Sam Elliott remembers Tombstone vs. Wyatt Earp box office battle
Every so often, rival Hollywood studios make films which cover similar themes or events and release them in cinemas to do battle at the box office. Think Volcano vs. Dante’s Peak. Think Armageddon vs. Deep Impact. And think Tombstone vs. Wyatt Earp, two Westerns released six months apart, both of which hinged around the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.
Tombstone starred Kurt Russell, Val Kilmer, Bill Paxton, and Sam Elliott, among many others. The Lawrence Kasdan-directed Wyatt Earp boasted a similarly impressive cast, including Kevin Costner, Dennis Quaid, Gene Hackman, and Michael Madsen. The box office shoot out was won by Tombstone, which was released in December and earned $56 million, more than double the $25 million raked in by Wyatt Earp, which premiered in June the following year.
While Tombstone surely benefited from debuting ahead of its rival, Sam Elliott — who played Virgil Earp, the brother of Russell’s Wyatt — never had any fears that the film might lose out to Kasdan’s movie.
“We were in Arizona and down in New Mexico they were making Wyatt Earp, Kevin Costner’s version,” says Elliott, a current Academy Award nominee for his performance as Bradley Cooper’s brother in the Cooper-directed A Star is Born. “I remember sitting in the Holiday Inn one night. It was before we started, and Kurt was kind of angst-ridden about all of it, because he was looking at a much bigger picture that I was, much bigger than all of us. I said, ‘What the f— are you worried about, man?’ He said, ‘What do you mean?’ We had this kind of contentious relationship throughout, and I think it was really born in the relationship of the brothers, and we never got past that. I said, ‘They haven’t got this f—ing script and they haven’t got this f—ing cast.’ And that was the f—ing truth, you know? ‘Apart from that, sweat all you want.'”
In fact, the Tombstone shoot would prove a troubled one. The original director, the late Kevin Jarre, was removed from the project and replaced by George P. Cosmatos (Rambo: First Blood Part II), although several cast members, including Elliott, recall that Russell was at least partly in charge of the movie, which over time has acquired classic status.
“[It was] brilliant and painful at the same time,” says Elliott. “Kevin Jarre wrote a brilliant script for it. He directed the film for a month before he was taken off the picture, because he just clearly wasn’t a director. I knew that first day I watched him work on the set when I got over there. But because his buddy was a man named Jim Jacks (one of the film’s producers), who is now deceased as well as Kevin, Jim to stuck with him, and he lasted a month, and then they replaced him with George Cosmatos. Kurt was right there on top of it. He was orchestrating a lot of it. He held it together after Kevin got taken off of it.”
“But that cast, I believe, was assembled by Kevin, much as the cast in Star is Born came from Bradley,” continues the actor. “That’s what made that take of the O.K. Corral the best of all of them, I think. I mean, that tale’s been told half-a-dozen times too over the eons. F—ing Powers Boothe, you know. Billy Paxton. Kurt and Val. I mean, it’s just endless. Michael Biehn. Best f—ing thing he’s ever done. Best thing Val Kilmer’s ever done. Ever. Just mind-boggling. All of them. Everybody in that film. Billy Bob Thornton, he came in and played a little bit. Amazing cast. It just had all the elements to make a great Western.”
Watch the trailer for Tombstone above.