John Wayne Once Portrayed Firefighter Based on Real-Life Hero in Film With Sam Elliott’s Wife Katharine Ross

by Suzanne Halliburton

John Wayne played a ton of roles. He perfected the cowboy swagger and he was the perfect soldier or gun fighter. He played a good cop, too.

There also was a time when John Wayne tried another role. Remember when he played a guy who fought big, uncontrollable fires on oil rigs? The movie was called Hellfighters and it came out in 1968.

The premise was cool and based on real life figures and Texas icons. Wayne portrayed Chance Buckman, a character loosely based on Red Adair, who was a technical advisor for the movie. Adair became infamous in the early 1960s when his company finally put out a fire nicknamed the Devil’s Cigarette Lighter. It was a 450-foot flame in the Sahara desert. And it burned for six months. Adair’s two partners, known as Boots and Coots, also worked as advisors for Hellfighters. (They were Boots Hansen and Coots Matthews.).

Besides John Wayne, the movie also starred Katharine Ross as his daughter Leticia. It was Ross’ first role after her breakthrough performance in The Graduate. She was still almost 20 years away from marrying favorite cowboy, actor Sam Elliott. In Hellfighters, Jim Hutton played Greg, her love interest, and the partner of John Wayne. Hutton, who died in 1979, is the father of actor Timothy Hutton. In Hellfighters, Greg is a womanizer, but once he meets Leticia, he’s smitten. They marry five days after meeting.

Plus, John Wayne, as Chance Buckman, wants to rekindle his romance with ex-wife, Madelyn, who is Leticia’s mother. She’s played by Vera Miles.

From left to right, actors John Wayne, Katharine Ross and Jim Hutton appear on the poster for the Universal Pictures film ‘Hellfighters’, 1968. (Photo by Movie Poster Image Art/Getty Images)

John Wayne Ends Up in Hospital in Hellfighters

As the movie goes along, we see big, strong, daring John Wayne in the hospital. Chance Buckman seems the immortal type. After all, he conquers fires around the world. But because he still loves Madelyn, he decides to take a safer job as an oil executive, while allowing his son-in-law to be the daredevil.

But Greg needs Chance’s help fighting an oil well fire in Venezuela. The Texas National Guard transports John Wayne to Venezuela. They battle both the fire and Venezuelan rebels. But in the end, it’s all love for both couples.

Critics didn’t like this John Wayne movie. But Wayne might not have cared that much. It reportedly was his first $1 million movie payday. Wayne squeezed in Hellfighters between the Green Berets and True Grit. The movie generated $3.75 million at the box office. Translated into 2021 dollars, it’s a pedantic $29 million.

Roger Ebert, the noted film critic for the Chicago Sun Times, panned John Wayne and the movie. Thumbs down, he said. Here was why:

“The fact is, Wayne has made a lot of action pictures, and over the years he has gotten to be about as good at it as anybody,” Ebert wrote of John Wayne. “He must have been miserable during the filming of Hellfighters which is a slow moving, talkative, badly plotted bore.”