Reading the script for his role of Doc Holliday in Tombstone (1993), Val Kilmer saw one scene that made him nervous. It wasn’t any of the parts about riding a horse, as he had ridden plenty of horses, and he’d already convincingly handled guns onscreen in Billy the Kid (1989). No, this was a scene where he had to twirl a tin cup to stand down a bad guy who had just menaced him with a gun. And make it funny.
“It was written in the script,” says Kilmer about one of the most famous scenes from any Western in the last few decades. “I was very concerned that the whole movie would be in trouble if I didn’t beat that guy in that moment. And so I said to Kevin [Jarre, the writer and initial director], ‘You know, what if this isn’t funny—who knows what it will look like, a little tin cup kind of swirling around in these fancy gun moves. What if it’s not funny?’ And he looked at me and said, ‘Yeah, I guess that’s a problem.’”
Kilmer, known for the preparation he puts into his roles, got to work.
“So what I did was, for a couple of months, work the gun routine of Michael Biehn’s character [Johnny Ringo] with both hands,” he explains. “I basically taught myself to do all that stuff with the .45 with the right hand, and also with the left hand—I was doing it with the .38…And it’s really tough to do that stuff. Guns are heavy. And it’s also weird when you mess up—it’s like hitting yourself with a hammer.”
He walked around the Tombstone set with two guns, twirling them every chance he got, determined to make the scene believable—and funny.
“I’m pretty sure that’s the only take we did,” Kilmer recalls. “And you always know when you’re doing something right, because the crew laughs. They’re usually just waiting for lunch, while the camera’s rolling. But you know it’s funny when you get applause from the extras and the crew and the camera guys and the other actors.”
Decades after its original release, Tombstone still earns applause. It’s developed a cult following and has entered the pantheon as one of the most beloved Westerns of all time. The film dramatizes the stark contrast of good and evil and the overriding need of the Earps and Doc Holliday to do the right thing in spite of (or because of) personal cost or family sacrifice. These steadfast messages continue to speak to audiences. Amazingly, the film almost didn’t get made as a result of cast and crew turnover and lack of a unified vision. Tombstone was ultimately completed due to the efforts of many people associated with the production and principally the dedication of Kurt Russell, who basically served as “ghost” director.
Tombstone is based on actual events, of course, and an exacting authenticity makes it come to life even more. The famed gunfight at the O.K. Corral, which occurred on October 26, 1881, and Wyatt’s resulting “vendetta ride” are faithfully reenacted with flair. The screenplay is intelligent and beautifully written and acted by a talented cast with great chemistry. Kurt Russell (Wyatt Earp), Val Kilmer, Sam Elliott (Virgil Earp), Bill Paxton (Morgan Earp), Powers Boothe (Curly Bill Brocius), Michael Biehn (Johnny Ringo), and Charlton Heston (Henry Hooker) are all spot-on. And there’s something satisfying about the sharp division between good guys and bad guys—Curly Bill Brocius and Johnny Ringo are passionately, almost gleefully, evil and the Earps stiff-lipped and upstanding, with the rapscallion Doc Holliday there to add color and firepower. The cast and crew injected scenes with a sense of camaraderie that belies the struggle of the production.
You can’t tell by watching it, but this taut, wry film was fraught with problems from the start, including a fired director, a cinematographer who quit multiple times, 110-degree days in the Arizona shade, and Kurt Russell having to pinch-hit as director while trying to focus on his own portrayal of Wyatt Earp. And nerves were frayed by looming competition—Kevin Costner announced plans for his own big-budget rendition of Wyatt Earp (released in 1994, the year after Tombstone)—which distracted their efforts.
“Kurt was concerned about what they were doing in New Mexico on the other Wyatt Earp movie—Kevin Costner’s movie,” says Sam Elliott. “It was shooting at the same time. And it was a great film on some level, but it couldn’t touch Tombstone… They didn’t have the cast, and they didn’t have the script that we had.”
According to Elliott, screenplay writer and original director Kevin Jarre (1954–2011) handpicked the cast.
“I remember going and having lunch with him at a place on the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles, which I don’t think is even there anymore,” Elliott recalls. “And Kevin said he was having all of his meetings there, like he was holding court… I think Kevin’s the one who really controlled this thing creatively before it got off the ground.”
Elliott, who by his own description is “very careful” with the roles he chooses, wanted in from the moment he read the script.
“The dialogue was there,” he says. “Kevin Jarre wrote a brilliant script. I think across the board, every character there was well drawn. And he brought actors you normally wouldn’t associate with Westerns, like Val Kilmer. I think it’s the best thing that Val’s ever done.”
For Kilmer, reading the script was also a delight, particularly when he came across a peculiar phrase to be uttered by Doc Holliday: “I’m your huckleberry.” He asked Jarre where he had come up with that line: “And he didn’t have a specific answer. But I loved it. It just seemed to be the odd, perfect statement for the scene—‘You’ve met your match.’”
Kilmer laughs in pure delight: “I don’t know why it makes people so happy.”
Tombstonewas financed for $25 million by Cinergi Pictures Entertainment, Inc., and shooting began in May 1993. Within days, however, it became obvious to cast and crew that the brilliant Kevin Jarre was not going to cut it as director.
“The biggest challenge for everybody in this picture and particularly Kurt [Russell] was that they got rid of Kevin Jarre,” says Elliott, his deep voice rumbling even lower in empathy. “Kevin Jarre didn’t direct that movie past a month. The sad part of it was this guy was a brilliant writer, and he knew the elements. He brought all those elements together. He wrote the script and he brought all those actors together… I was out there standing around, a week before I started working, I was on the set watching, and I just thought, ‘Wow, something’s up here.’”
Jarre was working with well-respected cinematographer William Fraker but would not cede an ounce of creative control, nor would he slim the screenplay or stay on schedule (or budget). Within a few weeks of production, it became evident that Jarre was in over his head and he was pulled.
“It was heartbreaking. All of us actors had a real feeling for Kevin,” says Elliot, about the cast and crew resolving to finish the film. “Kurt [Russell] was the one who said, ‘We gotta pull this thing off, do this for him.’”
As Kilmer recalls, Jarre’s firing added roadblocks to a movie that was already behind schedule. “We had to do a lot of work—lobbying for ways of looking at the screenplay to allow for stuff that was missed,” he says. “We had challenge after challenge.”
Meanwhile, the actors redoubled their efforts to bring authenticity to their historic characters. “Doc’s walk—Doc was from an aristocratic family, so his carriage, every single movement, must be done correctly,” Kilmer recalls. “There’s a proper way to do everything.”
Elliott says that, to prepare for his role of Virgil Earp, he concentrated on having the right mindset: “The fact it’s a true story makes it all kind of mythic on some level. Most Westerns are based on a historical occurrence, and they’re still mythic today, and they become bigger than life… It’s really about getting your clothes right and deciding what to do with your hair.” Elliott’s Virgil sports a fastidious trim and an imposing, thick mustache that curves downward, as if in constant disapproval of the lawlessness.
We’ll never know exactly why Jarre, who passed away in 2011, chose Elliott for the role of Virgil Earp, but the character exudes moral authority and, well, so does Elliott.
“It’s a funny thing, I’ve been in this business for about 50 years, I think,” Elliott says. “And I’ve been very fortunate and done a lot of Westerns over the years, because I’ve always, since I was a kid, had a lot of affinity for Westerns. My parents grew up in Texas—I would have been a third-generation Texan had we stayed there. Because of that I spent a lot of time on ranches. My dad worked for the Fish & Wildlife Service, and was a trapper, and I spent a lot of time around people of that ilk and it just always spoke to me… I can’t really tell you why Kevin [Jarre] thought that I was right for Virgil. I think it’s that I’ve been very careful about what I’ve done in my career. I’ve turned a lot of stuff down—I turn more stuff down than I do. I feel that I have a pretty strong moral compass myself, and I’ve looked for that in my work.”
Elliott grew up around horses, so the riding part was easy.
“The first time I got on a horse was in El Paso, Texas, in a stockyard run by a close friend of my dad’s,” he recalls. “It was a sh** little Shetland pony, and he ran off with me and scared the hell out of me, but I got a thrill out of it… Dad got transferred to Portland, Oregon, and I joined a mounted troop, like a Boy Scouts Explorer group. And that’s when I really started riding… And then I went to California and did my first Western, a movie called Cactus. And in it I rode a horse called Pie that John Wayne had ridden in a lot of his films. That was a great big horse. I don’t know how many hands he was, but it was a really big horse.”
And what about all the famous gun handling in Tombstone?
“We had a guy named Thell Reed who was a, I don’t know how many time, world-champion quick draw,” says Elliott. “That’s why Michael Biehn and Val could handle those pistols the way they did throughout the film.”
Greek/Italian director George Cosmatos (1941–2005)—who had studied film at the London Film School, grew up in Egypt and Cypress, and spoke six languages—was brought in to finish the film. He immediately rankled the cast.
“He was a whole other animal,” Elliott says slowly, clearly trying to be gracious. “I guess he was Italian. Treated everybody not too good. We had our moment right at the beginning… I always go to the set and stand around when I’m not working just to watch—I’d rather do that than sit around a hotel—and I remember George coming up to me with his dark glasses, looking up at me from the top of his glasses, sticking his nose right in my face. And he said, ‘Am I gonna have trouble with you?’”
Elliott laughs at the memory.
“And I just looked him right back in the eye and said, ‘I don’t know, am I gonna have trouble with you?’ And he just laughed and said, ‘Ah, we’re gonna get along fine.’ So we got along good.”
A talented and veteran director, George Cosmatos had a strong artistic vision for the film but was tough on the cast and crew.
“You know the scene where we’re walking down to the O.K. Corral, and there’s a building on fire? That was George,” says Elliott. “We were all looking at it thinking, ‘Who in the hell lit the fire?’ At the time it didn’t make any sense. And then you see it on film, and it’s evident that the Cowboys [the outlaw gang] lit the fire, as kind of a diversion or whatever it was. Cinematically it was a brilliant decision.”
For his part, Elliott says, his toughest scene was one where Virgil has just been shot in his arm, which is mangled: “I don’t know, I just felt like I went a little too far overboard with it. I think that’s what makes it tough at the end—when you’re not happy with what you did.”
That scene, he observes, is really about the power struggle and friction between two brothers, an element that repeated itself in real life.
“Kurt and I had never worked together, and I’d been a huge fan of Kurt’s since I was a kid,” Elliott says. “And then we got on the set together, and we’re both pretty strong guys. And we had that rub kinda goin’ between us, I think, during production, and it’s evident on screen… It made it tough at times, but it worked on film.”
His overall favorite scene of the film, Elliott says, is the quick draw between Johnny Ringo and Doc Holliday at the end.
“That thing was just incredible,” he says with great enthusiasm. “They’re both so good, and you just know this moment is coming all the way through the film. You’re salivating by the time it does come.”
Both Elliott and Kilmer say the film would have stalled out if it were not for Russell.
“I don’t think we would have had a success if not for the constant effort of Kurt,” says Kilmer, who recalls that he “felt close to Kurt right away” upon meeting him and that the two collaborated well.
“One of the areas I’m proud of is the last scene with Doc,” Kilmer says. “We had to restructure the ending, because we’d run out of time and money, and I had this beautiful [five-page] monologue that Kevin Jarre had written. But [Doc is] dying of tuberculosis—I can’t talk for five pages! And every time I rehearsed it, I just would start laughing… I mean, they were beautiful words, just not realistic. So I came up with a visual sequence instead, the card game. You know, Doc used to play cards a lot, and it’s one thing he could enjoy that would take his mind off the pain. And it allowed Doc to move along the story points—to urge Wyatt to live life and go find that girl… They were all ideas that Kevin Jarre had written but at that point we were on our own. And I knew the character well. I never talked to Kevin about it, but I hope he liked what I wrote.”
Stellar dialogue and great delivery has earned Tombstone much-deserved respect, but the love and friendship Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday have for each other is what really grabs the audience.
“Their bond and strange empathy with each other is really attractive,” Kilmer says. “It’s very clear, yet it’s also mysterious. [There’s] this lawman [Wyatt Earp], who finally gets a chance to make some money and relax and have fun like every other American, then he gets pulled back into doing the right thing. I mean, who doesn’t want to just run away and live on an island somewhere? But it’s a very American tradition—you gotta do the right thing…And his best friend [Doc Holliday] is kinda crazy. He’s killed a lot of people. It’s quite possible he’s a psychopath. But he’s so funny.”
But friendship matters. So does doing the right thing for that reason alone. And that resonates.
“[Doc] doesn’t understand why Wyatt and his brothers want to get involved where they’re not respected or even wanted—you know, no one wants them to be doing what they’re doing in Tombstone,” says Kilmer. “But they do, because it’s the right thing. And obviously in a movie, that’s not one of the requirements. Entertainment is a requirement. So I think that’s one of the reasons it’s endured. The writer really was inspiring.”
And according to Kilmer, that inspiration is what makes Westerns great: “Westerns are clear. They are black and white. When you put a gun on the side of a man’s body, and he goes and confronts someone for doing wrong, he’s putting his life on the line. There’s a kind of clarity and purity to these characters… It’s a great genre that always requires purity and singularity of purpose. These survival principles are clean.”
Elliott says he regards Tombstone as one of the last great Westerns.
“The Coen brothers made the last great Western [True Grit, 2011], as far as I’m concerned, with Jeff Bridges, but prior to that, Tombstone was it,” he said. “The performances in this thing hold up”—even in today’s age of the re-run.
The film seems to capture the culture of “true cowboys,” and that likely appeals to the audience as much as it appeals to Elliott.
“I don’t consider myself a cowboy, but I consider myself a cowboy at heart,” he says. “And I think it’s in the way one conducts themself, what kind of a person you are. I’m used to hard work—I’ve worked hard all my life. I think that’s a big portion of it. I think it’s how you treat people, how you treat women, what kind of integrity you want to have, what kind of character one has, my love for livestock of all kinds… I feel very fortunate to have grown up where I grew up. I wouldn’t have minded growing up years before, a couple of generations earlier, but I think that I had the best of it. I look around at what’s going on today and damn, I’m glad I’m not my kid’s generation, my daughter’s generation… It’s a pretty sad world out there right now. And it’s hard to be optimistic about it. I feel like on some level you don’t know who to believe any more. And that’s not a good thing, regardless of where you stand politically.”
Movies like Tombstone, however, keep the cowboy creed alive.
“[Cowboys] stay close with their family,” Elliot continues. “We have a set of values that goes with that code. You know, you get sick of hearing the talking heads talk about the moral decline and the moral decay and all that. You hear all this talk, it’s an awful lot of lip service, but there doesn’t seem to be an awful lot of people doing anything about it… I think those people that wear hats—or don’t even wear hats, but those people that understand the cowboy way (or whatever you wanna call it), the code of the West—ranchers, farmers, or any of those people who are close to the land, who work off the land, they get it. They get it. And that’s gonna stay alive there. And I think that’s gonna stay alive there for a long time. I’d bet on that more than I would anything else in this country. I think those guys are gonna survive all of us. Outlive all of us.”
For his part, Elliott is going to keep making Westerns. Like Kilmer, he says he looks back on the making of Tombstone with pride.
“There’s a lot of ’em that I’m really proud of, and Tombstone ranks high,” he says. “I was lucky to be there.”