The reporter asked Wayne if he wanted to direct Beau John as he had done with previous pet projects including The Alamo and The Green Berets, but the towering star declined
The Shootist unintentionally became tall-in-the-saddle cowboy John Wayne’s final film when issued during America’s Bicentennial summer. Did you know that the Duke actually had another project in the pipeline before he succumbed to stomach cancer three years later?
Entitled Beau John, the unrealized movie would have been a complete departure from the actor’s tried and true cowboy persona. Based on a hard-to-find novel by former Beverly Hillbillies producer-writer Buddy Atkinson, it demonstrated light comedy overtones, centering on Kentucky small town life in the 1920s with the Duke portraying a family patriarch.
Wayne felt strongly about the project, actually purchasing the film rights before the manuscript was in galley proof via his company, Batjac. He had not attempted such a feat since producer Hal Wallis outbid him in 1968 for True Grit, ultimately Wayne’s only Oscar win. Friends even claimed that the movie could score their buddy a third Oscar nomination and propel Wayne to new artistic heights [Sands of Iwo Jima was the first accolade some 20 years earlier].
After The Shootist premiered to strong critical reviews but poor box office — no one wanted to see their hero die onscreen — the actor had no plans to retire. Wayne was regularly spotted in the late ’70s appearing on television specials honoring colleagues and commercials for Datril 500 [Bristol Myers’ aspirin substitute product] and Great Western Savings and Loan Association.
Of course, a large family, three failed marriages, business acumen directed by impulse, and lingering memories of a shady manager who cheated him out of significant money were factors in his decision to stay active, but above all, the national treasure simply loved to work.
Wayne desperately wanted to make another film, but studio executives were fearful of his deteriorating health. In numerous 1978 interviews, including an Oct. 29 conversation with Bob Thomas of Associated Press, the longtime actor talked of commissioning a Beau John script and selecting his dream cast. Still reeling from a myriad of health problems, notably open heart surgery, hepatitis, prostate infection, and pneumonia, the genial cowboy revealed that he was drawn to the project because of its native humor.
He planned to reunite with Ron Howard, then planting the seeds of his soon-to-be acclaimed directorial career and also starring on Happy Days. Howard had been Wayne’s immature protégé in The Shootist, and the pair had developed a strong bond during that western’s production. Wayne also wanted to recruit Hal Linden, a fine actor best known for playing the titular television role of Barney Miller for eight seasons on ABC.
The reporter asked Wayne if he wanted to direct Beau John as he had done with previous pet projects including The Alamo and The Green Berets, but the towering star declined, stating that there wasn’t enough time.
Contrary to what many fans believe, Wayne did not have cancer while making The Shootist. It was still in remission after his successful 1964 operation which removed his entire left lung and four ribs. It is true that he considerably toned down the original Shootist screenplay, which depicted some graphic scenes where his character, John Bernard Books, is given the awful news of incurable bladder cancer by “Doc Hostetler,” portrayed by real life pal Jimmy Stewart.
Nevertheless, the actor was sadly living on borrowed time in real life, as he was diagnosed with stomach cancer in January 1979. Undergoing surgery that would have killed most folks, the Duke’s stomach and associated lymph nodes were completely removed, yet the cancer had inexplicably metastasized. Chemotherapy only inflicted more harm on the superstar’s weakened state.
Wayne passed away approximately six scant months later on June 11 at age 72. Four years later, final companion and secretary Pat Stacy confirmed Beau John’s importance to the actor’s psyche in her touching 1983 memoir, Duke: A Love Story.
Indeed, Stacy recalled that the Duke firmly believed, “As long as a man has a project — something to look forward to — there’ll always be something important to him. He’ll never really get old. If I had nothing to look forward to, I might as well be dead.”
Further details regarding Beau John remain a mystery. It seems likely that notes for the unrealized project are languishing inside a vault owned by the Wayne family. Perhaps a major Hollywood director or actor will come to the rescue and decide to create a film treatment of the one project that gave Wayne hope in his twilight years.