Just how old William Bonney was at the time of his activities and demise in New Mexico in July 1881 is not known for 100% certain. Although there are outliers, such as Frederick Nolan, who believes he may have been 26 at the time of his death, most authorities believe that he was born in New York in 1859. If Catherine McCarty and her husband Patrick resided at 210 Greene Street, then Henry McCarty, as Billy the Kid was then known, was born on September 17, 1859. If, however, Catherine lived at 70 Allen Street, with an unnamed husband or no husband, then Billy, as he was later called, was born on November 20, 1859. At any rate, the balance of probabilities is that Billy the Kid was born in the fall of 1859 and was thus 21 when Pat Garrett killed him in Fort Sumner on July 14, 1881.
This means that he was ten or eleven when his family settled in Wichita, Kansas, probably 14 when his mother married a certain William Henry Harrison Antrim, aged 30, in Santa Fe, New Mexico and when they subsequently settled in Silver City. He would have been 15 when his mother died there in September 1874 and 19 when he took part in the killing of Sheriff Brady in the Lincoln County War.
Contemporary sources noted that he always looked young for his age. He was of slight physique. His friend Frank Coe said it was “almost girlish”. Robert Utley in his biography says “To the day of his death, his boyish face and slim figure stamped him as a kid.” He was known simply as the Kid (the Billy the Kid label only came at the end of his life and was taken up by the yellow press). Billy’s friend Henry Hoyt said he was “a handsome youth with smooth face”.
All commentators noted his usually merry demeanor and this added to the impression of youthfulness. He went fishing with Will Chisum, John’s 14-year-old nephew, and bought candy for Sallie, Chisum’s 16-year-old niece. Paulita Maxwell wrote, “He was not handsome but he had a certain sort of boyish good looks. He was always smiling and good-natured.” A reporter who saw Billy in Las Vegas jail wrote, “He is, in all, quite a handsome looking fellow … and he has agreeable and winning ways.”
So, whatever age Billy the Kid really was, he was certainly ‘a boy’ in appearance and bearing.
Why, then, have actors who played him on the screen been so old?
In-depth research on this vital matter by your own Jeff reveals that in the two silent movies that featured Billy, both with the title Billy the Kid, Edith Storey (yes, Edith), in1911 was 19 and Franklyn Farnum in 1925 was 47. Ironically, Storey might have been the most lifelike Billy physically of them all. Farnum would have been highly improbable.
However, both these films are now lost and they may not have been ‘about’ our Billy the Kid at all. We have the synopsis of the first and the plot is very different. So let us discount those and concentrate on the talkies – the principal ones anyway.
Counting the ages of the actors playing Billy at the time of filming, where known, rather than on the picture’s release, we have ages as follows:
Billy the Kid, 1930, John Mack Brown, 26
Billy the Kid Returns, 1938, Roy Rogers, 27
Billy the Kid, 1941, Robert Taylor, 30
Billy the Kid Outlawed, 1940, first of a series, Bob Steele, 33 to 34
Billy the Kid Wanted, 1941, first of a series, Buster Crabbe, 33 to 38
The Outlaw, United Artists, Jack Buetel, 23
The Kid from Texas, 1950, Audie Murphy, 25
I Shot Billy the Kid, 1950, Don ‘Red’ Barry, 38
The Law vs Billy the Kid, 1954, Scott Brady, 29
The Left Handed Gun, 1958, Paul Newman, 32
Chisum, 1970, Geoffrey Deuel, 27
Dirty Little Billy, 1972, Michael J Pollard, 32
Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, 1973, Kris Kristofferson, 36
Young Guns, 1988, Emilio Estevez, 25
Gore Vidal’s Billy the Kid, 1989, Val Kilmer, 29
Young Guns II, 1990, Emilio Estevez, 27
I haven’t bothered in this list with spaghetti Billies or TV documentaries ones and such.
So, with amazing powers of mental arithmetic, and a calculator, I thus affirm that the average age of screen Billy the Kids (excluding those silent ones) was…
29 and three quarters.
Now, having established that, the next question is, does it matter?
No, not really. As I have often said, these movies are entertainments, not documentaries, and the men (and one woman) who have played Billy the Kid are professional actors, after all. It’s often actors’ job to portray a more youthful or more aged person than they really are.
It was natural that studios would want to cast popular or well-known actors, and these were unlikely to be still in their teens.
I do think, though, that some of guys who played Billy weren’t just in their 30s, they looked it. Kristofferson was verging on the pudgy and Brady was beefcake-stocky. Such actors find it harder to convince as the merry/homicidal boy.
By the way, I haven’t done any in-depth research on this (yet) but most of the Pat Garretts on screen were overage too. Pat was born in June 1850 and was only 31 when he started his hunt for Billy the Kid. Most movie Garretts were older than this. For me, this matters less because Garrett was not known as Pat the Kid, and his role in the dramas is often almost that of a father-figure, so he can be older.
I hope this adds proper research to this weighty matter. I know you quite rightly consider it of great import.