“I’m your huckleberry.”
Who? Gambler. Gunman. Dentist. John Henry “Doc” Holiday (1851 – 1887) was all of these things during his short life and more. Doc Holiday was always one of the more colorful and shady characters from the Old West. His participation at the shootout at the O.K. Corral alongside the Earp brothers made him a western legend. But when Val Kilmer played him in the movie Tombstone audiences fell in love with the wise cracking, hard drinking, and quick tempered Doc Holiday.
Born in Georgia in 1851, Doc’s father was a soldier who fought in the Mexican-American War and the Civil War. As a young man his mother and adopted stepbrother were both killed by tuberculosis, the same disease that would eventually take John’s life in his later years. John went to school and received a classical education in grammar, history, arithmetic, as well as in Latin, French and Greek. When he turned 20 he attended dental school at the Pennsylvania School of Dental Surgery where he excelled to near the top of his class. He won awards for best set of gold teeth, best in vulcanized rubber, and best set of artificial teeth. Quite an accomplishment and his dental future looked bright. Once graduated Holiday moved to Atlanta to begin his prominent career in dentistry which was soon cut short when he was diagnosed with tuberculosis shortly after. Like many others affected with “the consumption”, Holiday moved out west in hopes that the drier climate might help slow down his deteriorating health. In so doing he became a western legend.
It was said in the Old West that a man’s reputation as a gunman was almost as important as his actual skill with with a gun. Doc’s reputation for hotheadedness and deadliness with a pistol was rightly deserved before he ever walked into Tombstone. Historians are unsure as accounts vary, exact records are hard to find in the West, but many believe Doc Holiday was involved in nine shootouts and may have killed between three to seven men.
Holiday moved to Dallas Texas and struggled to find patients with his dentistry practice. Afterall, who in their right mind would want to sit in a chair below a hacking dentist with TB? He soon discovered gambling to be a much more lucrative profession and started playing at night. “Poker’s an honest trade” after all. Except in Dallas where he was arrested for gaming. Doc took the hint and moved on to Denver where he adopted the name “Tom Mackey” and became a Faro dealer. Soon after Doc followed the money when gold was discovered in Wyoming and left to deal cards up north in Cheyenne and later Deadwood. As he was recovering from a gunshot wound from an unresolved altercation in Fort Griffin, Texas Doc made two lasting friendships. He met and began his on again, off again relationship with “Big Nose Kate” who in turn later introduced him to one Wyatt Earp who was passing through town at the time.
Healed from his wounds Doc soon moved once again with Kate in tow to Dodge City, Kansas where he ran a dentistry by day and a saloon by night. Doc and Earp’s friendship became solidified in Dodge City when 50 armed Texans rode into town looking for Wyatt to avenge an earlier humiliation by him on their leader, Ed Morrison. Ambushed by the Morrison’s men outside a bar Wyatt was seconds from death. That’s when Holiday who was playing cards at the time, walked out into the ruckus and drew his gun on the Morrison threatening to shoot out any of the brains he had left if anybody shot Wyatt. From that day on Wyatt and Doc were close friends.
Always quick to wear out his welcome, Doc never stayed in one place very long. Two more shootouts in the town of Las Vegas, New Mexico brought a little too much heat on Doc again so he eventually fled the area and moved to Tombstone, Arizona.
Where? Tombstone (1993)
What? Tombstone is the story of Wyatt Earp and the mythical Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. In 1881 Wyatt, his two brothers Virgil and Morgan, and good friend Doc Holiday attempted to arrest a group of illegibly armed cowboys who had gathered near Fly’s Photographic Studio. The cowboys refused to be taken in and in thirty second firefight that ensued thirty shots were fired and three men lay dead. However in the movie the gunfight happens only halfway though and so the final act depicts Earp’s Vendetta Ride when Wyatt and Doc hunt down the remaining cowboys with hell close behind them.
When we first meet Doc at the beginning of the movie we of course see him drunk and accused of cheating at the poker table. But instead of throwing the table over and drawing down on his accuser like we’ve seen so many times before in countless other movies, Doc happily draws his guns and lays them on the table, as a sign of truce. This gesture is seen as an insult though and his attacker charges Doc. Coolly Doc grabs, stabs, and pins him against the wall in one motion. Holiday could slit his throat justifiably at this point, and has killed men for less, but instead shows restraint and spares his life. Together with his lovely companion Big Nose Kate they leave the saloon. But not before robbing the place of it’s large stacks of money on the way out.
From this early scene we learn immediately that Doc is a complex, reckless, yet good hearted character with a flair for the unpredictable backed up by a quality for showmanship. As a dying man he’s not afraid to go down guns blazing, and his enemies know that. With the tuberculosis he’s a dead man coughing and is always on the hunt to find somebody to bring down with him. He’s the only one of Earp’s posse the cowboys respect, fear even, because they know he’s such a loose cannon. All Doc wanted was to go out on his own terms, in a gunfight, with his boots on. Which is why the joke’s on him at the end of film as he lies dying in bed, wiggling his toes from under the sheets in irony. “This is funny.”
Most of the best scenes in Tombstone are all Doc’s. Pick your favorite. When he forgets about and then and excuses a shotgun wielding Billy Bob Thorton to leave him and the Earp’s alone is always as good for a laugh as is him challenging the imbecile cowboy Ike Clanton to a spelling contest. When Johnny Ringo, the most dangerous of the cowboy gang, tries to humiliate an inebriated Doc at the saloon with his gun spinning, Doc one ups him with his skillful shot glass twirling. Or soon after when trouble erupts on the streets of Tombstone as Wyatt is about to be rushed Doc stumbles to the rescue with two guns to compensate for his drunken double vision. Holiday is rightly feared when Johhny Ringo turns down his invitation to a duel. Playing for blood is just Doc’s game but Ringo wants none of it. Until later when Holiday arrives to take Wyatt’s place in an arranged final showdown and guns Ringo down with a single shot to the temple. But it’s not murder, it’s legal, as Doc wears Wyatt’s deputy badge hidden under his duster.
But what makes Doc in Tombstone so enduring is his unwavering loyalty to Wyatt. He’s really like a drunken guardian angel to him throughout. More so than even his own brothers Virgil and Morgan. It’s really an odd relationship between the two if you think about as they should be on opposing sides. Wyatt being the hard nosed lawman and Doc being the shady gunfighter. The movie touches on Doc’s view of their relationship towards the end and it’s one of the best scenes in the movie. On the banks of a small creek after a nasty gunfight fellow vendetta rider “Turkey Creek” Jack Johnson asks a sickly Doc why he’s even out of bed to which he replies that Wyatt Earp is his friend. Johnson dismisses him, as he himself has plenty of friends.
How? The Doc Holiday we all know almost didn’t come to be. In the early days of production Kurt Russell had William Dafoe in mind for the role as his first choice. But Disney was unwilling to release any film starring Dafoe with their name on it due to his currently controversial film The Last Temptation of Christ. So Russell shopped the movie around to other studios but was star blocked by Kevin Costner who was making his own Wyatt Earp biopic at the time and bullied other studios to boycott Russell’s Tombstone. Since Disney was the only studio willing to tell Costner to take a hike, Russell simply went with his second choice, Val Kilmer. So great idea and a big thanks Kevin Costner. You’re no daisy at all.
Why? Tombstone is a great movie. I’d argue it’s one of the best westerns ever made. Like any good revenge western, Wyatt goes to hell and back to avenge his slain and injured brothers and racks up a huge body count along the way. But what elevates the movie above others of the genre is the unique friendship between Doc and Wyatt that ends up becoming the heart and soul of the film. Wyatt may be the main character, but you’d be lying to yourself if you didn’t come away from it thinking Doc Holiday was the star.