that he was front-and-center of several fights. In 1877, Holliday lashed out at fellow gambler Henry Kahn. Both were arrested but once released, Kahn beat up an unarmed Holliday. In the Dallas Weekly Herald, reporters falsely wrote that Holliday had died.

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His cousin, George Holliday, assisted in moving him to Fort Griffin, Texas. Records show that here he had only one contact with an independent, educated streetwalker named “Big Nose Kate” Horony.

Underneath It All

Despite his penchant for violence, those close to Holliday described him as an otherwise peaceful man. In an interview, a reporter asked Holliday if his conscience ever bothered him. Holliday cheekily replied, “I coughed that up with my lungs years ago.”

 

However, others who knew Holliday said he had a “mean disposition” and “ungovernable temper.” Holliday himself revealed that he had been arrested 17 times, survived five ambushes, and escaped four hanging attempts. Most of his legendary reputation spread through self-promotion and rumors. But apparently, rumors and reports were enough to create his rough image.

Hello, Marshal

Soon after this, Holliday crossed paths with the famous rogue lawman Wyatt Earp. The details surrounding this meeting are unclear outside of legend, but whatever occurred between the two, they went on to become the most feared duo in the Wild West. Curiously enough, at the time, Earp was still a deputy U.S. marshal.

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According to the story, Earp was looking for the outlaw “Dirty” Dave Rudabaugh. He inquired of Holliday about Rudabaugh’s possible location after Holliday had apparently gambled with him. Holliday claimed that Rudabaugh fled to Kansas, and Earp followed. But the two would end up crossing paths again.

Lifesaver

One of the most famous Holliday/Earp stories was at the Long Branch Saloon in Dodge City. 2-5 cowboys (depending on the version of the story) rode into the saloon, started threatening patrons, and vandalizing the room. Holliday, who was looking to become a dentist in the city, was gambling in the back room of the saloon.

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Upon hearing the commotion, Earp burst through the door and faced the cowboys’ gun-barrels. But Holliday stood in defense and pointed his pistol at the leader of the group, forcing them to disarm. No newspaper reports back up this incident, but Earp said that Holliday saved his life.

Strategic Aim

Although he did kill a number of people in his lifetime, Holliday quite often fought back in self-defense.

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He was very strategic in combat and, when firing at his opponent, he aimed for their shooting arm to disarm them (so as to avoid a harsher punishment if he was caught) but this initial wound was typically not fatal.

Silver Rush

In October 1879, Wyatt Earp came to Las Vegas (New Mexico) to meet with Holliday. Before that, Holliday had tried, with no success, to strike gold in Dakota and Wyoming. But apparently, Earp told him that he was heading toward the silver boom in Tombstone, Arizona with his brother, and convinced Holliday to join.

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In the West at this time, there weren’t many law enforcement organizations to prevent crime so Earp and his brother didn’t bother county sheriff Johnny Behan at first. However, after Holliday joined the team, Behan suddenly labeled them as criminals.

What’s up, Doc?

During his time in Fort Griffin, Texas, Holliday engaged in a conglomeration of fighting, gambling, and, oddly enough, dentistry. Holliday was now reputable for refunding customers for unmet expectations, which earned him the nickname “Doc.” Around 1878, Holliday permanently left his dentistry practice.

 

After several shootings, Holliday was renowned for his skill with weapons, all the while battling tuberculosis. When he heard of the alleged healing properties of the 22 hot springs, Holliday moved to Las Vegas, New Mexico for one year. Anti-gambling laws sent him back to Dodge City, however, but he later returned to Vegas and started building saloons. That’s where he reunited with Earp.

The 1881 Stagecoach Robbery

In March 1881, three cowboys robbed a stagecoach heading towards Tombstone, Arizona. After this, rumors erupted that the now well-known Doc Holliday had led the robbery and slayings. During this time, his ex-lover Horony confessed to authorities saying that Holliday attempted to rob the stagecoach. Holliday was then arrested and convicted of assault.

 

Fortunately for Holliday, the Earps found witnesses who proved that Holliday had no involvement in the robbery. Horony later admitted that Sheriff Behan had pressured her to confess and sign a document that she did not understand. Tensions then began to brew between Holliday and Earp, and Behan.

A Duel

On October 25, 1881, Holliday was relaxing in the Alhambra Saloon. He got involved in a heated argument with fellow outlaw Ike Clanton and challenged him to a duel, but Clanton had no weapon. To make matters worse, rather than letting it go, Holliday goaded Clanton on by saying that he had recently done away with his father.

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The next morning, Clanton gathered his weapons and went searching for Holliday. He found Holliday and his wife, Mary Horony, asleep and woke them with loud threats. Reportedly, Holliday famously said, “If God will let me live to get my clothes on, he will see me.”

From Duel to Battle

Before Holliday could go head-to-head with his opponent, the Earp brothers disarmed Clanton and took him to court. Even when Clanton was incarcerated, his fellow cowboys arrived to back him up, including his brother Billy Clanton as well as Frank and Tom McLaury. Holliday now faced the outlaws with the Earp brothers, Wyatt, Virgil, and Morgan.

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What happened next is not entirely clear. But what is clear is that the field erupted with gunfire and half a minute later, all fell silent. In about less than a minute, the men fired 30 bullets throughout the brief but bloody battle.

The Famous Showdown

The McLaury brothers and Billy Clanton died on the spot during the shootout and Clanton fled. It was reported that Holliday may have been the one to inflict the fatal wounds on the three men. Although he, Morgan, and Virgil were wounded, they came out victorious.

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The shootout happened a few doors down from the Corral and became known as the fight at the O.K. Corral. It is one of the most famous battles of the Wild West, but this fight was only the beginning for Holliday and the Earp brothers, though they wouldn’t stay together forever.

A New Deputy

After the O.K. Corral showdown, Virgil Earp was crippled for life. In March 1882, Morgan Earp got into an ambush and was killed. Virgil Earp was lucky enough to survive several ambushes because Wyatt and his deputies worked to keep him safe. Finding no justice in the courts, Wyatt made Holliday his deputy, and the two decided to avenge Morgan’s death.

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Holliday and the Earps rode out to find Frank Stilwell, one of the Cowboys believed to be responsible for Morgan’s death. They found Stilwell on a train, as Virgil Earp boarded it and killed him.

The Life of a Cowboy

After Frank Stilwell’s death, a local sheriff issued a warrant for the arrest of the five deputies, including Holliday. But the group wouldn’t surrender.

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Soon after the ambush, Wyatt Earp and Holliday arrived at Iron Springs in the Whetstone Mountains. Along with Earp, Holliday closed in on eight cowboys, who drew their weapons and began firing. Holliday and his posse killed at least three cowboys in the group. Amazingly, the only casualty for Holliday was a wounded horse. But with the threat of arrest, the group left Arizona for Colorado.

Parting Ways

Holliday and the group traveled throughout New Mexico to escape arrest, but in Albuquerque, Wyatt Earp and Holliday got into a fight. The fight seriously damaged their relationship, leaving Earp in New Mexico, while Holliday traveled to Colorado.

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In 1882, Holliday went to Glenwood Springs, all the while battling tuberculosis. Holliday hoped that the springs would aid his health, but as soon as he arrived in Denver, he was arrested and jailed in Tucson for murdering Frank Stilwell. This time, Holliday seemed to have no one to rescue him.

A Lifelong Partnership

Thankfully for Holliday, he could still salvage his relationship with Earp. When Wyatt Earp heard of the charges, he grew concerned that Holliday wouldn’t receive a fair trial in Arizona. He then asked his friend, Colorado Chief of Police Bat Masterson, to put bunco charges on Holliday.

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Holliday met up with Masterson two weeks after his arrest. The two then went to Pueblo, Colorado, where Holliday was released on bond. In June 1882, Earp and Holliday reunited in Gunnison, Colorado. Although the two evidently had an unbreakable bond, this was the second-to-last time Holliday would see Earp.

How Did Johnny Ringo Die?

Before Holliday died, it was rumored that he killed yet another person. In July 1882, Holliday’s long-time enemy, Johnny Ringo, was mysteriously found dead in a tree. It was at first thought that he took his own life, but according to Earp’s third wife, Holliday and Earp traveled to Arizona with the purpose of killing Ringo.

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Historically, there is no evidence to support Holliday being Ringo’s murderer. There was still a warrant for Holliday’s arrest in Arizona, so it’s unlikely that he would enter the area. It is presently held that this is only a rumor and unlikely to be true.

Goodbye, Doc

Holliday spent his final days in Colorado as his health rapidly declined. When Earp saw Holliday for the last time in 1886, he noted that Holliday had a persistent cough and weak legs. Meanwhile, Holliday’s money was running out and he kept getting involved in saloon fights.

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Glenwood Springs emitted sulfuric fumes which only worsened Holliday’s condition. Mary Horony joined him during his final days. In his last moments, Holliday looked at his bare feet and said, “This is funny” as he had always planned to die with his boots on.

Holliday’s End

Holliday died in November 1887, leaving quite a legacy. His obituary read: “Few men have been better known to a certain class of sporting people, and few men of his character had more friends or stronger champions,”. Wyatt Earp held an honorable opinion of his late friend, saying, “I found him a loyal friend and good company.”

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Holliday’s life has since spawned multiple books, movies, music, and TV shows as he is now considered an icon of the Old West. Due to his infamy, Holliday’s life is the perfect story to be displayed on-screen just like in the classic western, “Tombstone”.

Without a Penny

When Doc Holliday passed away, he was very poor and had no money to his name. It’s quite sad considering his intellectual brilliance and former career as a doctor.

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But over the course of his life, he did have some notable successes. He had previously owned a silver mine, a saloon, and of course, a dental practice.

A Famous Ancestor

A perhaps lesser-known fact about Doc Holliday is that he had a somewhat famous predecessor. Margaret Mitchell, who wrote the epic, Southern Drama “Gone with the Wind” that later became a timeless film, was his ancestor.

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In fact, Margaret was a cousin to Doc Holliday although the two never met as he died thirteen years before she was born.

Memorialized in Stone

At the Historic Railroad Depot in Tucson, Arizona, there is a life-size statue of Doc Holliday. The memorial sculpture was commissioned by the Southern Arizona Transportation Museum.

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Created by sculptor Dan Bates, the statue is supposedly placed at the exact site where the shooting of Frank Stilwell took place.

Holli-Days

After his death, Doc Holliday became a very iconic, historical figure. Other than the film, “Tombstone”, there are other ways in which his fascinating life has been memorialized.

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Today, Tombstone, Arizona holds “Doc-Holli-Days” which celebrate the legendary figure on the second weekend of August each year.

The Stars in “Tombstone”

Though very popular at one time, by 1993 the Western film genre was on the decline. But with so many A-list actors on board for “Tombstone”, the project soon caught attention. The star-studded ensemble included Kurt Russell and Val Kilmer as well as Michael Biehn, Dana Delany, Powers Boothe, Bill Paxton, and Sam Elliott.

 

To make the project even more intriguing, it was also narrated by Hollywood icon Robert Mitchum. That’s quite well put together for a 90s Western!

Changing Directors

Tombstone was originally scheduled to be directed by Kevin Jarre who wrote the film. But Jarre was soon replaced as director by Hollywood legend George P. Cosmatos.

 

The change was surprising considering Jarre’s intimate knowledge and involvement with the project.

A Box Office Hit

People doubted “Tombstone”‘s success, but it did rather well. Many considered Westerns to be outdated, but Tombstone showed skeptics that, as long as it is treated with careful creativity, it can still be a hit. The film was released on Christmas Eve in 1993, and grossed $56.5 Million in domestic ticket sales!

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Even more amazing, critics loved the film as much as the average moviegoers did. Today, “Tombstone” has become a prime example of the Western film genre, ranking 14th on the list of highest-grossing Western films since 1979!

Shooting Michael Biehn

Spoiler warning: A major plotline of “Tombstone” is where Doc Holliday (Val Kilmer) shoots Johnny Ringo (Michael Biehn).

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Many fans were upset at the shooting in the film, but Biehn later confessed that he was ok with the scene. “I wanted him to shoot me!” the actor admitted. Biehn continued saying, “Well, I always thought Johnny Ringo had a little bit of a ‘[death] by police’ mentality.”

A Riveting Scene

The scene where Doc Holliday shoots Johnny Ringo became a favorite of the cast on set. Star Sam Elliott considered the scene to be one of the best in the entire film.

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In an interview, he said that the tension between the two is so good that people are edging for the explosion between them to happen. Though the scene garnered mixed reactions from fans, it did add a new level of drama and intensity to the dramatic Western.

Compliments from Bob Dylan

Star Val Kilmer, claimed that music legend Bob Dylan was enthralled by “Tombstone”. Kilmer shared that he met with Dylan and the two spoke of the movie.

 

Kilmer was in his hotel room when he was contacted by Dylan who asked if he could come over. He eventually popped by and the two were able to admire each other’s work to each other’s face.

A Rush of Adrenaline

According to star Michael Biehn, the character of Johnny Ringo liked to live on the edge and to be in the center of situations that would create “that adrenaline rush.”

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He said that the simple life of the Old West would have created an oppressively boring atmosphere for a man like Johnny. Just thinking about him in a saloon full of warm beers with no air conditioner would be enough to make you see his (miserable) side of things.

Connecting with the Character

Michael Biehn said that stepping into the character of Johnny Ringo was one of his favorite roles. He was able to easily connect with the character and bring the storyline to life.

 

In fact, he gave the character a high ranking, comparing him to another iconic role he played, Kyle Reese. About the role he said, “…Johnny Ringo’s probably, along with Kyle Reese, my two favorite characters.” Michael Biehn also had previously gained acclaim for his performance as Kyle Reese, a pivotal character in the first two “Terminator” films.

It’s All About the Cast

Biehn acknowledged the contribution “Tombstone” made in reviving the Western film genre, but he also shared that the film wasn’t exactly a history textbook. According to him, the movie was good because it had a good script, characters, and actors.

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The cast can pride itself on people like Sam Elliott, Bill Paxton, Powers Boothe, Thomas Haden Church, Jason Priestley, Billy Zane, Billy Bob Thornton, and Frank Stallone. It is a cinematic powerhouse.

A Fun Time

Although Biehn recognized the imperfections of Tombstone, he certainly enjoyed being a part of the project. “We had a lot of problems with our movie with Kevin [Jarre] getting fired,”.

 

Biehn confessed though that he liked the script and the kind of performance it brought out of people. According to him, the atmosphere on the set was a lot of fun with lots of laughs.

A Collection of Mustaches

All the male characters in “Tombstone” sported a mustache. Some even grew their own mustaches for the film. Michael Biehn said that Kevin Jarre wanted mustaches that curled up at the end. So, actors who grew a mustache long enough had to wax the end to achieve the right look.

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Biehn also said that one of the actors, Jon Tenney, had no time to grow his own mustache so he wore a fake one. He believes that the fake mustache made Tenney feel like the underdog of the group. Maybe the Old West wasn’t so different from high school.

Authenticity Is Everything

“Tombstone”’s production was dedicated to strict authenticity in certain parts of the script and especially in the wardrobe department!

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The actors were required to wear the authentic, wool clothing of the time period, even on the hottest filming days. That’s dedication!

Fired For Creative Differences

People think that film writers hold creative control. However, that’s exactly how original director Kevin Jarre was fired from his own project.

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According to Michael Biehn, this was a distressing ordeal, because he liked Kevin a lot, but Jarre had his own vision for every little detail, like the cast, mustaches, dialogue, and even the saddles.

A Sad Goodbye

Michael Biehn was not the only cast member who was sad to see Kevin Jarre go. According to Sam Elliott, Kurt Russell was also pretty close with Kevin Jarre and was sad to see him go.

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Eliot had a great appreciation for Jarre as a writer and a storyteller, and the other actors felt the same. When he left, the actors pulled through just for the sake of completing his project for him.

A Reimagined Tale

Kevin Jarre had an avant-garde approach to the production of “Tombstone” and planned to film it like an old 1940s Western. The production crew didn’t like the idea. Jarre wanted to go with an old-fashion long master shot like they used in the 40s, but the production crew wouldn’t have it.

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They believed the old story had to be shot in a modern way, and that is what ultimately had him fired from his own project.

A Carefully Selected Cast

Although Kevin Jarre was ousted from the project which he had written, he was at least able to have a hand in determining who the cast should be.

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Star Sam Elliott, describes meeting with Jarre about his role: “I remember going and having lunch with him at a place on the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles, which I don’t think is even there anymore,” Elliott said. “And Kevin said he was having all of his meetings there like he was holding court… I think Kevin’s the one who really controlled this thing creatively before it got off the ground.”

An Amazing Script

“Tombstone”’s script is what enticed the creative appetites of the cast. In fact, the script is what got most of the cast to sign on to the film — even actors like Val Kilmer, who were strangers to the genre.

 

Val Kilmer said the line that convinced him to take on the project was “I’m your huckleberry.” After asking Jarre about where this line came from, Val Kilmer said, “He didn’t have a specific answer. But I loved it. It just seemed to be the odd, perfect statement for the scene—’You’ve met your match.’”

A Famous Cameo

Another interesting feature of Tombstone is that there is a very remarkable cameo appearance. Wyatt Earp’s fifth cousin, Wyatt Earp the Third, made an appearance in the film as Billy Claiborne.

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Earp the Third is actually an actor who has regularly taken on the role of the legendary Earp and even of Doc Holliday in various film projects.

The New Director

Because the cast had formed a relationship with Kevin Jarre who had handpicked each of them for their roles, the cast wasn’t fond of the new director, George Cosmatos. “He was a whole other animal,” said Sam Elliott.

 

“We had our moment right at the beginning… I always go to the set and stand around when I’m not working just to watch—I’d rather do that than sit around a hotel—and I remember George coming up to me with his dark glasses, looking up at me from the top of his glasses, sticking his nose right in my face. And he said, ‘Am I gonna have trouble with you?’”

How It All Came Together

Despite the friction between the cast and new director George Cosmatos, the project came together well. During his rocky encounter with Cosmatos, Sam Elliott decided to stand his ground with the new director.

 

Elliott said after Cosmatos asked if they’re going to have trouble working together, that he looked him back in the eye and asked the same question. The director laughed in return and the two ended up working together just fine.

Kurt Russell’s Contribution

Years after the release of the film a rather shocking statement was made by star Kurt Russell about his role in the film. Russell said that he actually had a major hand in assisting Cosmatos and that he more-or-less directed the film after Jarre’s departure.

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Reportedly, he had also told Cosmatos that he would not reveal his role as “ghost director” while Cosmatos was alive out of respect for him. This was quite a bold statement, but his fellow co-stars have since supported his claim, including Val Kilmer who went so far as to say that Russell was “solely responsible” for the film.

The Fair Share

Kurt Russell tried to be very conscientious of the potential conflict of interest that his directing could create on set.

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To curb the potential conflict with his co-stars, Russell actually cut some of his scenes while he was directing so as to not appear that he was boosting his performance. Well played, Russell!

It’s All About Friendship

When speaking about the film, Val Kilmer said that its core was the relationship between the characters of Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday. He commented on the strength of their friendship saying that their bond and strange kind of empathy is what drew people.

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The themes of doing the right thing, the tension between easy money and law enforcement, and Doc Holliday’s intriguing character all make for quite an experience.