Photography: Buena Vista Pictures/Photofest
Photography: Buena Vista Pictures/Photofest

One of Sam Elliott’s now-iconic roles almost didn’t happen.

Twenty years after the release of the classic western Tombstone, one of the things Sam Elliott recalls most vividly is that the movie almost fell apart.

But, Elliott says, Kurt Russell, who played Wyatt Earp to his Virgil Earp, was determined. “Kurt Russell kept Tombstone on track when it could have really gone awry after the director was fired off of it,” Elliott says. “He was determined to see that movie get made the way it should have gotten made. Kevin Jarre wrote the screenplay; he handpicked the cast. And then a month into it, they fired him. He was a brilliant writer. And a good man. A young, good-looking kid who has since passed away. But it was evident right off the top that he couldn’t direct.”

George P. Cosmatos (The Cassandra Crossing, Escape to Athena) took over for Jarre, but Russell reportedly heavily influenced the direction of the film. Whatever the back story and whatever the problems (“We look back and laugh now, but there were a lot of people quitting or fired on that movie,” Dana Delaney, who played actress-dancer Josephine Marcus, Wyatt Earp’s girlfriend, told, the movie did get made and premiered in theaters on December 25, 1993, grossing $56.5 million domestically at the box office.

While Tombstone didn’t win any major awards and critical reception was mixed, audiences loved it. The movie has remained a favorite on lists of best westerns, and it was a solid addition to the résumés of a ridiculously long list of Hollywood elite, including Russell, Elliott, Delaney, Val Kilmer (in what many consider to be his finest performance as the consumptive but charismatic Doc Holliday), Bill Paxton, Powers Boothe, Michael Biehn, Charlton Heston, John Corbett, Buck Taylor, Billy Zane, Billy Bob Thornton, Harry Carey Jr., and Robert Mitchum (as narrator).

Tombstone came almost 25 years after Elliott’s turn as Card Player No. 2 in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. By 1993 he was an established star, having already made Lifeguard, Mask, Road House, Rush, and The Sacketts, and the made-for-TV westerns I Will Fight No More Forever, The Shadow Riders, Houston: The Legend of Texas, and Conagher (starring as Conn Conagher opposite wife Katharine Ross as Mrs. Evie Teale, Elliott also produced, and he co-wrote the screenplay with Ross and Jeffrey M. Meyer). Since Tombstone, he has maintained star status on both the big and small screens, including roles as Wild Bill Hickok in the 1995 TV movie Buffalo Girls and as Texas “aeronaut” balloonist Lee Scoresby in 2007’s The Golden Compass. In the Ivan Reitman sports dramedy Draft Day with Kevin Costner and Jennifer Garner, scheduled for release in 2014, look for Elliott in a scene playing a college coach whose quarterback is a top NFL draft pick.

But for all he’s put on film — whether famously bare-chested in Lifeguard or cowboy-hatted as The-Dude-abides Stranger in The Big Lebowski — it’s hard not to see Sam Elliott striding down that dusty street in Tombstone in that badass frock coat flanked by Kilmer, Russell, and Paxton, all ready to do business at the O.K. Corral.

And for all the years that have gone by since the movie came out, we still think Elliott and Tombstone did darn good justice to the fierce Old West history they portrayed.

From the November/December 2013 issue.