Published On: Sat, Dec 16th, 2023
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John Wayne’s final film co-star recalls ‘very real, honest and touching’ Duke | Films | Entertainment

John Wayne’s final movie The Shootist (which is on ITV4 today) hit cinemas in 1976, just three years before he died.

For the past 15 years, Duke had been struggling with severe health problems after having had a cancerous lung and some ribs removed in 1964.

The Western legend would tenaciously work through action sequences, often relying on an oxygen mask he kept secret so as not to taint his macho cinematic image.

By the time he played a cancer-stricken cowboy in his last movie, he was briefly in remission yet he would be hospitalised during production.

The 69-year-old struggled with The Shootist’s high altitude set in Carson City and ended up being hospitalised for two weeks with influenza.

Duke’s co-stars included the likes of Lauren Bacall, James Stewart and a young Ron Howard. Meanwhile, Rick Lenz played Dan Dobkins, a reporter for the Carson Morning Appeal.

Speaking previously with, the 84-year-old remembered: “I enjoyed working with him. My sequences were separated because he got pneumonia and was in the hospital for two weeks after we shot our first scene. But my memory is that during the two sequences I worked on the film, as far as playing John Bernard Books was concerned, he was fully present. Much of the time we weren’t shooting, he stood outside on the set for the Widow’s house. He dominated the yard like an oak tree in a cabbage patch.”

The actor then went on to dispel an old rumour about Duke on set. Lenz shared: “I’ve heard that because of his illness he was short-tempered during the filming of The Shootist. I never saw that. He and the director, Don Siegel, were at odds about how to shoot this Western, but I never saw that either. Wayne seemed to like me. I think that was mostly because I was good casting for the role and I knew my lines. He was a professional and always valued such things.

“I think the thing that surprised me most was what a good actor he was. My memories of him came largely from seeing him in Westerns when I was a kid. When I went to New York to become an actor, he was not exactly what the acting school maestros referred to as a fine actor. It took me a while to learn that that was a pretty limited definition.

“There was something about Wayne’s personality that I think was basically uncomfortable in front of a camera. But I understand that he had always worked on himself to become a better actor. The kind of off-balance thing about him never went away, and the result was, I think, that he was very real and honest. Certainly, as John Bernard Books in The Shootist, he was real and very touching.”

Interestingly one of the first things the conservative Duke did when he met Lenz was to ask him where he stood politically.

Lenz added: “Shortly before we started working, he asked me my politics. I had long hair which may have been kind of a giveaway as to my cultural preferences in those years. I told him I didn’t have any politics. He just smiled and nodded. Whichever way I leaned politically, he wasn’t going to make a point of it.

“Lauren Bacall showed up later in the sequence. I had done the Broadway play of Cactus Flower with her (I later did the film with Ingrid Bergman). Bacall told Wayne she had discovered me. Duke said, ‘Aw, shut up a Betty.’ He probably said that because he wasn’t feeling very well.”

Wayne’s The Shootist co-star has gone on to become an award-winning author of fiction and non-fiction with his latest novel being a Western mystery thriller called A Town Called Why.

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