Had he signed on, The Frisco Kid could very well have been John Wayne’s final Western, but Harrison Ford eventually nabbed the role. Wayne built his career off of the Western genre and starred in no less than 80 of them. Even his last onscreen role in 1976’s The Shootist was another “Oater,” where he was directed by Dirty Harry’s Don Siegel. While The Shootist felt like a fitting final role for the actor, it wasn’t planned that way. He had several other projects in development, with Wayne rejecting Spielberg’s offer to appear in 1941. However, ill health in his final years meant Wayne never returned to the big screen.
Wayne starred in plenty of other genres during his decades-long career, including romantic dramas like The Quiet Man, but he was somewhat typecast as a cowboy. He tried to break away from that image during the 1930s and starred in a run of more contemporary roles for Universal; all of these projects bombed, however, and he swiftly returned to the genre he knew best. True Grit’s Rooster Cogburn not only won Wayne his only Oscar, but it allowed him to play a more humorous character. Wayne was very careful not to alienate his core audience, however, so he passed on more lewd material such as Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles.
One of the final projects Wayne was linked to was The Frisco Kid, a 1979 comedy Western fronted by Willy Wonka star Gene Wilder. This sees Wilder’s Polish rabbi getting involved with an outlaw cowboy named Lillard. The movie was in development for years under the title No Knife, with producer Mace Neufeld recounting to The LA Times that it was penned with Wayne in mind. Stories vary on Wayne’s reasons for passing; his salary is cited as one reason, but apparently, the “vulgarity” of The Frisco Kid’s script was another.
The latter sounds like the most plausible option, as Wayne was vocally repulsed by the violence and language in movies like The Wild Bunch or Clint Eastwood’s High Plains Drifter. He even passed on Blazing Saddles, though “Duke” Wayne reportedly told Brooks he’d still be first in line to watch it. In truth, Wayne’s health likely played a role, with the film being shot less than a year before he would pass away from stomach cancer. The Frisco Kid went the opposite direction in terms of casting, with Harrison Ford taking the part.
Harrison Ford Was A Rising Star
Ford was hot off the shock success of 1977’s Star Wars when he was cast in The Frisco Kid, and still trying to figure out his movie star persona. He was never going to outshine Wilder in terms of comic timing, but to his credit, Ford is genuinely funny in the movie. Producer Neufeld also recalled there was tension between Ford and director Robert Aldrich (The Dirty Dozen) making The Frisco Kid, as the latter had planned on working with Wayne in the role. Whether Wayne – whose “fight dirty” style changed action – would have been funnier is another question.
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