John Wayne was one of the best western stars of all time. From The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance to True Grit, he's as memorable an onscreen gunslinger as Clint Eastwood. Ron Howard is one of the most celebrated directors of his generation but even back when he was still an actor, it didn't seem like the two would ever cross paths. But Howard actually starred opposite the celebrated actor in his final film role in The Shootist, directed by Don Siegel. It was also one of Howard's last roles as an actor before moving over to pursuing directing full time.
The story follows aging gunfighter J.B. Books (Wayne), who shows up in Carson City, Nevada with terminal cancer. He goes to a boarding house run by the widow Bond Rogers (Lauren Bacall) and her teenage son Gillom (Howard). The film has everything you need to make a western great -- high stakes, heart, and a dramatic gunfight at the end of the film between Books, Mike Sweeney (Richard Boone), Jack Pulford (Hugh O'Brian), and Jay Cobb (Bill McKinney). As if there weren't enough historic actors in the film, James Stewart co-stars as Doc. Howard even earned a Golden Globe nomination for Best Supporting Actor.
Though Howard was a well-known young man at the time in Hollywood from his days starring on The Andy Griffith Show and Happy Days, it was definitely different for him acting with some of the greatest artists of all time. He initially formed a connection with Wayne by asking him if he wanted to run lines together on set. Apparently, no one really asked the actor to do that. Imagine that!
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"I always admired him as a movie star, but I thought of him as a total naturalist," Howard explained to Huffpost. "Even those pauses were probably him forgetting his line and then remembering it again, because, man, he's The Duke. But he's working on this scene and he's like, 'Let me try this again.' And he put the little hitch in and he'd find the Wayne rhythm, and you'd realize that it changed the performance each and every time. I've worked with Bette Davis, John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, Henry Fonda. Here's the thing they all have in common: They all, even in their 70s, worked a little harder than everyone else."
Despite the fact that the film was based on a book, Wayne was at the point in his career where he was able to make massive changes to the script, including changing the location from El Paso to Nevada. But he even went so far as to make a massive change to the ending. The Oscar winner refused to let his character John Bernard Books shoot an adversary in the back as it was written in the initial story from Glendon Swarthout's novel. Instead, he made the change that he was shot in the back and his adversary was shot by Gillom. He also insisted that the horse, Dollor, whom he had exclusive movie rights to and had ridden in Big Jake, The Cowboys, True Grit, Rooster Cogburn, Chisum and The Train Robbers, be featured in the film. The final result is an incredible western that was a perfect closing chapter to The Duke's legendary career.