Actor Darrin Hickok Reflects on Poker and Lineage to Wild Bill Hickok
Hickok. Anyone who knows anything about poker history, that surname certainly means something. Wild Bill. His story stretches the expanse of American Old West folklore and also the poker world.
Born in Illinois in 1837, Hickok was a lawman, gambler, gunslinger, folklore hero, and actor. On Aug. 2, 1876, Hickok was playing Five Card Stud at Nuttal and Mann’s Saloon in Deadwood, located in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Beyond his skills with a pistol, Hickok was also a skilled card player.
“My grandmother would always joke, telling me I was like past legends from the old wild west, always restless and on the move looking for my next adventure.”
One can imagine this Old West real scene – down to the cigar smoke and whiskey. As cards were dealt and chips tossed, a cowboy named Jack McCall slipped into the saloon, and later shot Wild Bill in the back of the head. The lawman was killed instantly holding two black Aces and two black 8s – a stellar hand in this antiquated form of poker. The reasoning for the murder has been debated from a perceived personal slight to McCall to the allegation Hickok had shot and killed his brother.
Whatever the case, the hand has become synonymous with poker and an iconic tale of the Old West. But for Darrin Hickok, the story is a piece of family history.
Darrin is a descendent of the Hickok family through the lineage of Wild Bill's grandfather, Oliver Otis Hickok. Oliver’s children included Wild Bill’s father, William Alonzo Hickok. Another son was Darrin’s great-great-great grandfather, cousin to Wild Bill.
Wild Bill had only one daughter who didn’t have children, and a step-daughter from a second marriage – meaning there are no true direct bloodline relatives from Wild Bill. The family tree is a bit complicated, but the connection remained for Darrin growing up.
Darrin says there were a few stories passed down. One of the stories was about Wild Bill's father, William Alonzo Hickok, helping escaped slaves and having the rest of the Hickok family assist in the effort.
“Another was a story that my grandmother told me years back,” he says. “It was about Wild Bill. I think he was around 15 and apparently, some slightly older young men were bothering a store owner he was friendly with.”
The young Bill approached the others without fear, and quickly told them to leave the woman alone.
“Stop bothering her, let her do her work in peace and without fear of trouble,” Bill said firmly. “You boys can do whatever else you want in this town, I don’t care, but if any of you so much as walk in her shop from this point on, I swear to God, I’ll kill every single one of you."
He then walked away. It was a regular part of the Hickok family lore to go along with so many other historical accounts of his life.
“If it was true or not, I don't know, maybe it was, maybe it changed over time and was nothing like this,” Darrin says. “I don't know what actually happened after that, but I think that was the way Wild Bill was from all the other stories we all know of him. The fact one story claimed he killed a bear with his bare hands and a Bowie knife may show this story might be true after all.
“The one thing I can say is, I was taught respect and equality from day one, partly through these kinds of stories and various others growing up.”
Hickok & Pop Culture
Wild Bill as a character, whether real or fictional, is nothing new. Through much of the late-19th Century and early-20th Century, pulp novels and magazines told the stories of real-life western heroes and outlaws like Wild Bill, Billy the Kid, Wyatt Earp, and Jesse James.
"The more I played, the more I understood it wasn't about big bluffs as you see in movies."
Avon Periodicals published Wild Bill Hickok comic books throughout the ‘50s, featuring his exploits throughout the west. As an example, issue No. 10 featured the lawman battling Sam Bass, a real-life 19th Century train robber. On its cover, the comic trumpets the battle between the two: “America’s Greatest Gunfighter! Wild Bill Hickok in a fight to the finish with Sam Bass, the deadliest killer in the west.”
Like Darrin’s grandmother’s tales, separating truth from fiction has become difficult. Numerous other media treatments followed his death in 1876 – including radio, television, and the silver screen.
Actor Guy Madison played Bill in the TV series “The Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok” for seven years in the 1950s. He also played the lawman hero in a radio series from 1951–54. More recently, Josh Brolin played the hero in the television series “The Young Riders” from 1989-92. HBO even featured Wild Bill in the popular series “Deadwood” in 2004.
On the silver screen, Hickok has been played by a plethora of actors including Gary Cooper ("The Plainsman," 1936), Roy Rogers ("Young Bill Hickok," 1940), Robert Culp ("The Raiders," 1963), Charles Bronson ("The White Buffalo," 1977), Jeff Bridges ("Wild Bill," 1995), Sam Elliott ("Buffalo Girls," 1995), Luke Hemsworth ("Hickok," 2017). Moe Howard even played a version of the hero named “Wild Bill Hiccup” in a 1937 episode of the “Three Stooges.” In the episode, titled “Goofs and Saddles,” longtime stooge Larry Fine played a character who was apparently not so wild. His character? Just Plain Bill. Really.
The Hickoks – Show Business & Card Players
The connection to Wild Bill was a source of pride and uniqueness for the Hickok family. Darrin Hickok feels a similar sense of adventure as his Hickok relative.
“I can't remember there being one definitive story being told, but every now and again something would be brought up,” Darrin says. “My family, especially my grandmother, would always joke, telling me I was like past legends from the old wild west, always restless and on the move looking for my next adventure.”
Bill even had a brief stint as an actor, joining “Buffalo” Bill Cody’s western show in 1873, but quit after two months. While Bill may not have been a fan of the spotlight, Darrin certainly is. Growing up in Cape May, N.J., Darrin enjoyed small-town life near the beach. A shy surfer kid, he always loved art – inspired by his mother.
“My home was a very creative and free-thinking environment,” he says. “What I didn't realize back then, is; through art I was able to express myself in different ways, which is the basis of acting. I sometimes find it hard to express myself in my everyday life. So even though I love to act, I need to act to feel free.”
Growing up an athlete, Darrin enjoyed the outdoors especially playing baseball. He considered giving pro baseball a shot, but got the acting bug instead.
“He'd played with the late great Dave ‘Devilfish’ Ulliot back in U.K., and a few other well-known players.”
“I was a bit of a hard-ass growing up – played a lot of sports, got into a few fights,” he says. “So admitting I wanted to be an actor was hard. I feared what other people would think. Instead, for a long time I hid behind my own mask, loving acting but never really telling anyone.”
That soon changed when he began acting with Cape May Stage community theater. “After high school, I told my mother I was heading to New York City to become an actor,” he says. “She just replied ‘okay, whatever makes you happy.’”
His brother dropped him off at the bus station, and he was on the next Greyhound to the Big Apple. He now lives in Los Angeles and has appeared in some small roles for the Investigation Discovery network and a few more TV projects.
One of his more interesting credits includes playing country singer Travis Tritt in 2015 for the series “The Haunting of,” which features “celebrities' real life encounters with the paranormal.”
“As for my acting, I like to play weird, dark characters,” Darrin says. “I've also played a computer hacker on a Lifetime movie and most recently a dinosaur handler in an upcoming feature called ‘Triassic World,’ which was really fun.
That film, from the same company that produced the “Sharknado” films, is set for a June release. Another film, “The Devil’s Five,” is expected to be released this year, and a series called “Throttle” is currently in development. The latter is “a dark, high-tech vigilante type series,” he says, and co-created by actor/model Tyson Beckford with production beginning soon.
Life as a struggling actor isn’t easy. It’s competitive and rejection is a part of life. Darrin is taking everything in stride and hoping for the best.
“This year has a few projects for me which I'm really excited about,” he says. “I now live in Los Angeles as an actor and doing what I love.”
Remembering Wild Bill
Beyond acting, Darrin recently had the opportunity to pay tribute to his namesake. He teamed up with British street artist “NoVirtues” to create a tribute to the western legend.
“We've done a series of huge artworks featuring Wild Bill, which go on display later this summer in London and Los Angeles,” he says.
In recent years, he’s even taken up one of Bill’s professions – poker. He was introduced to the game by his manager and began playing Texas Hold'em to relax, have a beer or two, and discuss possible projects.
“He'd played with the late great Dave ‘Devilfish’ Ulliot back in U.K., and a few other well-known players,” Darrin says of his manager. “The more I played, the more I understood it wasn't about big bluffs as you see in movies. Good players see right through that. I've started to play more conservatively now rather than the all-ins I used to try to win hands.
“I'd love to be part of a cast on a western, I think that for me would bring my whole life and ancestry full circle."
“You also need to be a good actor, maybe that's why Wild Bill was so good. You also need to be able to read people. I'm not good enough to say if everyone has a tell, but I know my manager does – I just can't say what that is here. A good player with a bad hand can still beat a bad player with a good one just by the way they bet. However, once you start playing with really good players, that's a whole different world.”
As a member of the Hickok family, Darrin seems a natural fit for the role of an Old West cowboy – or maybe a lawman who’s handy with a six-shooter.
“Absolutely, that would be a dream role for me,” he says. “I'd love to be part of a cast on a western, I think that for me would bring my whole life and ancestry full circle. Can you imagine me playing Wild Bill? I’d love that!”
Sean Chaffin is a freelance writer in Dallas, Texas, and the host of the PokerNews Podcasting Network's newest podcast True Gambling Stories. To listen, click here.
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