John Wayne’s Last Film: Behind the Scenes of ‘The Shootist’

by Suzanne Halliburton

John Wayne was a stickler for details. And in his final movie, “The Shootist,” he worried about how he would look as he died.

In this behind the scenes footage from the 1976 movie, Wayne wants to look dignified as he passes away. He plays an aging gunfighter named J.B. Books. At the beginning of the film, a doctors tells Books he’s got terminal cancer. The doctor suggests he may prefer being killed than dying of the disease.

So Books plans his death and invites three contenders to finish him off. It’s all in the script. But what wasn’t in the script is how the cameras would film Wayne as he’s dying.

Wayne emphatically tells the director. “Make god damned sure you’re not shooting up my nose.”

How Many Times Did John Wayne Die In His Movies?

John Wayne always played the bigger-than-life characters. He seemed immune to death. But in a handful of his 80 movies, Wayne died. Fans maintained lists. There were also two movies in the 70s. Wayne dies in both The Shootist and The Cowboys. In fact, Wayne died fairly early in The Cowboys. The young cowboys then spend the rest of the movie avenging his death.

In The Alamo, Wayne played Davy Crockett, who didn’t survive Mexican Gen. Santa Anna’s troops. A sniper kills Wayne in “Sands Of Iwo Jima.” He’s killed as his ship plunged off a ledge in Wake of the Red Witch. Wayne also died in The Fighting Seabees. And he dies in Reap the Wild Wind.

John Wayne’s character is already dead in the opening scenes of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. But he’s seen alive in flashbacks.

Wayne Thought Violence Was Poorly Done

When he was interviewed for The Shootist, John Wayne bemoaned the goriness of violence in movies. He preferred it to be more artfully done.

“It’s not that there’s more violence,” Wayne said. “It’s done with such bad taste that it turns people’s stomachs … it turns their emotional insides out.”

Wayne then showed off the coat he would be wearing for the final scene in The Shootist. The bullet holes already were there. And the jacket was splattered with fake blood.

In the movie, Wayne invited three men to a bar, knowing that one of them would kill him. But he ends up killing the three men. The bartender then shoots Wayne. Ron Howard, who plays a young friend of Wayne’s, kills the bartender and tosses the gun away. Wayne approves and dies. It’s his birthday. It’s kind of a happy ending for an aging gun fighter who was dying, anyway.

John Wayne thought it was going to be a good movie.

“If it’s a good personal story, and you feel everything fits together,” Wayne said, “that’s when you’re relaxed.”

“I think this is going to be a good film.”

Wayne also told the interviewer that when he picked his movies: “I dont want to play anything petty or small or mean. I don’t mind being rough, tough or cruel, but in a big way, not in a petty thing.”

The Shootist Was Critical Success

John Wayne’s final movie, which also starred Lauren Bacall and Jimmy Stewart, was viewed as a critical success. The National Board of Review named its as one of the top films of the year. However, it wasn’t in the same category as Rocky, All The President’s Men or Network.

Wayne died June 11, 1979 of complications from stomach cancer. He’d been diagnosed in January. Two months before his death, he made his final public appearance. That’s when John Wayne presented the Academy Award for best film.

Here’s a look at some behind the scenes footage of “The Shootist.”