Sometimes movies and television don’t pick the wisest choices in movie actors to fulfill the roles. Take Billy the Kid for instance. The real Billy the Kid was (possibly) named William Bonney. At least that’s the name most people credited him with having, but no one knows for sure. He’s known to have killed anywhere from 4-21 men before he was gunned down by Pat Garrett at the age of 21. So when you think of an actor playing him, you probably think he should be a young…I don’t know….”kid”? Well, it isn’t always the case. Here are five strange choices for Billy the Kid that the casting directors might have screwed up. Incidentally, none of these actors listed are Emilio Estevez, who played Billy the Kid in the Young Guns movies. That’s another odd choice all together.
Dennis Hopper (TV Show, Sugarfoot, 1957)
Correspondence-school law graduate Tom Brewster travels west to seek his fortune. Unfortunately, his “cowboy” abilities leave a lot to be desired and earn him the nickname “Sugarfoot” which is one step lower than a “Tenderfoot.” In an episode called, “Brannigan’s Boots”, Dennis Hopper, in all of his creepy glory, shows up as the bad guy, Billy the Kid. In this episode, when the crooked politicians who run the town of Bluerock see what a lousy shot Tom is, they appoint him sheriff after the previous sheriff is killed. Tom takes the job seriously, though, and when he sees a pair of boots standing against a wall in the sheriff’s office, he puts them on. A pretty young girl watching him says those boots were her father’s, the previous sheriff, and Tom isn’t man enough to fill them. To show her she’s wrong, Tom determines to find her father’s killers – one of whom is Billy (aka Dennis Hopper) the Kid.
Paul Newman (Movie, The Left Handed Gun, 1958)
Not one year later, Billy the Kid was back – this time in the guise of Paul Newman. The Left Handed Gun is in reference to the fact that Billy the Kid was left handed and this movie is all about him. In this movie, William Bonney – Billy the Kid – gets a job with a cattleman known as ‘The Englishman” (in real life, John Tunstall), and is befriended by the peaceful, religious man. But when a crooked sheriff and his men murder the Englishman because he plans to supply the local Army fort with his beef, Billy decides to avenge the death by killing the four men responsible, throwing the lives of everyone around him – Tom and Charlie, two hands he worked with; Pat Garrett, who is about to be married; and the kindly Mexican couple who take him in when he’s in trouble – into turmoil, and endangering the General Amnesty set up by Governor Wallace to bring peace to the New Mexico Territory. This movie is sort of close to historical accuracy, but the choice of Newman as the Kid? Well, I think the casting director “had a failure to communicate” with his audience. (Trivia: What Paul Newman movie was that last quote from?) On a side note, this isn’t the first time that Newman played Billy the Kid. He also starred as the outlaw in 1955 for the Philco-Goodyear Television Playhouse.
Marlon Brando (Movie, One-Eyed Jacks, 1961)
This movie was also directed by Marlon Brando. In it, he plays “Rio”, also known only as “the Kid”. Running from the law after a bank robbery in Mexico, a man finds an opportunity to take the stolen gold and leave his partner Rio to be captured. Years later, Rio escapes from the prison where he has been since, and hunts down the man for revenge. However, he is now a respectable sheriff in California, and has been living in fear of Rio’s return. The movie was written by Rod Serling of Twilight Zone fame. It’s an adaptation on a book loosely based on Billy the Kid’s adventures. I can only imagine the Kid scratching his cheek and saying, “This I cannot do. Bring me Luca Brasi.”
Kris Kristofferson (Movie, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, 1973)
This 1973 Western also starred James Colburn and Bob Dylan, who wrote several of the songs for it. Pat Garrett, traveling companion of the outlaw Billy the Kid (played by Kristofferson) has become a sheriff, tasked by cattle interests with ridding the territory of Billy. After Billy escapes, Pat assembles a posse and chases him through the territory, culminating in a final confrontation at Fort Sumner, but is unaware of the full scope of the cattle interests’ plans for the New West. Kristofferson, who became famous as a singer-songwriter, had his first starring performance in this movie. It wasn’t great, but it really started him off on an acting career, which would include A Star Is Born (1976) and Convoy (1978).
Val Kilmer (TV Movie, Billy the Kid, 1989)
It’s hard to imagine Batman or Doc Holliday playing Billy The Kid, but he did. Not one of his best performances, but what is an actor to follow up with after performing in Willow and Top Gun? In all fairness, the film was done with historical accuracy and Kilmer did a really good job of looking like the Kid and using his mannerisms, at least in what people think he was. The screenplay was originally written for Paul Newman’s version of Billy in the Left Handed Gun (see above), but the studio changed the concept. Kilmer would go onto better performances with less historical accuracy, but with more acclaim.