Most Americans know of Doc Holliday only as Wyatt Earp’s sidekick. He was much more than that. He was not only one of the most colorful characters in the Old West but also one of the most feared. He acquired the nickname “Doc” honestly, earning a degree in dentistry and practicing in several towns. However, he eventually spent nearly all his time as a professional gambler and occasionally as a gunfighter. He had a vicious temper and feared no man, perhaps because tuberculosis had already given him a death sentence.
Holliday is a classic example of the Old West gunfighter—one of those shootists whose death-defying actions were legendary in their own time and became the subject of hundreds of books and movies. Doc exhibited the characteristics essential to the gunslinger—he was highly proficient in the use of firearms, had nerves of steel, and, most of all, was willing.
No less than a half-dozen biographies are devoted to Holliday and he’s been a character in more than 20 major movies. The actors who have portrayed him include Cesar Romero, Walter Huston, Victor Mature, Kirk Douglas, Jason Robards, Jack Kelly, Stacy Keach, Willie Nelson, Val Kil mer, and Dennis Quaid. Kilmer’s portrayal of Doc in Tombstone (1993) was wonderfully creative and might be called brilliant, but Dennis Quaid in Wyatt Earp (1994) became Doc, eerily so.
Doc was born John Henry Holliday in 1851 in...