9 Tombstone Behind-The-Scenes Facts You Might Not Know

Val Kilmer, Sam Elliott, Kurt Russell, Bill Paxton - Tombstone

With its compelling subject, exquisite writing, sharpshooting (camerawork, I mean), and its incredible acting ensemble, which includes Kurt Russell, Val Kilmer, Sam Elliott, the late Bill Paxton, Michael Biehn, Stephen Lang, the late Powers Boothe, Thomas Haden Church, Michael Rooker, Charlton Heston, and many more, Tombstone has become a classic of the Western genre. 

While the movie itself is engaging and slickly enjoyable, the filming process for this Wyatt Earp biopic was anything but. With a rotating director's chair, tight demands, a fluid script, and some unforgiving western locales, making good movies isn't always easy. Nevertheless, the stories recounting the making of this troubled movie can certainly make it easier to appreciate all the hard work that went into this well-liked new staple of the evolving Western genre. If you consider yourself a big fan of Westerns and you love Tombstone, here are some behind-the-scenes facts you should know.

Kurt Russell - Tombstone

Val Kilmer Says Kurt Russell Is Responsible For Tombstone's Success

It has long been reported that Kurt Russell is not merely the star of Tombstone but also its secret director. Since the passing of George P. Cosmatos, Tombstone's credited director who took over after screenwriter Kevin Jarre was fired, Russell has been open in admitting that he was the one who was actually in charge of the set as the ghost director. He claimed that he wouldn't say a word while Cosmatos was still alive, but when he passed away in 2005, Russell has talked more openly about how he cradled the product to the finish line. Several actors involved with this famous film have stepped forward and verified Russell's statement in a matter of words, including Kilmer. 

In a 2017 interview, he noted that Russell is "solely responsible" for Tombstone, as the reports have suggested. Here's what Russell said:

I backed the director; the director got fired, so we brought in a guy to be a ghost director. They wanted me to take over the movie. I said, 'I’ll do it, but I don’t want to put my name on it. I don’t want to be the guy.' I said to George [Cosmatos], 'I’m going to give you a shot list every night, and that’s what’s going to be.' I’d go to George’s room, give him the shot list for the next day, that was the deal. 'George I don’t want any arguments. This is what it is. This is what the job is.' ... I got him from Sly Stallone—called up Sly, said I need a guy. Sly did the same thing with Rambo 2 with George. And I said to George, 'While you’re alive George, I won’t say a goddamn thing.' And it was the hardest work of my life. Tombstone was so painful. Tombstone was so tough, you know what I mean? It was just so painful; it was hard physically to do—I got four hours sleep every night. And I’m so happy that we got it made.

Willem Dafoe - The Last Temptation of Christ

Willem Dafoe Was Initially Sought To Play Doc Holliday

It's hard to imagine anyone other than Val Kilmer as Doc Holliday in Tombstone. He gives arguably the performance of his career in the Western; there are still folks claiming he was robbed of his Oscar. But apparently, he wasn't the filmmakers' first choice. Indeed, if they originally had their way, Willem Dafoe would've been cast instead. Whenever Kurt Russell and screenwriter/former director Kevin Jarre pitched the movie to Walt Disney Studios (the only studio willing to make it), they proposed Dafoe for the part. But the studio put their foot down on this casting decision based on the controversy surrounding Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ, in which Dafoe played Jesus. Kilmer was their second choice, and he was the one who got the part. While Dafoe likely would've done a great job, it's hard to top Kilmer's performance.

Kurt Russell - Tombstone

Kurt Russell Cut Some Of His Own Scenes To Earn The Trust Of His Fellow Actors

During the early days of shooting Tombstone, screenwriter Kevin Jarre (Glory) was also on-board as the director. Though he shot a few scenes (some of which might still be in the movie, apparently), he was let go from the project whenever his screenplay became too unwieldy and he was unwilling to make any cuts. In an effort to keep the project moving, Russell took initiative, as we noted earlier, and did everything in his power to keep the movie afloat. Whenever he was reportedly taking over directorial duties (unofficially, at least) there was the risk of Russell using his star power to make the project centered more around him. To win over his castmates, however, he cut out his own scenes and dialogue, keeping their scenes as intact as possible. Here's what he said:

There’s a lot of great stuff in Tombstone. Great actors who were in a very difficult situation, who I bought their trust by cutting myself out of the movie—as an actor. There’s stuff in that original script that if you were ever to read it you’d go, 'Oh ho ho.' We needed to lose 20 pages. Kevin would never lose the 20 pages. He would never lose it. So once he was gone, there’s only one way I’m going to get the trust of these actors and that is to cut myself out of this goddamn movie and make some changes; make Wyatt an 'aura' character... I saved most of everybody else’s stuff to do... I knew what I needed from the character in terms of the movie, in terms of making the movie work. But it wasn’t fun to do that; it wasn’t fun to cut out eight of the reasons you wanted to do the movie.

Billy Bob Thornton - Tombstone

Billy Bob Thornton Completely Ad-Libbed His Scene

While Kevin Jarre was very particular about his screenplay, as we noted, Kurt Russell and the remaining team involved with Tombstone made some big changes throughout the rest of production. In the film, Billy Bob Thornton plays Johnny Tyler, and you would think he was given a good bit of dialogue based on how his scenes play out in the film. But according to ScreenRant, his role was completely ad-libbed, with the actor given the simple direction of being "mean" to Kurt Russell's Wyatt Earp. Given that Tombstone was made only a few short years before Thornton won an Oscar for writing Sling Blade (which he also directed and starred), it might not be surprising to know that he was up to the challenge and handled himself accordingly — despite these limitations. Sure enough, Thornton really got a chance to prove his skills.

Michael Biehn - Tombstone

All The Mustaches In Tombstone Are Very Real... Except One

Tombstone features a fine assortment of crumb catchers. If fact, I'd argue that Tombstone might arguably feature some of the best nose ticklers in cinematic history. This isn't an accident; original director Kevin Jarre was apparently pretty adamant that the cast grow out their upper lip hairs for their parts in this old-fashioned westerns. Certainly, this decision not only saved the cast money on razors but it also presented a fine variety of mustaches to admire throughout the film. And the best part is, they're all very much real. Well, all of them except for one. 

According to an interview with Michael Biehn, everyone in the cast was instructed to grow out their mustaches, but Jon Tenney refused, noting that he was filming another role shortly before this production wrapped. Therefore, he's the only one with a fake 'stache.

Kurt Russell - Tombstone

Wyatt Earp's Fifth Cousin, Wyatt Earp III, Appears In The Movie

It's no secret that Wyatt Earp plays a big role in Tombstone — but only as a character. But if you were paying attention to the end credits, you may have noticed a man named Wyatt Earp III listed and thought to yourself, "Hey, are they related to the man himself?," you'd be correct. 

Wyatt Earp III is, indeed, the lineage of the real Wyatt Earp. He's the fifth cousin of the Old West legend, and the filmmakers found a role for the distant relative in their movie, seemingly as a tip of the hat to the man at the center of this '90s Western. As it turns out, he's a professional actor; he's played Earp, as well as Doc Holliday, on several occasions on the stage. Alas, Earp III claims that his association has hindered more than helped his career overall.

Val Kilmer - Tombstone

Val Kilmer Laid In A Bed Of Ice For His Death Scene

Throughout the troubled production behind Tombstone, Val Kilmer's method acting approach saw him taking a few extreme measures to get into character. When it came time to shoot Doc Holliday's death scene, for instance, Kilmer wanted this demise to look — and, for him, feel — authentic as his historical outlaw character was lying on his deathbed. For that to happen, Kilmer laid in a bed of ice. So, when you see Holliday shivering uncontrollably, that wasn't merely acting on Kilmer's part. He was genuinely freezing in order to make Holliday's departure from these earthly plains look a little more authentic in this Western film. While it's ultimately a pretty outlandish way to get into character, it clearly worked. And the scene came to Kilmer's own personal satisfaction, as he noted in a post on his Facebook page.

Val Kilmer - Tombstone

The Actors Had To Wear Period-Appropriate Wool, Even In The Hot Arizona Sun

It's safe to say that Tombstone wasn't the most comfortable shoot. Between its hot Arizona film locations and its turbulent production, things didn't go quite so smoothly as the movie went along. Thankfully, the film itself turned out alright. Though, it should be noted that — to add to the discomfort — every one of the main actors also needed to wear period-appropriate wool, which didn't suit itself nicely in the warm weather. While it certainly helped Kilmer achieve his sweaty demeanor throughout the movie, Kilmer also joked that the uncomfortable summer wear might've played a big reason in why the legendary western personalities killed so many people. When the set's thermometer reached 134 degrees Fahrenheit, and he was wearing his heat-catching wool outfit, the actor could ultimately understand by Doc Holliday eventually went "mad" in life.

Kevin Costner - Wyatt Earp

Kevin Costner Was Initially Involved But He Left Due To Creative Differences, Resulting In His Own Movie, Wyatt Earp

There's a common trend in Hollywood where two very similar movies will come out within a year or even months of each other. Whether it's Olympus Has Fallen and White House Down, Armaggedon and Deep Impact, No Strings Attached and Friends with Benefits, The Prestige and The Illusionist, Capote and Infamous, and several others, Hollywood has a bad habit of putting out two very similar movies within (or near) the same calendar year. The same thing happened with 1993's Tombstone and 1994's Wyatt Earp, but it wasn't simply a coincidence. As it turns out, Kevin Costner was initially involved with Tombstone, but he disagreed with their approach to Earp and moved on. But rather than cut his losses, he made his own biopic. Alas, it was a critical and financial disappointment.

In addition to these facts, it's also worth noting that Lester Moore's tombstone in Tombstone is actually the real deal and Beyond the Black Rainbow, the directorial debut of Panos Cosmatos, the son of the late George P. Cosmatos, was reportedly funded by the royalties of this movie. Do you love Tombstone? What are some of your favorite westerns? Let us know in the comment section below!

Will Ashton

Will is an entertainment writer based in Pittsburgh, PA. His writing can also be found in The Playlist, Cut Print Film, We Got This Covered, The Young Folks, Slate and other outlets. He also co-hosts the weekly film/TV podcast Cinemaholics with Jon Negroni and he likes to think he's a professional Garfield enthusiast.