Kurt Russell was panic-stricken the night before the Tombstone was to start shooting, Sam Elliott remembers. He paced back and forth in his Arizona hotel room, freaking out over Kevin Costner’s Wyatt Earp movie the Oscar winner was assembling a state away.
Elliott wasn’t that worried about it, he told Entertainment Weekly in 2019. Despite both films being about Wyatt Earp and the O.K. Corral gunfight, Tombstone had a lot that Wyatt Earp didn’t, in Elliott’s assessment.
“I said, ‘What the f— are you worried about, man?’ He said, ‘What do you mean?’ We had this kind of contentious relationship throughout, and I think it was really born in the relationship of the brothers, and we never got past that,” Sam Elliott, who played Virgil Earp, said. “I said, ‘They haven’t got this f—ing script. And they haven’t got this f—ing cast.’ And that was the f—ing truth, you know? ‘Apart from that, sweat all you want.’”
It wasn’t much of a pep talk, but in the end, Elliott was right. Many remember Tombstone as a classic western, whereas most have forgotten Costner’s Wyatt Earp. Elliott, looking back, says it was the cast that won the day for Tombstone.
“But that cast, I believe, was assembled by Kevin (Jarre) … That’s what made that take of the O.K. Corral the best of all of them, I think,” he said. “… F—ing Powers Boothe, you know. Billy Paxton. Kurt and Val (Kilmer). … Michael Biehn. Best f—ing thing he’s ever done. Best thing Val Kilmer’s ever done. Ever. Just mind-boggling. … Amazing cast. It just had all the elements to make a great Western.”
Tombstone made more than $54 million in its 1993 opening weekend to mixed reviews. Costner’s Earp made about half of that when it came out the following year.
Elliott Remembers Struggles Early On
But while Tombstone may be a cult classic today, it was not an easy film to shoot. And it looked early on as if Russell was right to worry.
Kevin Jarre, who wrote the script, would direct the movie as well. But it was clear early on that he wasn’t a director, Sam Elliott said. So six weeks into filming, Russell arranged to boot him from the project and replace him with George P. Cosmatos. Elliott called the move “brilliant and painful at the same time.”
Russell didn’t believe Jarre could finish the film.
“I don’t know if Kevin would have been able to realize the film he had in his mind,” Russell said at the time. “We might still be shooting his movie. I helped him by making sure we got the movie made. And I feel good about it. We busted our ass.”
Russell effectively carried the film over the finish line, Kilmer wrote years later. Along with switching directors mid-filming, he also asked for cast shake-ups and fought the studio constantly for extra time and resources.