The Shootist’s producers thought Wayne was too old at 69 to be believable as the gunfighter. However, producer Dino De Laurentiis insisted on his casting even though the character JB Books was only 50 in the novel the movie was based on.
Filming with co-stars Lauren Bacall, James Stewart and Ron Howard took place at Carson City. With a 4600ft altitude, Duke’s single lung capacity was compromised all the while struggling with mobility.
In the end, The Shootist’s production was shut down as Wayne was hospitalised for two weeks with influenza. The star had also been suffering from an enlarged prostate while filming, which wouldn’t be operated on until late 1976.
At one point, it was actually uncertain if the movie would be completed since Duke was so ill his doctors were on the verge of forbidding him from finishing his work on the production.
Considering his significant health problems on the film, it’s unlikely he would have successfully managed to be insured for the project had the full extent of them been known.
Of course, in the end, Wayne did complete filming, but his stomach cancer returned and he made his final public appearance at the Oscars on April 9, 1979.
Duke was noticeably very thin and secretly wore a wet suit under his tuxedo to broaden himself out. The Western star was welcomed by a standing ovation as he announced The Deer Hunter as Best Picture. He died just two months later on June 11, 1979 at the age of 72.