Even after filming The Shootist, Wayne had plans to return to the genre
He’s an icon of the genre, but how many Westerns did John Wayne actually appear in? John Wayne made his screen debut with an uncredited appearance in 1926 silent movie Brown Of Harvard, but it wasn’t until the success of 1939’s Stagecoach that he truly broke through. He would go on to become one of the biggest movie stars of his era, working with any number of legendary actors and filmmakers, including John Ford, Howard Hawks and John Huston – who Wayne had an actual fistfight with. Wayne also appeared in a variety of genres, from war movies to dramas like The Quiet Man.
However, his screen persona is forever identified with the Western. In the early years of cinema, Westerns were one of the most consistently popular genres with moviegoers. Wayne – who was nicknamed “The Duke” – became one of cinema’s most iconic cowboys, thanks to movies like The Searchers, Rio Bravo and his Oscar-winning turn as Rooster Cogburn in True Grit. Even when Clint Eastwood helped usher in a darker, more cynic era of Western in the ’60s and ’70s with his Dollars trilogy or High Plains Drifter, Wayne still stuck with his more traditional take on the genre. His final movie The Shootist, released in 1976, was also a Western.
That was something about Wayne’s – who passed on Dirty Harry – screen persona that just looked best in a Western setting. Audience interest in the genre itself waned towards the end of Wayne’s career, leading the star to attempt branching out to more contemporary roles like cop thriller McQ, though these efforts met with mixed fortunes. Wayne’s first outing in a Western – and first leading role – came with 1930’s The Big Trail, and in the years that follows, the actor appeared in 80 Westerns, ending with The Shootist.
What’s impressive about that tally is the fact it’s not even half of his overall credits. Wayne racked up over 180 acting roles throughout his career, with the majority being leading parts. Wayne himself only stepped behind the camera twice. The first was for the 1960 epic The Alamo, where he was forced by investors to play a lead character to help its box-office chances. Wayne – who nearly worked with Elvis – also helmed the 1968 war movie The Green Berets, which was poorly received upon release.
Even after filming The Shootist, Wayne had plans to return to the genre. John Carpenter (Halloween) was hired to pen Blood River, where a young drifter is befriended by a U.S. Marshal. Wayne wanted to play the latter and pictured his Shootist co-star Ron Howard as the young lead, but ill health saw it to that the movie didn’t happen. It was eventually turned into a 1991 TV movie instead, with Wilford Brimley playing the role intended for John Wayne.