Does the movie Tombstone reveal the real Wyatt Earp? Sure does: Wyatt Earp, 31, fifth-generation cousin of the historic lawman, portrays gunman Billy Claiborne, the taciturn poke who barely avoids obliteration at the O.K. Corral.
Playing cowboy is clearly in his blood. As a third grader, this Wyatt (who dropped his first name, Glen, in favor of his middle name when he started acting) made up and staged playground dramas based on his favorite TV show, Gunsmoke. ”I wanted to be the next Matt Dillon,” he says, ”and figured that by the time James Arness retired, I’d be old enough to take the part.”
A 1984 graduate of Oklahoma State, Earp studied acting in Los Angeles (the star of the new feature film Wyatt Earp, Kevin Costner, once spoke to his class) and appeared in USC student films while waiting to break into the movies. Reading that competing screen bios of his famous namesake were upcoming, he smelled gold. ”I figured, ‘Hey, if any actor should be in these movies, it’s me.”’ So in 1992 Earp lobbied Wyatt Earp writer-director Lawrence Kasdan and read for the part of Wyatt’s brother Morgan, but before the script was finished he was offered a part by Tombstone’s writer and initial director, Kevin Jarre.
Well-versed in the life of his fifth cousin, Earp found himself advising the rest of the cast. ”But I didn’t want to be just a consultant,” he says, ”I wanted to act in the film.” Originally given the minuscule part of cowboy Zwing Hunt, he was awarded the slightly larger role of Billy Claiborne when George Cosmatos took over the directorial reins.
Overall, Earp is pleased with Tombstone, if not with the heft of his part. ”Hollywood has never gotten the story completely right,” he points out. ”Each version has some degree of poetic license. At least in this one, all the right people wind up dead at the end.” Meanwhile, the acting career of the real Wyatt Earp shows a glimmer of life.