O'Brian was chosen for the role in part because of his physical resemblance to early photographs of Wyatt Earp. The series was produced by Desilu Productions and filmed at the Desilu-Cahuenga Studio. Sponsors included General Mills, Procter & Gamble, and Parker Pen Company. An off-camera barbershop quartet sang the theme song and hummed the background music in early episodes. The theme song "The Legend of Wyatt Earp" was composed by Harry Warren. Incidental music was composed by Herman Stein.
The first season of the series purports to tell the story of Wyatt's experiences as deputy town marshal of Ellsworth, Kansas (first four episodes) and then as town marshal in Wichita, Kansas. In the second episode of the second season, first aired September 4, 1956, he is hired as assistant city marshal of Dodge City, Kansas, where the setting remained for three seasons. The final episode set in Dodge City aired on September 1, 1959. Beginning the next week the locale for the series shifted for the remainder of the series to the southwest near Tombstone, Arizona Territory.
The real Wyatt Earp was appointed as an assistant marshal in Dodge City in about May 1876, spent the winter of 1876–77 in Deadwood, Dakota Territory, and rejoined the Dodge City police force as an assistant marshal in spring 1877. He resigned his position in September 1879. Earp is depicted as the town marshal in Tombstone, although his brother Virgil Earp was Deputy U.S. Marshal and Tombstone City Marshal. As city marshal, Virgil made the decision to enforce a city ordinance prohibiting carrying weapons in town and to disarm the outlaw Cowboys that led to the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. Wyatt was only a temporary assistant marshal to his brother.
In the show, O'Brian openly carried a Buntline Special, a pistol with a twelve-inch barrel, which triggered a mild toy craze at the time the series was originally broadcast. There is no credible evidence that Wyatt Earp ever owned such a gun. The myth of Earp carrying a Buntline Special was created in Stuart N. Lake's best-selling 1931 biography Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal, later admitted by the author to be highly fictionalized.
The series had a large supporting cast of more than thirty actors during its six-year run. Jimmy Noel was cast in 144 episodes as an unnamed, uncredited townsman; Buddy Roosevelt appeared similarly in sixty-five episodes of the series. William Tannen played Deputy Hal Norton in fifty-six episodes which aired between 1956 and 1958; in some of the segments he was uncredited, and in most his role was tangential to the script. Randy Stuart was cast in twelve episodes in the 1959-1960 season as Tombstone saloon and hotel owner Nellie Cashman, a romantic interest for Earp. Earlier she played Nellie Dawson, a widow living on a ranch, in "Little Gray Home in the West".
In five episodes, John Anderson played Earp's brother, Virgil Earp; in four other episodes, including "Big Brother Virgil" and "The Trail to Tombstone", Ross Elliott played the part of Virgil. In fifteen segments from 1956 to 1961, Ray Boyle, then using the stage name "Dirk London", portrayed another Earp brother, Morgan Earp. Between 1958 and 1961, Morgan Woodward, later on CBS's Dallas in the role of Marvin "Punk" Anderson and a frequent guest star on Gunsmoke as well, played folksy loyal deputy "Shotgun" Gibbs in forty-two episodes.
Douglas Fowley and Myron Healey were cast forty-nine and ten times, respectively, as Earp's close friend John H. "Doc" Holliday, whom Earp had met in Texas prior to 1880. Carol Montgomery Stone played "Kate Holliday" or "Big Nose Kate", Holliday's common law wife, in ten episodes of the series in the 1957-1958 season. Collette Lyons played Big Kate in two 1958 episodes and "Rowdy Kate" in two other segments in 1955 and 1956. At times Holliday seemed affectionate toward Kate; at other time, he seemed oblivious to her existence.
Earlier, on September 25, 1956, Healey played a drunken gunfighter Clay Allison, who comes into Dodge City to confront the Earp legend. In the story line, Pete Albright, a storeowner played by Charles Fredricks tries to hire Allison to gun down Earp because the marshal is fighting crime in the town and costing merchants business in the process. Allison makes a point of not taking money but is willing to challenge Earp until he is overcome by his own drunkenness.Mike Ragan played Clay Allison in a 1957 episode, "The Time for All Good Men".
Mason Alan Dinehart, or Alan Dinehart, III, son of film stars Alan Dinehart and Mozelle Britton, was cast in thirty-four episodes between 1955 and 1959 as Bat Masterson, a role filled on the NBC series of the same name by the late Gene Barry. Dinehart played Masterson from the ages of approximately nineteen to twenty-three.
The bearded Paul Brinegar in thirty-three episodes played James H. "Dog" Kelley, a veteran of the Union Army, the owner of the Alhambra Saloon, and a city council member and then the mayor while Earp is the deputy marshal in Dodge City. Their paths in history crossed for no more than one year. In the second and third episodes of the second season of the series, set in Dodge City and titled "Dodge City Gets a New Marshal" (September 4, 1956) and "Fight or Run" (September 11, 1956), Kelley is the hold-out vote on the city council regarding Earp's plan to require gun owners to check in their weapons upon entering town. The Big T Cattle Company, angry with Earp for trying to clean up Dodge City and reduce business from the cowboys, enlists Kelley's help in arranging an ambush of Earp. Kelley is depicted as a reluctant "good guy"/"bad guy" split personality in many of the episodes in which he appears.
Paul Brinegar subsequently played the cantankerous cooks Wishbone and Jelly Hoskins on the CBS westerns, Rawhide and Lancer. In three episodes, Margaret Hayes was cast as Dora Hand, the popular dance hall actress and singer who had a romantic interest in Mayor Kelley. She is inadvertently shot to death in October 1878 by a rival suitor, James W. "Spike" Kenedy, a son of the South Texas rancher baron Mifflin Kenedy. In "It Had to Happen" (April 1, 1958), after Masterson is slightly wounded from a gunshot fired by a man that Earp had struck in the shoulder to avoid killing him, Mayor Kelley orders Earp to "shoot to kill" when apprehending lawbreakers. Earp, however, has always used restraint and tried to avoid killing those who would fire upon him. When Earp kills a culprit, he has second thoughts about his role as a lawman.
Don Haggerty was cast in the role of Wichita newspaperman Marsh Murdock in twenty-one segments of the first season. Trevor Bardette was cast twenty-one times as the unscrupulous Newman Haynes Clanton, known as Old Man Clanton, when the setting of the series moved to Arizona, but Bardette appeared in earlier episodes too under other names. John Milford appeared in eight episodes as the historical Ike Clanton. In seven episodes in 1959 and 1961, Carol Thurston played the fictitious Emma Clanton, daughter of Old Man Clanton and an unlikely romantic interest for Earp. Thurston also was cast in different roles in four earlier episodes before she landed the continuing role as Emma Clanton. James Seay was cast sixteen times as Judge Spicer, who became a close friend of Earp's.
William Phipps in sixteen episodes played the gunman and rustler Curly Bill Brocius. In the episode "The Clantons' Family Row", Brocius is facing a potential gunfight with Johnny Ringo (Peter M. Thompson), who is irate that Brocius accidentally shot and killed Ringo's horse though he replaced the animal with another. Earp works to stop the gunfight from happening, and Doc Holliday proceeds to take bets on the outcome. In "Let's Hang Curly Bill", an older marshal, Fred White (Sam Flint), is mortally wounded when he takes the gun from a drunken Curly Bill, who is celebrating his birthday in a saloon in Tombstone. A town mob demands that Curly Bill be hanged, but Earp places dynamite under the main street to protect his prisoner until the trial. Earp must defend Curly Bill in court because it was White who accidentally caused Curly Bill's gun to discharge; White signed a statement attesting to the facts prior to his death. Doc Holliday notes at the end of the episode that Earp could have merely let Curly Bill hang for past crimes had he not been a just marshal.
Steve Brodie played the dishonest Cochise County Sheriff Johnny Behan in nine episodes from 1960 to 1961; Lash La Rue, in eight other segments, one uncredited. La Rue first appeared in the October 20, 1959 segment, "You Can't Fight City Hall" as an agent of territorial Governor John Charles Frémont.
Damian O'Flynn, a Boston native, was cast in a combined sixty episodes, as Judge Tobin in the Dodge City segments and as Dr. Goodfellow, when the setting shifts to Tombstone, in the Wichita episodes he plays Doc Fabrique. Many episodes show Douglas Fowley as playing the part of Doc Fabrique when he actually is not in the episodes. O'Flynn was left off the credits most of the time. In "Frontier Surgeon" (January 19, 1960), Dr. Goodfellow must obtain a truce with Marshal Earp who is apprehending a wounded outlaw. The man will die if moved after surgery, but he does not wait the three days to recuperate out of distrust of Earp and the protection of the $15,000 loot he and his gang have taken from Wells Fargo.
Walter Coy appeared twice on The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, as Henry Mason in "The Doctor" (1960) and as Ben Thompson in "Dodge Is Civilized" (1959). In eight other episodes beginning at the start of the series, Denver Pyle had portrayed Ben Thompson, the gunfighter who was Earp's sometimes rival and reluctant friend and who later became the marshal in Austin, Texas. Pyle was cast as Thompson beginning with the second episode of the series. In "Bill Thompson Gives In" (September 20, 1955), Earp uses a pair of Indian scouts, rather than a posse, to help capture Ben Thompson and his brother, Billy Thompson (Hal Baylor), who when inebriated killed the previous Ellsworth sheriff, Chauncey Whitney. The killing was subsequently ruled accidental.
In "Marshal Earp Meets General Lee", Earp uses creativity to defuse a tense situation involving a former Confederate officer and cattle drovers who threaten to tear down Ellsworth. Earp simply declares January 19, 1874, the 67th birthday of General Robert E. Lee, as "Robert E. Lee Day" in Ellsworth and pays respect to Lee as a defeated warrior.
Bob Steele played Wyatt's deputy, "Sam" in four episodes in 1955 during the Wichita period.
The two actors who portrayed Earp's Cheyenne friends and informers were Rico Alaniz, a native of Mexico, "Mr. Cousin" in nineteen episodes between 1955 and 1959, and Rodd Redwing as "Mr. Brother" in eight episodes. The role of "Mr. Brother" ends with the 1958 episode "One" because the character is killed by four outlaws called the Dry Gulch Gang. Earp spends several subsequent episodes entitled "Two", "Three", and "Four" apprehending the gang.
A number of notable actors had parts in the series. Glenn Strange, before being cast as bartender Sam Noonan on Gunsmoke, had an uncredited role in the ninth episode of The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, in which Phillip Pine played the outlaw John Wesley Hardin. In the story line, Hardin arrives in Wichita to avenge Earp for having run out of a town a friend of Hardin's. The Hardin character unveils tricks he has learned with his revolvers. Earp is suspicious when Hardin kills a man in the saloon who drew first according to witnesses, including the unnamed man played by Glenn Strange. Barbara Bestar portrays Hardin's wife, Jane Hardin, who encourages him to head north to Nebraska. Three months later Strange played Jeff Pruitt, a corrupt theater manager in "The Frontier Theatre" (February 7, 1956), with Joan Freeman as Jeannie Harlow, the 14-year-old daughter of a competing theater operator.
Barry Truex, son of actor Ernest Truex and stepson of Truex's third wife, Sylvia Field, appears as Lonnie McVey, or the young outlaw called "The Kansas Kid", in the 1956 episode "The Desperate Half-Hour". In the story line, the Kid returns to his parents' home in Wichita for refuge. Earp learns that the Kid is wanted for robbery but not murder as claimed by a sheriff, played by Trevor Bardette. George Chandler plays the discouraged father, John McVey.
In the 1956 episode "One of Jesse's Gang", Angie Dickinson plays Ann Drew, who slips a gun to her jailed husband, Harry (John Craven), a former associate of the Jesse James gang. Having vowed never to return to prison, Harry is killed while escaping.
Linda Stirling plays Joan Laramie in "The Suffragette", a story about woman's suffrage in the American West. In this 1956 episode, Marshal Earp, who admits his sympathy with the suffragettes, tries to keep the peace between the women and the supporters of a Kansas state senator who leads the opposition.
In "The Pinkertons" (1956), Douglas Evans plays detective agency head Allan Pinkerton, who is seeking to recover $40,000 in stolen money but interferes with Marshal Earp's attempt to catch the entire gang of Crummy Newton (Richard Alexander). Lloyd Corrigan played the western author Ned Buntline in three episodes. In the episode "King of the Frontier" (November 11, 1958), Buntline arrives in Dodge City after writing a book which proclaims Earp "King of the Frontier". Buntline claims that Earp can beat any cowboy in a variety of competitive activities, including shooting. Miles Breck (Grant Withers) of the Lazy Q outfit bets Buntline $10,000 that his men can beat Earp in selected challenges.
On May 7, 1957, the actor Ian MacDonald played Dull Knife, a Cheyenne chief, in the episode "Dull Knife Strikes for Freedom". In the story line Dull Knife leads his tribe from its reservation in Oklahoma Territory to their homeland in Montana, to which they claim the U.S. government had promised them. Steve Pendleton appeared as Army Major Benteen. Pendleton also appeared in four additional series episodes as "Benteen" and in seven others as Thacker.
In "The Wicked Widow" (May 21, 1957), Earp investigates a series of mysterious shootings near the home of Myra Malone (played by Gloria Saunders), a widowed dressmaker. He finds that Myra is harboring Nettie Barnes (Lyn Guild), a wanted member of the Larson gang and former Confederate who dislikes northern law.
In "Woman Trouble" (1957), Earp encounters a group of outlaws posing as "True Light" missionaries, who dispatch a young woman named Jennie Brandt (Nancy Hadley) into Dodge City to seek Earp's affection and to learn the details of a pending Wells Fargo gold shipment. Earp, however, has done his homework on the True Light movement and detects that something is amiss.
In "Hang 'em High" (1957), Earp and Masterson (as the newly elected sheriff of Ford County) tangle with secreted vigilantes called the "White Caps" after a judge orders the hanging of Dal Royal (Darryl Hickman) who refuses to defend himself in court for fear the gang will murder his girlfriend, the daughter of a prominent rancher. The story line includes a fake hanging and burial to smoke out the gang.
In "Doc Holliday Rewrites History" (1958), "Professor Jordan", a traveling photographer and historian (Robert Nichols) arrives in Dodge City to take pictures and write the biographies of interested citizens, who pay in advance the purchase price of the book that he produces. All kinds of troubles result when Doc Holliday (Myron Healey) takes over the writing of the local biographies and according to premature reports is most unflattering to the townspeople, including Mayor Kelley.
In the 1958 episode "The Gatling Gun", Earp and his Indian guide, Mr. Cousin (Rico Alaniz), follow orders from General William Tecumseh Sherman to recover a Gatling gun captured by the Nez Perce. Richard Garland plays the part of the compassionate Chief Joseph, who laments the state of war between the Indians and a militia of land grabbers. Marshal Earp uses his conversation with Chief Joseph to decry the treatment of the Indians and to proclaim his Christian belief that all will obtain fair treatment in the hereafter if not in this life. The episode is set in Idaho, far from Dodge City.
James Coburn portrayed Buckskin Frank Leslie in the 1959 largely comedy episode, "The Noble Outlaws". In the story line, Ned Buntline visits Tombstone to meet with the Clantons to gain information for a new book, but Earp asks Leslie to teach Buntline that outlaws are anything but "noble".
In numerous episodes, Earp is identified as a deacon in his church in Dodge City, including "She Almost Married Wyatt", with Ann Daniels as Cathy Prentice. The 1959 episode "Horse Race", with Paul Picerni as Chief Bullhead, espouses the theme that the Indians must accept the white man's system of justice which seeks truth regardless based on the evidence in each case.
In "The Truth About Rawhide Geraghty" (1959), Earp agrees to ride shotgun for the retiring 69-year-old stagecoach driver Rawhide Geraghty, played by Eddy Waller, also of Casey Jones, who is making his last run for Wells Fargo from Tucumcari, New Mexico Territory, to Amarillo, Texas. The trip is hazardous with bandits and hostile Apache, and Rawhide fears he will not complete the run.
Another 1959 episode "Juveniles - 1878" attempts to address the occurrence of juvenile delinquency on the American frontier. Earp discovers that a 17-year-old runaway who arrives in Dodge City with ready cash and wanting to purchase a pistol may be from a well-to-do family; he manages to locate the youth's father, a judge back east.
Denver Pyle also appeared as the "Reverend" Oliver Tittle, an unlikely crusader against gambling in the first episode of 1959, "A Good Man". In his crusade against the vice, Tittle come into conflict with saloon owner Ganly, and Earp must intervene to keep the peace between the two antagonists. In the first episode of 1960, Pyle returned to the series to play Dobie Jenner, who appears in Tombstone after a four-year imprisonment to find his former partner in crime, George McKean (Carleton G. Young), married to Phoebe (Rachel Ames), the woman Jenner loves.
In "Silver Dollar" (1960), a young blonde saloon girl called "Silver Dollar" arrives in Tombstone to work at the Alhambra. While she can charm most men and take their money, Marshal Earp suspects there are serious questions about her past and sends a wire to find out for sure. Silver Dollar is played by Dusty Anders, whose entire acting career was confined to five network appearances between 1959 and 1960.
In "Don't Get Tough with a Sailor" (1960), Earp encounters a Captain David Rowland (John Litel), a wealthy rancher and United States Navy veteran who, with a group of his former sailors, maintains his own law near the Mexican border, complete with his own jail. When Rowland incarcerates the duplicitous Sheriff Johnny Behan, Earp must intervene despite his admiration for the captain and Mrs. Rowland (Madge Kennedy).
In "Casey and the Clowns" (1961), Earp devises a unique plan to locate $50,000 stolen from the Bank of Tombstone by the Harlequins gang, whose members wear clown masks and outfits to disguise their identity. Earp convinces the president of the Arizona Bank to transfer emergency funds to the Bank of Tombstone to prevent a bank run, as customers demand their cash. Earp goes undercover and dons a clown outfit to infiltrate the gang to find where the money has been stashed. L. Q. Jones makes his only appearance on the series in the role of Tex, the leader of the Harlequins. Willard Sage portrays Bill Casey, one of the gang members who is captured and awaits release by the gang.
Other notable performers were Rachel Ames (in the 1958 episode "The Schoolteacher"), Jim Bannon (three times), Roy Barcroft (three times), Lane Bradford (six times, including the role of the Cheyenne Chief Two Moon in the 1957 episode "Indian Wife"), Robert Bray (three times), Virginia Christine, Andy Clyde (as Billy Buckett), Tris Coffin, Elisha Cook, Jr. (as gunsmith "Guns" McCallum in "The Equalizer"), Carolyn Craig (as Edna Granger in "County Seat War"), Francis De Sales (three times), Richard Devon (twice), Tiger Fafara, Ron Foster (as Johnny in "Arizona Lottery"), Robert Fuller, Connie Gilchrist (in "Pinkytown", the story of an outlying saloon community which resists annexation into Dodge City), Ron Hagerthy, Robert Harland, and Brad Johnson (twice, as Bat Masterson's brother Ed Masterson in the 1957 episode "The Nice Ones Always Die First" and as the artist Hurley Abbott in the 1958 segment "The Underdog").
Still more guest stars included Ed Hinton, Jonathan Hole (twice), Rodolfo Hoyos, Jr., I. Stanford Jolley (six times, including "A Papa for Butch and Ginger"), Brett King (twice), Jimmy Lydon (twice), Walter Maslow (as the outlaw Blackie Saunders), Francis McDonald (in "Old Jake", a story of revenge stemming from the Sand Creek massacre), Tyler McVey (seven times), Carol Ohmart (as actress Cora Campbell), Gregg Palmer (five times as Tom McLowery), House Peters, Jr. (four times as Wichita saloon owner Dave Bennett), John M. Pickard (three times, once as the gunfighter Johnny Ringo), Paula Raymond, Grant Richards (as gunfighter and saloonkeeper Luke Short), Roy Roberts (as the Texas cattle baron Shanghai Pierce ), Thayer Roberts (as General William Tecumseh Sherman), Bing Russell (twice), Stuart Randall (seven times), Isabel Randolph (as Grandma Wilkins in "Wyatt Earp Rides Shotgun"), Glenn Strange (five times), Gloria Talbott, John Vivyan, Gloria Winters, Sheb Wooley (twice), and Anna May Wong.
The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp finished #18 in the Nielsen ratings for the 1956-1957 season, #6 in 1957-1958, #10 in 1958-1959 and #20 in 1959-1960.
The series received two Emmy nominations in 1957. Hugh O'Brien was nominated for Best Continuing Performance by an Actor, and Dan Ullman earned a nomination for Best Teleplay Writing - Half Hour or Less.
Infinity Entertainment Group released the complete first season on DVD in Region 1 for the first time on April 21, 2009. This release has been discontinued and is now out of print. On October 28, 2011, Inception Media Group acquired the rights to the series. It subsequently re-released the first season on DVD on December 13, 2011. Season 2 was released on March 12, 2013.
O'Brian recreated the role of Earp in two episodes of the CBS television series Guns of Paradise (1990) alongside Gene Barry as Bat Masterson and again in 1991 in The Gambler Returns: The Luck of the Draw, also with Barry as Masterson. An independent movie, Wyatt Earp: Return to Tombstone, was released in 1994 featuring new footage of O'Brian as Earp mixed with flashbacks consisting of colorized scenes from the original series. The new sequences co-starred Bruce Boxleitner (who had himself played Earp in the telefilm I Married Wyatt Earp), Paul Brinegar (who joined the Rawhide cast as Wyatt Earp shifted to Tombstone in the 1959 season), Harry Carey, Jr. (who had, a year earlier, played Marshal Fred White in Tombstone), and Bo Hopkins.
With the emergence of television in the 1950s, producers spun out a large number of western-oriented shows. At the height of their popularity in 1959, there were more than two dozen "cowboy" programs on weekly. At least five others were connected to some extent with Wyatt Earp: Bat Masterson, Tombstone Territory, Broken Arrow, Johnny Ringo, and Gunsmoke.
An episode of The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp is aired each weekday at 4:45 p.m. EDT on the Encore Western Channel. The episodes are presented in order of original air date. Two episodes of the show are aired every day on Cozi TV.