Doc Holliday in the Movies – Dennis Quaid

Looking at film Doc Hollidays from the 1990s, Val Kilmer’s Doc in Tombstone is always the one that gets mentioned the most. He has the best lines for sure. I love Val’s portrayal. It’s hard not to love it, but historically, I think Dennis Quaid’s Doc Holliday in the 1993 film Wyatt Earp wins hands down.

Losing Weight for the role

Dennis Quaid as Doc Holliday sporting his gambling shades.

Let’s talk about Quaid’s skinniness in Wyatt Earp. According to an interview of the time, he lost 43 pounds to look suitably tubercular for the part. According to the LA Times, he normally weighs around 180 pounds. That implies he weighed around 137 pounds during filming, despite his 6 ft 1 inch stature. That’s dangerously skinny for an actor who still had to ride a horse during filming. Compare that to the real Doc Holliday who was reputed to be 6 foot  tall and weigh in at around 112 pounds.

I’m not picking on Dennis Quaid, I think it’s wonderful that he was so dedicated to losing as much weight as he did. He really looks awful in some of the scenes, especially the close-ups in the bar with Kevin Costner. You can get a really good look at how gaunt his cheeks and wrists are. It gives you a good feel for how skinny the real Doc Holliday was in real life.

I see by your outfit…

Not to be biased, but I love the shades! Shades are not something that are normally included in period films, especially Westerns, but they are historically accurate.  It’s a fairly common thing for a gambler to cover his eyes while playing cards. In the Victorian era, it was also not uncommon to wear shades as an aide for various illnesses that cause light sensitivity, including syphilis.

His costume overall is quite plain. Doc looks more like a country pastor than the colorful dandy that Val Kilmer portrays in Tombstone. While not as colorful, I think again, this subdued look may have been more historically accurate.

What is up with the handkerchief?

So you may have worked out that I love Dennis in this film. I do, I genuinely do, but what the flip is up with that dirty handkerchief in the first scene?  Yes, I know that Doc Holliday would have suffered hemorrhages from time to time. I’m sure too he may even have gobbed in his handkerchief, but I think the staining is a bit excessive! I’ve never seen such a dirty handkerchief in any film before. Doc must have dropped it in a puddle, let it dry and then thrown up all over it, because it is the nastiest film prop ever. Yes, it gets across the point that Doc was sick, but by all accounts Doc was well brought up and also a good dentist at one time. I know that perhaps keeping things clean on the frontier was hard, but good grief, I don’t think any gentleman from the 1880’s would be seen dead with a handkerchief as dirty as that.

Death rides a pale horse

dennis quaid horse doc

I also love that Doc Holliday’s equine companion in the film is a light-gray horse. I like that Doc is compared to Death in this way. I also like that he is shown with the same horse all the way through the film. We first see him driving a Buckboard into Dodge City with Big Nose Kate as a passenger. He also rides the horse on posses with the final ride during Wyatt Earp’s vendetta scenes.  Historically, I think that Doc rented horses from livery yards in town, rather than owned horses. He would have also relied on public transportation like trains and stagecoaches, but, it’s a nice touch for him in the film. It helps to add continuity and depth to the character. Of course it also adds to the mythological idea of the cowboy and horse in the American West. Certainly, it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine Doc Holliday owning a horse at some stage in his life.

Alcoholism and drunkenness

Doc’s drunkenness is portrayed realistically in the film. He’s shown in scenes  drinking large glasses of whiskey. Doc is not portrayed in a rakish, over-the-top drunken manner, more in a quiet depressed alcoholic manner. I’ve heard from several people that didn’t enjoy that. I think that fans don’t like to think of Doc Holliday as an alcoholic. Even if it is historically inaccurate to imagine him as a prude. He spent a great deal of his life post Georgia drinking and gambling in saloons. It would be unrealistic to see him as a squeaky-clean teetotaler that never drank a drop.

Doc’s loyalty to his friends

still from wyatt earp: Dennis Quaid and Kevin Costner
Quaid’s skeletal cheekbones are well highlighted here.

Doc’s loyalty is portrayed in an accurate manner. He follows Wyatt like a lost puppy in this film. One of my favorite scenes is when Doc has a heart to heart with Wyatt after his wife Mattie nearly dies of an drug overdose. Wyatt is drinking away his sorrows after years of being sober and Doc sees him and slides up to the bar to save him. The first thing Doc does is he drinks the shot Wyatt has just poured for himself and then he coughs all over the empty shot glass to deter Wyatt from taking another drink. Quaid portrays a genuine gentleness in this scene. In every other scene with strangers Doc takes a tough line, but here with Wyatt there is genuine concern and humility. There’s an excellent couple of seconds where the bartender comes over with another glass and Doc glowers at him, before turning his attention back to Wyatt.

Another scene that I particularly love is after Morgan dies, Wyatt goes back to the hotel and finds Doc sitting at the top of the stairs, crying in the dark. He says of Morgan, “I loved that boy like he was my own little brother.” Then looking concerned at Wyatt standing close to the window, “Don’t let them get you too.”

Memorable Lines

Sadly Quaid never got the memorable lines that Val Kilmer had in Tombstone. He does however get a few good ones that help to lighten up a frequently overly serious film.

“I’m dying of tuberculosis, I sleep with the nastiest whore in Kansas..”

“All of you can kiss my rebel dick.”

“Wyatt Earp? I’ve heard that name before. Don’t know where, but it wasn’t good.”

“John here has been a good friend to me when many others would not. *Dave Rudabagh* is an ignorant scoundrel! I disapprove of his very existence. I considered ending it myself on several occasions, but… self-control always got the better of me.”

Would Doc ever have hit Kate?

I didn’t really like the fight that he has with Big Nose Kate. I believe that the real Doc Holliday and Big Nose Kate were well known to have domestics from time to time. All in all it’s a good scene, but I hate that there are suggestions that Doc has physically hurt Kate. Perhaps I’m naive, but I find it hard to deal with the idea of Doc physically hitting a woman. I can imagine him making a lot of noise and arguing, but I don’t like the idea of things getting physical. Again, perhaps I’m too in love with Doc from a legendary perspective to even entertain that idea.

To Conclude

I think that Dennis Quaid plays a wonderfully charismatic Doc Holliday. He’s sarcastic, intelligent,  quick witted and deadly. He also brings a depth of sadness and gentleness to the character. He looks like an old man, but you get a sense that that there’s still a young guy underneath who is dealing with a terrible condition.

By Elena Sandidge

Elena Sandidge is a Scottish novelist with a passion for the history of the Old West and the life of the legendary gunfighting dentist, Doc Holliday. "A Gentleman in Hell" chronicles the adventures of Doc Holliday as he travels from Dodge City, Kansas to Tombstone, Arizona and on to his final home in the mountains of Colorado