John Wayne Was Stunned When Ron Howard Asked Him To Rehearse Lines for ‘The Shootist’

by Suzanne Halliburton
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Ron Howard was only in his early 20s when he encountered John Wayne and learned how to work with one of the most intimidating men in Hollywood.

Decades later, Howard still raves about Wayne’s work ethic. The two worked together on The Shootist, a key career moment for both. The Shootist represented an actual adult-ish role for Howard. Fans of classic TV knew Howard as Opie in The Andy Griffith Show or Richie Cunningham in Happy Days. Meanwhile, Duke’s movie career was coming to an end. He was 69 when he took on the role of J.B. Books, the gunslinger dying of cancer. It was Wayne’s final film role.

So how did John Wayne treat Ron Howard as they made this movie? Well, Howard had no qualms asking the iconic actor to run lines with him. These were Howard’s observations during an interview with the Huffington Post in 2014.

“I always admired him as a movie star, but I thought of him as a total naturalist,” Ron Howard said of John Wayne. “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.”

Ron Howard and John Wayne in a scene from the 1976 movie “The Shootist.”

The movie also starred Lauren Bacall, as the owner of the boarding house, and Jimmy Stewart as Books’ doctor. As the movie opened, a doctor told Books that he was dying of cancer. The doctor even said it might be less painful for Book to die in a gunfight. So Books decided to plan his own death. He invited three other gunfighters to meet him at a bar. There, they could kill him.

Howard portrayed Gillom Rogers, Bacall’s son. Gillom came into the bar after the three gunslingers gathered to kill Books. But Wayne’s character was true to himself until the end. He ended up killing his invited guests. However, the bartender popped Books. And as Books died, he watched as Howard shot the bartender, then threw away the gun. The move definitely was Books approved.

In an interview with The Oklahoman, Howard gave even more details about working with Wayne on the set. For one, Wayne wasn’t vain. He did wear a hairpiece. But he didn’t care if people saw him without his hair. That was the case when Howard got his first introduction.

 “I’ll never forget the fact that he never, ever made me feel like a kid,” Howard told the Oklahoman. “He treated me like a pro . . . one pro working with another.”

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