Since its release in 1993, there has been plenty of speculation over how one of the modern era’s most beloved Western films, Tombstone, came to life. Luckily, several of the film’s stars, including Val Kilmer, have come forward in recent years to reveal fascinating details that were kept from viewers for decades. Read on to discover what he had to say about Tombstone, and co-star Kurt Russell.
Setting The Scene
A cult classic, Tombstone chronicles the story of an infamous gunfight that took place in 1881 on the streets of Tombstone, Arizona. While Wyatt Earp (portrayed by actor Kurt Russell) and his brothers attempt to leave their gun-slinging ways behind to start a new life in Arizona, trouble follows them and they become the targets of a rowdy gang of cowboys.
The drama in the movie looks like something only Hollywood would be able to come up with, but it all actually happened. And unbeknownst to many, this drama wasn’t only limited to on-screen. Val Kilmer who played the role of Doc Holliday, revealed the turmoil that went on behind the scenes — and what role Kurt Russell played in all of it.
Drama On And Off Screen
Viewers who watch Tombstone are treated to an epic tale of nonstop drama that unfolds before their eyes on-screen. But what few people know is that the film’s drama actually began long before the movie even hit the big screen that one fateful Christmas day in 1993. It all started with who was in charge of directing the film.
The original man chosen was Kevin Jarre, a well-respected screenwriter and movie producer who allegedly had a résumé long enough to impress even the most powerful people in Hollywood. Jarre hand-picked the actors and single-handedly wrote the script. For someone with such an impressive portfolio, no one expected what would happen later. First, actor Val Kilmer spoke to the brilliance of Jarre’s script by making a big claim.
The Power Of Words
It’s hard to imagine anyone else playing Doc Holliday. But according to Kilmer, Kevin Jarre’s script was the single thing that sold him on taking the part in the first place. In particular, Kilmer accredits the line “I’m your huckleberry” — which Doc mutters in the O.K. Corral gunfight scene that takes place between the lawmen and outlaw cowboys — as having won him over.
Legend has it that this Southern phrase means, “If you want to fight, I’m your man to tangle with.” While a notable line, this isn’t Doc’s most quoted saying. And speaking of which, fans were shocked to hear the truth behind his most famous on-screen line — just as they were shocked to hear what Kilmer later revealed about Russell.
A Shockingly Accurate Line
Chances are, if you’ve seen the film Tombstone, then you definitely remember the exchange between Doc Holliday and a cowboy during the O.K. Corral shootout scene. Fires blaze in the background while shots are fired and people holler in fright.
When a cowboy turns to Doc and tells him, “I’ve got you now, Doc” followed by a slew of curse words, Doc cheerfully responds, “You’re a daisy if you do.” It’s hard to imagine someone saying these words in a moment as intense as this, but according to newspaper reports, this line is, in fact, historically accurate. What’s more, amazingly, this wasn’t the only authentic dialogue Jarre included in the script.
Another intense moment in the film takes place when Doc Holliday lies on his deathbed in the emotional final scene. He looks towards his bare feet and mutters, “I’ll be damned.” According to historians, these may well have been the final words of John Henry “Doc” Holliday. Other sources claim he said, in a similar context, “Well, this is funny.”
People have long debated why Doc may have said this, with some arguing it was because he always believed he would die while wearing his boots. Others argue it was because he believed he would die in a gunfight, not in a bed due to tuberculosis. While the exact reasoning behind his words is unknown, one thing that is known for sure is that actor Val Kilmer prepared for this scene in an unusual — and highly uncomfortable — way.
A Dedicated Actor
Before filming the gripping final scene that shows Doc Holliday on his deathbed, actor Val Kilmer was said to have laid down on a bed full of ice. Brr! An ode to his dedication as an actor, Kilmer believed this would force his body into shakes, making it seem more realistic to a viewer that Doc was indeed on his way out of this world.
Kilmer’s tactic worked and many fans believed his performance deserved an Oscar. As for the minority of viewers who thought his performance was overdone, diehard fans will argue they are wrong — just as most people are wrong about another key scene in the film.
The Height Of Thrills
In what is considered by some to be one of film’s most cinematically-arresting scenes, Wyatt Earp (played by Kurt Russell) approaches outlaw Curly Bill by the river. Valiantly risking his life, Wyatt storms into the line of fire of the Cowboys’ leaders.
Wyatt miraculously dodges all of Bill’s bullets before he unloads his own shotgun into the famed outlaw. Many critics have contended that this scene is too over-the-top and unrealistic, something that is merely the product of Hollywood fantasies. But Johnny Barnes, one of the Cowboys who survived the actual 1881 gunfight, told the story exactly as it is shown in the movie. And this wasn’t the only authentic part of the film.
Attention to Costuming
Screenwriter Kevin Jarre is widely considered to be the chief mastermind behind Tombstone, for he is the one who was responsible for translating real-life events from 1880s Tombstone, Arizona onto the big screen. Part of keeping with the times’ historical accuracy was ensuring the authenticity of the costumes.
According to Val Kilmer, this meant the actors were made to wear real wool ensembles. He alleged that while filming the Birdcage Theater scene, an on-set thermometer read 134 degrees Fahrenheit. Kilmer joked that it gave reason behind why his character, Doc Holliday may have killed people, saying, “It’s just, like, he wore wool in the summer, in the Arizona Territory, and that made him mad.” Apparently, acting in 134 degree weather isn’t the only trick Kilmer brought to set.
It’s All In The Wrist…Or Knuckles
Remember the scene in Tombstone where Doc Holliday is shown playing a game of poker? The camera focuses on his hand and viewers are shown an up-close view of a trick where he is able to essentially roll a coin across his knuckles.
Unbeknownst to many, this is actually a signature move of Val Kilmer. The actor also performed a similar “finger-walking” trick in two other films: Real Genius and Top Gun. In Real Genius, he used quarters, while in Top Gun he toyed with a pen. This trick certainly added a nice touch to his portrayal of Doc’s gun-fighting, heavy-gambling, hard-drinking character. It’s hard to imagine Doc played by anyone aside from Kilmer, but that was very nearly the case.
A Different Cast
Tombstone could have turned out completely different had the casting been done with anyone other than the final lineup we know today. For example, acclaimed actor Willem Dafoe was nearly cast as Doc Holliday. Wondering what got in the way? The casting crew apparently decided against it after he starred in the controversial Scorsese film, The Last Temptation of Christ.
But that’s not all. Known for his history of acting in the Western genre, actor Glenn Ford was set to play Marshall White before he fell ill. What’s more, beloved Hollywood leading man Richard Gere was said to have been tapped for Wyatt Earp and Mickey Rourke for Johnny Ringo. But even if the actors changed, one thing is for sure: they would have all still had a certain quality in common.
If you look closely at what all the male characters share, you’ll recognize that they all sport perfectly-maintained mustaches. This was a result of writer Kevin Jarre, who, according to actor Michael Biehn, was very particular about the way he wanted the men’s mustaches to look. In fact, he apparently added to the script that he wanted each mustache to curl up at the corners.
And according to Biehn, every male actor with the exception of Jon Tenney (who played Behan) grew their own mustaches. He added, “I think [Tenney] always felt a little bit like the small dog of the group. Because it wasn’t his real mustache.” Aside from the costumes and facial hair, many fans were also surprised to hear about this next legitimate element in the film.
Filming During Monsoon Season
While some films and television series shoot scenes in extreme weather to make the setting seem more real, production crew can’t count on the weather working in their favor. For this reason, they often rely on adding special effects in post-production editing.
With respect to Tombstone, it turned out filming during what’s called the Southwest monsoon season in Arizona had its perks. The lightning and thunder that appear in the background of a number of scenes are actually real and weren’t created artificially. Speaking of which, there’s another spooky element in the film that doesn’t come down to movie magic, but was instead based on something real.
Here Lies Lester Moore
In an early scene where the Earps enter town, a headstone is shown in a cemetery. It reads, “Here lies Lester Moore, Four slugs from a .44, No Les No More.” If you get spooky vibes just from reading it, just wait until you hear the far creepier truth behind the prop.
The epitaph wasn’t made up by producers, but was instead taken from a real tombstone located in — you guessed it — none other than Tombstone, Arizona itself. A replica of the original can also be found at Knott’s Berry Farm, which is where this scene — along with a number of others — was filmed. But beyond the staging, some of the minds behind Tombstone gave it a credibility like no other.
Nods To Hollywood Westerns
Just like historical accuracy, Tombstone has nods to Hollywood Westerns woven into its plot. For example, veteran Western actor Harry Carey Jr. plays lawman Marshal Fred White, while Charlton Heston plays rancher Henry Hooker. But above all of its other ingredients, perhaps most key in setting Tombstone‘s tone and authentic feel is the film’s narrator, Hollywood legend Robert Mitchum.
Mitchum was originally meant to play the role of Old Man Clanton. Unfortunately, as fate would have it, on the first day of filming he fell off a horse and hurt his back. He was forced to withdraw from the role but instead became the narrating voice at the beginning and end of the film. While most things in Tombstone were planned and scripted, Mitchum’s role change wasn’t. Such was also the case for another key performance.
Directed To Improvise
In Tombstone, renowned Hollywood actor Billy Bob Thornton makes an appearance in the iconic poker game scene, where he plays the part of a bellyaching card player. But instead of receiving scripted lines, Thornton was directed to improvise. He was allegedly told by the filmmakers to act like a disgruntled bully — and from the looks of it, he delivered.
Fans of Thornton say this is a true testament to his abilities as an actor, and we couldn’t agree more. Not only that, but it speaks to why Tombstone turned out to be such a great film. The actors, filling roles both big and small, were an incredible collection of undeniable talents. That’s what helped them land big roles after appearing in the film –and in the case of one actor in particular, it directly contributed to a major career move.
Doc Holliday And Batman
True Val Kilmer fans know that the actor played the role of both Doc Holliday in Tombstone and the role of Gotham City’s famous caped crusader in Batman Forever. But what few know is that Kilmer allegedly landed the role of Batman as a result of director Joel Schumacher having seen his performance in Tombstone. Schumacher decided he had to be cast.
Not only that, but the connection between the two movies runs deeper than what meets the eye. Rumor has it that the original Batman, Adam West, also played Doc in three different 1959 television Westerns — which just so happens to be the same year Val Kilmer was born. And just like Batman, Tombstone became a financial success — despite the considerable odds that had been stacked against it.
In a 2017 blog post by Val Kilmer, he revealed all the drama that took place behind the scenes of Tombstone. He detailed how the original director, Kevin Jarre, had a vision of the tale being filmed exactly like an old 1940s Western. However, this went against the desires of the production crew, who wanted a “modern retelling of an old story.”
Jarre was fired because of this, causing a wave of panic among the actors, who feared the production studio might scrap the movie instead of finding a new director. Thankfully, actor Kurt Russell, who played Wyatt Earp, stepped up to the plate. Per the recommendation of one Sylvester Stallone, he helped hire George P. Cosmatos as director. Val Kilmer challenged Cosmatos’ role, however — and would divulge a secret that left everyone shocked.
A Well-Kept Secret Revealed
According to Kilmer, Russell hired Cosmatos to essentially act as the “yes man” on set. In other words, Cosmatos wasn’t the film’s true director; Russell was. And the two of them had a promise that they would keep Russell’s role as “ghost director” a secret. Kilmer alleged that Russell sacrificed his own role, pulling from his character’s dialogue and losing sleep over “draw[ing] up shot lists.”
He wrote, “Everyone cared, don’t get me wrong, but Kurt put his money where his mouth was, and not a lot of stars extend themselves for the cast and crew. Not like he did.” In Kilmer’s words, “Kurt is solely responsible for Tombstone‘s success, no question.” And these next stats certainly speak to the film’s success.
Proving The Skeptics Wrong
During its production, Tombstone garnered the attention of its fair share of skeptics who believed the film would fail. Besides, with all the chaos that surrounded finding a director, could they really be blamed? Luckily, they didn’t have to be heeded, as the movie became a financial success.
Following its release on December 25, 1993 by Hollywood Pictures, the film grossed $56.5 million in ticket sales in the United States. And according to Box Office Mojo, it stands as the 16th highest-grossing Western film released since 1979. Talk about a turn-around from when it was first getting started! So what did the actors have to say about their time on set?
The Biggest Challenge
While actor Michael Biehn admitted that “the biggest challenge for everybody in [the] picture, and particularly Kurt Russell, was that they got rid of Kevin Jarre,” he still said he greatly enjoyed his time on set. He even claimed his character, Johnny Ringo, was one of his favorite roles to play.
Biehn admittedly connected with Johnny Ringo’s character, who he said loved “living life on the edge” and engaging in activities that gave him an adrenaline rush. The actor added, “He was just a drunk guy, as you can imagine living back then in the Old West. You think about all the saloons and the all the warm beers, no air conditioning.” Biehn doesn’t blame Johnny’s thirst for adventure, arguing there was little to do in Tombstone aside from drink. Speaking of which, one actor in particular had a bit of a problem on set.
Member of The Cowboys outlaw group, Ike Clanton is often shown on screen clashing with the different famous lawmen: Wyatt, Virgil, and Morgan Earp, as well as Doc Holliday. He appears to be crazed though cowardly, and often seems drunk.
A member of the Tombstone production crew gave insight into the actor who played Ike, Stephen Lang. He reportedly said that Lang was actually drunk for much of the movie’s filming. That is, he spent a lot of his time on set acting under the influence. Some may call it reckless, others may call it method acting. But all we’re thinking is: no wonder Ike’s behavior looked so real! And the same can be said about this next scene.
A Painful Bar Fight
Remember the scene where Virgil Earp (played by Sam Elliott) is shot and then teeters into a bar, only to fall down in excruciating pain and require his brothers’ help to get up? Apparently, some of the pain that viewers see on screen is actually real.
If you watch it over again, you might be able to see Wyatt Earp (played by Kurt Russell) accidentally slam Virgil (Sam Elliott)’s head into the bar while attempting to help him get back on all fours. While also a climactic scene in the film, it wasn’t the only one. According to one actor, another scene in particular had fans everywhere up in arms, and for all the wrong reasons.
Reeling Johnny Ringo Fans
One of the film’s most intense moments is when Doc Holliday shoots Johnny Ringo. While it left dedicated Johnny fans reeling, the actor portraying him, Michael Biehn, later admitted in an interview that he believed it was the right thing to do.
He said of Val Kilmer (Doc Holliday) shooting him: “I wanted him to shoot me!” Virgil Earp actor Sam Elliott also added, “That thing was just incredible…and you just know this moment is coming all the way through the film. You’re salivating by the time it does come.” And we bet you didn’t know the scoop behind this next scene, either.
One of the most iconic scenes in the film is undoubtedly when Wyatt Earp surprises Stillwell and Ike Clanton at the train station. Almost instantaneously, Wyatt shoots Stillwell and leaves Ike on the floor practically beginning for mercy. Wyatt then delivers his famous line, “You tell ’em I’m coming, and Hell’s coming with me!”
While a memorable scene, many viewers were left unaware of its aspects. There’s allegedly a carefully-placed Easter egg hidden in one of the shots: the train Wyatt stands in front of reads “5150,” which is the police code in California that is used to signify a crazy person. But nothing’s as cool as this next fun fact.
Real-Life Wyatt Earp
By now, you’ve probably realized that those in charge of bringing Tombstone to life put a lot of effort into making it historically accurate. But did you know that they even cast Wyatt Earp’s actual real-life fifth cousin, who also happens to be named Wyatt Earp himself? That’s right: he’s the actor who plays outlaw Billy Claiborne in the film.
His character Billy was at O.K. Corral during the shootout, yet ran from the scene because he was unarmed. After filming Tombstone, the actor went on to appear in the TV series Sordid Lives: The Series, as well as doing voiceover work.
This article was originally published on DirectExpose: Val Kilmer Reveals The Real Story Behind Tombstone and Kurt Russell
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