John Wayne’s Health Made The Shootist An Expensive Role For Him To Take
With Hollywood being so competitive, it’s hard to survive without passion. Such was certainly the case for John Wayne, who would push through injuries (including broken ribs) when working on his films. As his career would reach its twilight years, this would ring all the more true: By the time his final film, “The Shootist” (1976), entered production, Wayne was attempting to hide his failing health from crew members. According to “John Wayne: The Life and Legend,” the then 68-year-old was afraid that the news would affect his employability.
Unfortunately, while Wayne’s deception did allow him to secure the part, it came at a significant cost. Once the insurance companies realized that the actor’s health was not in the best of shape, they understandably started backing away from insuring the project. After all, in the event that Wayne’s health failed, the financial losses would’ve been significant. But Wayne, ever-determined to work on “The Shootist,” took matters into his own hands. As producer William Self would later recall, the actor ended up contributing around $250,000 out of pocket towards the insurance (or, around $1,350,000 in today’s dollars).
Making the final film count
It’s hard to know whether John Wayne was adamant that he remain in “The Shootist” because he was passionate about the movie itself, or if he was simply terrified by the career implications of bowing out of a movie due to health challenges. If his main concern was the latter, the $250,000 investment didn’t exactly pay off: “The Shootist” would become Wayne’s last film, so it would’ve been alright if future employability took a backseat to comfort. On the other hand, if he simply wanted to have a good time while making a film, the money was well spent.
Even though “The Shootist” was plagued with shooting challenges — some related to Wayne’s health, others to his filmmaking opinions (Wayne had the final approval over the movie’s script, but he wasn’t afraid to share his thoughts during other parts of the filmmaking process, either) — the filming experience was still relatively pleasant. Although Wayne was determined to keep working after the movie’s completion, many top stars (including James Stewart and Lauren Bacall, among others) realized that the film might’ve been his last, so they joined the project in order to make some final memories. Despite his health challenges, Wayne remained chipper, too: at one point on set, he even told a visitor that “If you wake up — it doesn’t matter if the sun is shining or anything — you feel good.”
Beau John: the project that could’ve been
Although Stewart and Bacall were right that “The Shootist” would be Wayne’s final film, the Western star was determined to keep working long after the 1976 film was released. His last project? An adaptation of Buddy Atkinson’s unreleased novel “Beau John,” which Wayne described as “kind of a half-Western thing” with strong family elements. However, the actor was also aware that his failing health could pose challenges; less than a year before his death, he told Peter Bogdanovich “I hope to h*ll I live to do it.”
In the end, things didn’t quite pan out. According to Wayne’s biography, “Beau John” wouldn’t even move into formal planning stages. No one took over the project following Wayne’s passing, either — likely because it was in such an early phase of planning, but it probably didn’t help that the novel doesn’t seem to have any significant critical reception. However, things might’ve worked out for the best: while it’s truly unfortunate that Wayne never got to complete his last project, the fact that “The Shootist” was his final film makes the story behind it — Wayne’s sacrifice, the other stars’ eagerness to support him — all the more sweet.