This is the first of seven posts focusing on individual actors who gave excellent performances in westerns, regardless of whether the entire movie was excellent. The list is quite selective; there are a lot of really good performances that don’t show up here. It is intended to point to the very best, in no particular order. The list is also open for additions, but you should wait until the completion of the series to make sure your suggestion isn’t already on the list. Some (e.g., Lee Marvin, John Wayne) are on the list for multiple roles.
Billy Bob Thornton as Davy Crockett in The Alamo
Especially for baby boomers, it’s hard to get past the coonskin-capped caricature of Tennessee’s David Crockett rooted in Fess Parker’s work for Disney in the 1950s. Thornton does the best job on film in portraying a real Crockett—a frontier personality who seems like he could have been a successful politician, with both personal magnetism and some sensitivity. One scene that lingers in the mind is Crockett at night, playing a fiddle on the walls of the Alamo, with death looming over the horizon. With his Arkansas accent, Thornton would be a natural for westerns, if there were more being made. He did show up effectively in a bit part in Tombstone, as a violent gambler backed down by Wyatt Earp. This recounting of the Alamo story isn’t among the great westerns, but it’s worth watching for Thornton’s performance.
Thomas Haden Church as Tom Harte in Broken Trail
Church uses his distinctive voice and a stony face marvelously in his role as Tom Harte, lifelong ne’er-do-well cowboy and nephew to Robert Duvall’s Print Ritter. Initially Harte is seemingly motivated by resentment that his inheritance has gone to his mother’s brother, but he nevertheless develops as a stand-up guy whose flinty resolve is the bedrock quality that ultimately saves everybody. He’s relied on at key points in the plot’s backbone story, and he comes through believably. His initial judgment is schooled at times by Ritter, and he rises to that tutelage. He’s helped by good production design that makes him look authentic. Church is another actor who seems made for westerns but will never get the opportunity to make many. In some ways here he’s reminiscent of Lee Marvin, although he successfully plays lighter roles elsewhere (see Sideways, for example) as well. This made-for-television miniseries is highly re-watchable, with several excellent performances (Duvall, Greta Scacchi, Scott Cooper and others) in addition to Church’s. He’s probably the most historically-accurate Billy Clanton on film in Tombstone.
Val Kilmer as Doc Holliday in Tombstone
Doc Holliday is the showiest role for an actor in the Wyatt Earp story, retold many times. Earlier versions were played by the physically robust Victor Mature and Kirk Douglas, as well as by excellent character actor Jason Robards. Kilmer probably does it better than anyone (with the possible exception of Dennis Quaid), being believably tubercular and hair-trigger dangerous, yet with an educated intelligence behind it all. A lovely performance, one of the best in a western in recent memory. His lines “I’m your huckleberry” and “You’re a daisy if you do” have continuing resonance for their whimsical quality with an underlying edge and implicit threat. But also look at his cameo as a not-terribly-effective cavalry captain in The Missing. Kilmer is the only actor to have played both Doc Holliday (here) and Wyatt Earp (Wyatt Earp’s Revenge, 2012).
Kurt Russell as Wyatt Earp in Tombstone
A lesser actor would have been overshadowed by Kilmer’s Doc Holliday in this version of the Earp story. Russell was not only convincing in a role that can be quite dour (see Costner’s version, as well as Burt Lancaster’s and James Garner’s) because it deals with a relentless quest for vengeance, but he also seems more balanced. And physically he bears an extraordinary resemblance to one of the most famous photographs of Earp. On top of that he’s a terrific actor, believable in action and motivation and in his relationship with Holliday. We believe him when he’s restraining violence and when he isn’t. He makes an excellent center for the most successful retelling of the Earp story since the 1940s.
Dennis Quaid as Doc Holliday in Wyatt Earp
Quaid’s performance is often overlooked because of Kilmer’s dazzling performance in the same role a year earlier and because the Kasdan-Costner version of the story was kind of a cinematic clunker. Quaid nevertheless is very convincing as the tubercular dentist. He lost so much weight for the role that it left new lines in his face, and Holliday’s innate meanness showed through in Quaid’s performance. That’s unusual for an actor whose most bankable characteristic is his devil-may-care grin. Although Holliday has been played by some superb actors, Quaid and Kilmer are the best in the role so far.
Marvin and Richard Boone were probably the best villains in the history of westerns, and they were both very versatile actors. Marvin had an implacable quality that served him well in various roles, especially in (but not limited to) the roles listed here:
- The most effective of the Budd Boetticher-Randolph Scott westerns featured an ambiguous bad guy, one whose relationship with Scott’s character could possibly go in different directions. That was true of the first such movie, Seven Men From Now. Masters had once been put in jail by Scott’s Ben Stride and they are wary of each other, but Marvin’s capacity for menace increases as the movie goes along and provides for an excellent denouement. In particular, look at the claustrophobic scene in the back of a wagon at night in the rain, when Masters starts a story that strips two of the other characters bare psychologically until Stride kicks him back out into rain.
- Marvin’s menace is unmitigated in his role as the villain in the title in John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. The movie is full of remarkable performances (John Wayne, James Stewart, Vera Miles, Woody Strode), but Marvin’s palpable bad-guy-ness makes it all work. He’s one of the easiest-to-hate villains ever in a western, with a psychotic edge to his performance here. (For a variation on this role, see him in The Comancheros where, in a brief part, he seems considerably worse than the movie’s ostensible real bad guys.)
- Marvin won his Oscar as Best Supporting Actor for his dual role in Cat Ballou as drunken gunfighter Kid Shelleen and his noseless, black-clad assassin brother Tim Strawn. There is a memorable photographic still from this performance of the inebriated Shelleen on his apparently drunk horse, both of them leaning against the side of a building, trying to stay upright.
- Marvin could also do convincing good guys, as in his performance as Rico Fardan in The Professionals. Here he principally projects control, hardness and competence (as he would later in The Dirty Dozen), with an overlay of elusive principle. He’s the team leader, and although the movie’s an ensemble success, that’s in large part because Marvin is so believable as Fardan. Marvin’s military background (he had been a Marine) shows through to advantage. He could also be on this list for his performance in the title role in 1970’s Monte Walsh.
Like Lee Marvin, Richard Boone is best remembered for the villains he played. Like Marvin, Boone had a distinctive voice which he used to considerable advantage. He could play silkier than Marvin and was very good at inhabiting the margins of villainy in different ways.
- In Budd Boetticher’s The Tall T, Boone as Frank Usher develops a strange relationship with Randolph Scott’s flinty Brennan. He’s never anything other than bad, the mastermind of murders, kidnapping and robbery with two henchmen he thinks are below him. But there’s a sense that he could have been something else, that he shares some dreams and aspirations with Brennan. Some of that’s in the writing, which is quite spare. But mostly it’s in Boone’s performance. For a couple of other great Boone villains, see Hombre and Big Jake. For earlier Boone bad guys in slighter movies, see Ten Wanted Men and Robbers’ Roost.
- Major Jim Lassiter is an embittered, alcoholic Confederate veteran who hunts Apaches in revenge for their killing of his wife and son. He is by far the most interesting character in the expeditionary ensemble in Rio Conchos. It’s one of his rare opportunities to play an ambiguous character on the right side, and he carries the movie. For work with some similarities (i.e., Boone playing parts other than overtly bad guys), see A Thunder of Drums and his work as the enigmatic Paladin in television’s Have Gun Will Travel.