Ron Howard was in the midst of Happy Days when he took a role in a John Wayne movie.
The movie was The Shootist. And yes, it ended up being the final movie for John Wayne, who died three years later. There were other historic details as well. It also proved to be one of the few movies that saw Duke die. We’ll get to that later in the story.
Howard was only 22 when the movie was released. And he admitted he was anxious at the thought of working with John Wayne. Who wouldn’t be? Wayne was larger than life, America’s hero. And he didn’t tolerate fools, especially after a half-century in the business.
Howard told the Oklahoman: “I went into The Shootist expecting not to have a great time. Wayne was notorious for not getting along with young actors.”
When he and his agent met with Duke for the first time, Howard saw a copy of a TV Guide in the room. The cover, touting Happy Days, featured Howard and Henry Winkler. Wayne was playing chess and didn’t even look up as he called the young star a “big shot.” Plus, John Wayne wasn’t wearing his hairpiece. He really didn’t care if anyone saw him looking less than his movie characters.
But Howard said after that meeting, Wayne always treated him well. “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.”
Now, About That Lesson Howard Learned From John Wayne
Howard said he learned a valuable lesson from working with John Wayne. We all can. It was all about work ethic.
“John Wayne used a phrase, which he later attributed to John Ford, for scenes that were going to be difficult,” Howard told Men’s Journal. “’This is a job of work,’ he’d say.
“If there was a common thread with these folks – Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, Glenn Ford – it was the work ethic,” Howard said. “It was still driving them. To cheat the project was an insult. To cheat the audience was damnable.”
The Shootist also provided an example of how John Wayne was involved in big and small details of every movie. The film told the story of J.B. Books, a dying gunfighter. As the movie opens, a doctor tells Books that he’s dying of cancer. And, the doctor says dying in a gunfight might be preferable to the drawn-out suffering in a battle with cancer. So Books planned his own death, even inviting three other gunfighters to finish him off.
Wayne’s final movie also starred Lauren Bacall and Jimmy Stewart. The National Board of Review named its as one of the top films of the year.
Howard played a young friend of Wayne’s. Howard’s character was with Wayne in the bar when the three other men gathered to kill Book. Wayne’s character ended up killing the three men. But the bartender shot Books. As Books died, Howard shot the bartender, then threw away the gun. Books approved.