Contrary to popular belief, John Wayne did not have cancer when he made this film. His entire left lung and several ribs had been removed in surgery on 17 September 1964, and in 1969 he was declared cancer-free. It was not until 12 January 1979, almost three years after this movie had been filmed, that the disease was found to have returned. According to a 2014 biography "John Wayne: the Life and Legend" by Scott Eyman, Wayne had been found to have stomach cancer in 1975 but it had gone into remission before filming began on this movie.
James Stewart only agreed to play a cameo role in the film because John Wayne had specifically requested him. His short time on the film proved to be trying. The bad acoustics of the huge, hollow sound stages worsened his hearing difficulties, and he stayed by himself most of the time. He and Wayne muffed their lines so often in the main scene between them that director Don Siegel accused them of not trying hard enough. Wayne's reply was a variation on an old John Ford line, advising the director, "If you'd like the scene done better, you'd better get a couple of better actors." Later on, the star told friends that Stewart had known his lines, but hadn't been able to hear his cues, and that in turn had caused his own fumbling. Because Stewart's movie career had ended several years before, he was only paid $50,000 for his part.
When J.B. Books (John Wayne) arrives at Dr. E.W. Hostetler's (James Stewart) office, Hostetler mentions that it has been 15 years since they last saw each other. The inside joke is that Wayne and Stewart last worked together on The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), 15 years before.
An interviewer asked Ron Howard if John Wayne had given him any tips on acting. He said that, during the filming of the final shootout, Wayne took him aside and said he had some advice for him. As Howard eagerly awaited some profound advice, Wayne said "Ron, if you want to look menacing - close your mouth."
When viewing footage of the final gunfight in the bar, John Wayne saw that it was edited to show him shooting a guy in the back. He said, "I've made over 250 pictures and have never shot a guy in the back. Change it." They did. However, Wayne had shot men in the back in several of his movies, including The Searchers (1956).
To add a sense of realism to John Wayne's character, archive footage from several of his westerns was used to introduce J.B. Books after the beginning credits. Included was footage from Red River (1948), Hondo (1953), Rio Bravo (1959) and El Dorado (1967).
John Wayne was great to the Carson City locals while he was staying at the Ormsby House Hotel during the filming. He signed autographs for young people readily, including one signed for future famed Nevada Opera lead mezzo soprano Mary Anna Replogle.
John Wayne fell ill with influenza during production and was hospitalized for two weeks, during which time production was shut down. It was uncertain at one point whether the film would actually be completed because Wayne was so ill his doctors were close to forbidding him to finish it.
Although now widely regarded as one of the finest final movies of any star, along with The Misfits (1961) starring Clark Gable and On Golden Pond (1981) starring Henry Fonda, this was never actually intended as John Wayne's last movie, particularly since it was not until January 1979 - three years after filming had begun - that he was diagnosed with stomach cancer. In July 1978, after recovering from open heart surgery, he announced that he was intending to make a movie called "Beau John" with Ron Howard, but for some reason it never happened. Wayne was ill throughout "The Shootist," and his generally poor health made it difficult for him to get insurance for additional film projects.
John Wayne greatly admired director Don Siegel and had said he would like to have played Clint Eastwood's role in Dirty Harry (1971). Wayne was never actually offered the part, however, because of his age, although he later made two cop movies of his own. However, Wayne disliked Siegel's direction and felt the film needed a more visually epic style. The two were at odds during the filming and reportedly Wayne took over direction at times.
There had been some opposition to the casting of John Wayne, since the producers thought that at 68 he was too old to be believable as a gunfighter. It was producer Dino De Laurentiis who insisted on the casting of Wayne. John Bernard Books was only 50 in the novel.
George C. Scott was originally offered the role of Books, and accepted it on the condition that not one word of the script be changed. However, the role was given to John Wayne after he expressed interest. The producers claim they had wanted him all along, but did not believe he would be interested in the film.
Hugh O'Brian's character, Pulford, is the faro dealer. O'Brian was already well known for his portrayal of western lawman Wyatt Earp in the TV series The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp (1955). The real Wyatt Earp was a part-time lawman and earned the majority of his income as a faro dealer.
The title of the film comes from a famous quip by the gunslinger Clay Allison. Allison, a bounty hunter and hired killer whose marksmanship and drunken, homicidal rages made him feared across Texas, would reportedly tell anyone brave enough to ask that he was employed as a "shootist".
In the scene where Bond Rogers (Lauren Bacall) is practicing for a church recital, she is playing "On A Tree by A River (Tit Willow)" from the W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan operetta "The Mikado". J.B. Books (John Wayne), the dying shootist, joins in on the last line of the final verse: "And if you remain callous and obdurate, I / Shall perish as he did, and you will know why, / Though I probably shall not exclaim as I die, 'Oh, willow, titwillow, titwillow'"--a reference to his impending death.
In the opening street scene, utility poles are shown, along with wires on the crossarms. City Marshal Thibido confirms that Carson City has electricity and telephones. The Rogers house has both. But in all subsequent street scenes, there are no utility poles or wires.
Hugh O'Brian wanted to be in the film, so he was given the character of Pulford, who was originally in the novel as a card dealer. In the movie, his gunfight with a patron is depicted as occurring after Books comes to town. In the book, however, the fight took place much earlier.
When J.B. Books first introduces himself to Mrs. Rogers he says his name is William Hickok. Wild Bill Hickok's real name was James Butler (or J.B.) Hickok, and this may have been intentional by the filmmakers. Later he tells her his real name is John Bernard Books. This is also the real name of another famous "Shootist", Dr. John Bernard 'Doc' Holiday. Doc Holliday's middle name was Henry, not Bernard.
Two years prior to the release of this film, Richard Boone, Harry Morgan and Rick Lenz had co-starred in the NBC television series, Hec Ramsey (1972) which was also set in 1901 and depicted the fading of the Old West and the coming of modern law enforcement.
In an interview during filming John Wayne admitted that he had been ill for much of the previous year. He caught viral pneumonia while filming Rooster Cogburn (1975) and was still ill when the film was released.
The trivia items below may give away important plot points.
J.B. Books' horse, Ol Dollar, was actually John Wayne's own horse named Dollar. It is the same horse that makes the famous jump over the fences in Wayne's previous True Grit (1969) (although it was not Wayne riding him at the time).
The original screenplay had Gillom Rogers (Ron Howard) shooting and killing J.B. Books (John Wayne). In the screenplay, the killing disturbed Gillom so much that he throws away the pistol and leaves the bar, repulsed by the act. Wayne had the screenplay changed so that Books is killed by the bartender, who is then killed by Rogers.