HOLLYWOOD HAS LONG LOVED THE western. At the height of the genre, in the late '30s, studios shot more than 120 cowboy flicks a year. So it's no surprise that when Wild Bill hits theaters on Dec. 1, Jeff Bridges won't be the first to portray Hickok, the outlaw hunter who, in 1876, was shot dead in a Deadwood, Dakota Territory, saloon. William Hart saddled up in 1923's silent Wild Bill Hickok, with help from Wyatt Earp, who at age 75 was an adviser on the film. Gary Cooper followed in 1936 as the solemn center of Cecil B. DeMille's The Plainsman. Perhaps the best-dressed Bill was William Elliott, who played Hickok in 16 Columbia films from 1940-42 decked out in a white Stetson and a neatly fringed buckskin shirt. But the man best suited for the role was Guy Madison, who roped in up to 3,500 fan letters a week as the star of TV's The Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok from 1951-58. The Bak-ersfield, Calif., native, last seen in the 1988 CBS-TV film Red River, worked as a ranch hand before hitting Hollywood in 1942. Regardless of who's wearing the holster, Hickok's appeal may be that he had what legends—and movie stars—are made of. "He was a big, strapping guy," says Wild Bill producer Richard Zanuck, "with a large personality and the physical ability to back it up."