Tom Selleck looks back at his sharpshooting Aussie western, Quigley Down Under.
Tom Selleck believes the 30th anniversary of his popular big-screen western Quigley Down Under is worth celebrating — and knew exactly how he wanted to do it.
“I called a guy who restores antique firearms and had him restore an 1878 Colt revolver,” Selleck says. That gun does not appear in the film, but Selleck thinks it’s the kind Quigley would have chosen. “If he owned a handgun, it would be a state-of-the-art double-action revolver — that’s why I picked it. Plus, I just love the old-time way it looks.”
Selleck displays the Colt in a case with a brass plaque that reads “I said I never had much use for one. Never said I didn’t know how to use it.”
That line, from the film’s audience-rousing climax, is etched in the memory of western fans who embraced the film in 1990, as well as those who have since discovered it through subsequent cable TV showings.
“When I found the script, it had already been through a lot of hands, one of them being Sean Connery’s,” Selleck recalls. “But I just absolutely loved it.” Selleck played Matthew Quigley, an American sharpshooter who travels to Australia to accept a high-paying job from rancher Elliott Marston (Alan Rickman). Upon arrival he picks up a traveling companion in a woman (Laura San Giacomo) dubbed Crazy Cora by her fellow passengers. But when Quigley learns the job is killing Aborigines, he decks his host and escapes with Cora into the outback.
Quigley Down Under wasn’t Selleck’s first western. In 1979 he starred in a TV miniseries adaptation of Louis L’Amour’s The Sacketts, then reunited with that same cast in 1982 for The Shadow Riders, another L’Amour adaptation. “By then I was hooked,” Selleck says. Even after the amiable detective series Magnum P.I. made him a household name, he was eager to get back in a saddle.
It almost happened in Lonesome Dove, also directed by Quigley’s director, Simon Wincer. “Simon asked me to do it, but I didn’t have a lot of availability because I was in every shot on Magnum. It was a role my dear friend Robert Urich wound up playing. But since then every hiatus from Magnum I thought, I gotta find a western.”
Yet when Quigley Down Under came along, Selleck confesses to being intimidated by the role of Matthew Quigley. “It was this bigger-than-life, iconic character, the kind of role you would want to cast John Wayne in,” he says. “I’m 6-4, but so what? In the back of my head I still feel like I’m 17 years old, even now. It seemed like a lot to bite off.”
Once he was in, just playing the part wasn’t enough. “I wanted the movie to be accurate. You see a film like Vera Cruz, that takes place in the 1860s, and they’re using 1892 Winchesters and Colt Single-Action Armies, which were not even around then. But that’s what movies were — they didn’t care, but I did.”
Selleck costumed his character, had saddles built that were appropriate to the period, and carried a Shiloh Sharps 1874 Long Range Rifle with double-set triggers. He chose his own horse, remembering advice he heard from wranglers that John Wayne wouldn’t get on a horse less than 16 hands, “’cause it just doesn’t look right.” He also had a hand in casting and still remembers when Nicole Kidman auditioned for Crazy Cora. “She was too young at the time,” he says.
Quigley Down Under opened on October 19, 1990, to some good reviews, but then was overshadowed at the box office by another western, Dances With Wolves, which opened just a month later. “Quigley made money, but [the two westerns] were released too close together,” Selleck says. “You can’t control that stuff.
“I knew it was a good movie. I started getting a response to it that I get to this day. I talk to Laura, same thing, and to Simon. They get asked as many Quigley questions as anything else.”
Besides its legions of loyal fans who stream it wherever they find it, the movie’s legacy can also be found in Forsyth, Montana, at the annual Matthew Quigley Buffalo Rifle Match and among military snipers, in those rare moments when they take out two enemy soldiers with one shot.
“They call that a Quigley,” Selleck says.
The Quigley Shoot
The Montana town of Forsyth is renamed “Quigleyville” every June, with the pandemic-related exception of 2020, as hundreds of the world’s top long-range shooters arrive to test their skills in competition. Sponsored by a local gun club, the Matthew Quigley Buffalo Rifle Match is billed as “the biggest rifle shooting event in Eastern Montana since the Custer Massacre.”
Entrants aim at six targets from distances of between 350 and 805 yards. Any traditional single-shot or lever-action rifle .375 caliber or larger is eligible. Top prizes for each age group include Tom Selleck-autographed Quigley plaques; the top woman shooter receives the Crazy Cora Award. The record score was shot in 2004 by Al Loquasto with 46 hits out of the possible 48. In 30 years, no one has aced the long-range course. Maybe next time.
For more information, visit quigleymatch.com.
Photography: Images courtesy AF Archive/Alamy Stock Photo, Entertainment Pictures
From our November/December 2020 issue.