John Wayne’s legacy lives on in Carson City
October 19, 2005
CARSON CITY – Thirty years ago, loads of dirt were dumped on the street in front of the Governor’s Mansion and other homes on Carson City’s west side.
Soon, an old-fashioned trolley car started hauling passengers along the new dirt street. The scene could have been out of the Old West, circa 1901.
Word spread quickly that a Hollywood star, perhaps its biggest star, John Wayne, was making his latest Western right here in Carson City.Photo:5218801,left
Swarms of people flocked to Mountain Street in January 1976 to gawk at Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, Lauren Bacall, Ron Howard and other actors as they filmed “The Shootist.”
Wayne caused a near riot when he walked into the post office, but calmed the crowd when he handed out pre-signed autograph cards for everyone waiting in line.
Crowds every evening packed the Ormsby House, where members of the cast stayed. Twenty-one-year-old Howard, then starring on TV’s “Happy Days,” was a regular at the craps table.
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“Wayne wasn’t here much more than a week, but it was just great,” said Steve Frady, a Reno fire and police spokesman who then worked as a reporter for the Nevada Appeal in Carson City. “We all grew up on John Wayne movies.”
The movie’s screenwriter, Miles Swarthout, said Wayne made a memorable appearance at the Ormsby House craps table about midnight one night.
“There weren’t many people around initially. But within 15 minutes, such a pushing and shoving crowd had formed around the craps table trying to get near him that security forces had to rescue him to get him safely back up to his hotel room,” said Swarthout, whose screenplay is based on the novel of the same name written by his father, Glendon, who died in 1992.
Rob McFadden, owner of the Mountain Street home where most of the Carson City scenes were filmed, said film buffs always have stopped to snap photos.
“I have lived here from the ninth grade on,” he said. “I am a huge John Wayne fan. Cars still will stop, take a look and drive off.”
Nonetheless, one cannot find a copy of the book in the Carson City Library. The local Hollywood Video and Blockbuster stores do not stock DVDs of the movie.
But the Western Writers of America in 2001 named the book one of the 10 best Western novels of the 20th century and the movie as one of the 10 best Western films.
Robin Holabird, the deputy director of the Nevada Film Office, considers “The Shootist” the best Western ever made in Nevada, but she acknowledges fans of more eclectic movies might prefer Johnny Depp’s “Dead Man,” filmed in Virginia City in 1995.
“I gave it a good review,” said Holabird, at the time a Sparks Tribune reporter. “There was real excitement having John Wayne here. It works well as his final film, and that contributes to its classic status.”
If art ever imitated life, then that occurred with Wayne and “The Shootist.”
The movie tells the story of aging gunslinger John Bernard Books, who came to Carson City to see a physician he trusts, Dr. E.W. Hostetler, played by Stewart.
Stewart’s character tells Wayne’s he has “a cancer” and will live no more than two months. He advises Wayne that the death might be painful and that he might want to find an alternative way of dying.
“The Shootist” would be Wayne’s last movie. He died three years later of cancer.
In January 1976, Wayne was 68 and a shell of his former self. Twelve years earlier, he had a cancerous lung removed. A full-time nurse accompanied him to Carson City. He frequently needed oxygen to handle Carson City’s 4,500-foot elevation. He would complete scenes and then immediately retire to his trailer.
“His health was shaky,” Swarthout said from his home in Playa del Rey, Calif. “But it was a perfect role for him. It was the greatest valedictory film any actor could have.”
Wayne had lobbied for the role, earlier offered to George C. Scott.
Once he became Books, Wayne was in charge. He argued with director Don Siegel and insisted on changing the ending.
Swarthout’s screenplay had Books shooting a young gunfighter in the back.
Wayne said in his 220 some movies, he had never shot anyone in the back and was not about to begin.
In the book, Books is wounded in a gunfight before Howard’s character fatally shoots him in what might be described as a mercy killing.
But Wayne complained he wasn’t going to be killed by “Opie,” the character Howard played as a kid on “The Andy Griffith Show.” So Books died after being shot by a bartender.
“He (Wayne) was tough to deal with on the set and elsewhere,” Swarthout said. “By the end of the filming he wasn’t getting along with the cast and crew.”
Wayne gave no hint “The Shootist” was his swan song. He told Associated Press writer Brendan Riley at the time: “Unless I stop breathing, or people stop going to my movies, I’ll be making more of them.”
For “The Shootist,” Wayne earned $750,000, Swarthout said. Some in the cast that included Richard Boone and Hugh O’Brian agreed to work for less than their normal pay for a chance to appear with Wayne.
Swarthout said his father came up with the idea for “The Shootist” in 1973 after reading a newspaper article about how cowboys had a propensity to develop prostate cancer.
“He was shaving before he and my mother went to go to a party when the idea came to him,” Swarthout said. “He told her they were going to be a little late. He wrote out the basic plot of “The Shootist” in 45 minutes.”
The book was loosely based on the life of John Wesley Hardin, the Texas gunfighter who killed more than 30 people and spent 16 years in prison.
After his release, every young man quick on the draw wanted to challenge Hardin. He was killed in the Acme Saloon in El Paso in 1895 while throwing dice.
In his introduction to the novel, Glendon Swarthout explained that he could not find the term “gunfighter” when looking at newspapers in the late 1800s. Instead, a man notorious for his skill with handguns and his willingness to use them was called, variously, a ‘gun man,’ a ‘man-killer,’ an ‘assassin’ or a ‘shootist.’ “
As in his father’s novel, Swarthout’s screenplay based “The Shootist” in El Paso. But a location scout could not find scenes in El Paso that looked like 1901.
“Then they found a row of old houses in Carson City that were just perfect,” Swarthout said. “They didn’t have to do much with them. It saved them a lot of money, so they changed the location.”
Besides the Mountain Street location, scenes were shot on a ranch in Douglas County, near David Walley’s hot springs resort in Genoa, and at Washoe Lake.
The movie cost $8 million to make and earned just $6 million in U.S. box office receipts.
Critic Gene Siskel panned “The Shootist” in his review in the fall of 1976. His longtime TV partner, Roger Ebert, gave it 3 1/2 stars but questioned the believability of the characters. The movie won an Oscar nomination for Best Art Direction/Set Decoration.
State Archivist Guy Rocha said the movie might have done poorly domestically because the conservative Wayne, a backer of the Vietnam War, was detested by many younger people.
“If you were conservative, you liked John Wayne,” Rocha said. “If you were liberal, John Wayne represented what you didn’t like.”
Riley agrees. He recalled writing about Wayne four years earlier after the actor ripped apart a Viet Cong flag at an anti-war demonstration in Sacramento.
Rocha said Westerns were on the decline in the 1970s. Audiences no longer wanted the traditional hero with a white hat but gravitated toward anti-heroes like Clint Eastwood portrayed.
Swarthout said the movie eventually made money. Producer Dino De Laurentis owned foreign rights, and the movie did a good box office in Europe. It also earned good ratings when TV rights were sold to CBS, he said.
Swarthout does not criticize Wayne for changing the ending of “The Shootist.” He is writing a sequel and hopes the book will be in bookstores in 2007.