Jeff Arnold’s West

The blog of a Western fan, for other Western fans

The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp: Clay Allison (Wyatt Earp Enterprises/ABC, 1956)


Allison has a showdown with Wyatt Earp


Accounts of the life of the noted gunman Clay Allison (click the link for our article on him) often include a showdown he had with the famed Wyatt Earp in Dodge City. The West’s most famous lawman is supposed to have faced down the feared ‘Wolf of the Washita’ and sent him scuttling off to his lair.


Earp’s sensational biographer Stuart N Lake wrote that Wyatt claimed when talking to Lake in the 1920s that in 1877 he and his friend Bat Masterson confronted Allison in the street in Dodge. Allison lost his nerve, backed off and left town.


One version has it that Masterson hastily grabbed a shotgun to back Earp up and was chagrinned to find after the encounter that the gun had in fact been loaded only with birdshot.


This story passed into ‘fact’ and is part of what many people ‘know’ about Earp, and Allison.


The problem with it is that Lake habitually put words in the mouth of his reticent subject, attributing verbatim quotes to Earp which were in fact Lake’s own words. Wyatt himself may not have claimed any such thing. There is nothing in the local papers of the time about it.


Dubious history


Some contemporaneous accounts suggested that a cattleman named Dick McNulty and owner of the Long Branch Saloon Chalky Beeson together convinced Allison and his cowboys to surrender their guns. Charlie Siringo, a cowboy in Dodge at the time, later a well known Pinkerton detective, claimed to have witnessed the affair and left a written account. He said that it was McNulty and Beeson who ended the incident; he further wrote that Earp had not even approached Clay Allison that day. Another source says that Masterson wasn’t in town.


Whatever the truth of it, it makes a good story. As with Allison, disentangling myth from fact in the case of Wyatt Earp is problematic, to say the least.


ABC’s enormously popular late-1950s show The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp (I was an avid follower as a boy) which ran for six seasons (229 episodes), was originally conceived as a factual account of Earp’s life, more Life than Legend, but it didn’t turn out that way. In the end, along with such Earp-myth feature films as Frontier Marshal and My Darling Clementine, it established the legend of the clean-up-the-town lawman with his long-barreled pistol in people’s minds, so successfully that the myth became ‘fact’.



It was inevitable that the series would go for the Stuart Lake version of the Clay Allison showdown and, in Season 2, Episode 5, Clay Allison, it duly did.


In this one, written as the majority of episodes were by Frederick Hazlitt Brennan and directed by Frank McDonald, Wyatt Earp (Hugh O’Brian) is Marshal of Dodge (he wasn’t, of course) and there’s no Bat Masterson. He faces Allison alone, apart from a deputy (William Tannen) who carries messages to and fro.


In the pre-credit opening scene, townsman and storeowner Pete Albright (Charles Fredericks) – there were those in reality who said it was local politico Bob Wright – puts an inebriated Clay Allison, shown, as had become traditional, as a rancher wearing a suit, up to killing Earp. Albright pulls out his wallet to pay Allison who angrily refuses, saying, “I ain’t killing Wyatt Earp for money. I got other reasons. My own reasons.”


The good news: Allison is played by our old pal Myron Healey. He has a mustache and looks a bit like Robert Ryan in The Wild Bunch but has no imperial – Allison wore that facial hair in imitation of his hero Nathan Bedford Forrest.


It’s 1876 and Clay Allison, “the most dangerous of all the killers” at the time, a narrator tells us, casually shoots a man in a saloon, another in the street and a lawman in a café. TV couldn’t have Allison’s naked ride through the street wearing only a gun belt (though not in Dodge) but we see a shirtless Myron doing something similar.



Mayor Jim ‘Dog’ Kelley (pre-Rawhide Paul Brinegar), who knew Allison in the army (actually, both Kelley and Allison fought as Confederates, so I suppose it was possible) warns Wyatt that Allison is armed and gunning for him. Allison sends word from Kelley’s Alhambra saloon that he’s waiting for Earp, who sends an answer that he might wander along when he’s had his dinner.



Allison goes to talk to Earp over his dinner. There’s some business about Allison making his own cartridges, not trusting factory ones, and betting Earp that none will ever misfire.


Drinking in Kelley’s saloon, Allison shoots Soapy the barman (Ralph Peters) reaching for a shotgun. He’s drunk but still fast and accurate. Outside, Wyatt outdraws Allison but doesn’t shoot or buffalo the man. “I want to give him one more chance.” Allison gets drunker and drunker.


The showdown: Earp steps out into the street and walks down, in classic manner. Allison: “Draw!” Earp: “It’s your move.” A moment of tension, then Allison backs down, kills Albright, and leaves town.


Credits roll, over the Cheerio pack.


Well, it’s marginally less fictitious than other screen Allisons, I suppose.



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