Over the years, I’ve had the opportunity to ask actors to share memories of their connection with John Wayne. Since this October is a significant anniversary in Wayne world, some of their comments are gathered here.
Ninety years ago on Oct. 2, “The Big Trail” premiered in Los Angeles at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre (as it was then known). While Wayne had appeared in some 20 prior films, “The Big Trail” was the first motion picture in which the actor received top billing.
The film bombed, largely due to limited release, and Wayne would remain mostly unnoticed for the next decade despite some 60 more roles including many as the lead. But that changed when he stormed onto the screen as the Ringo Kid in 1939’s “Stagecoach.”
“Stagecoach” was remade in 1966, but Alex Cord was initially dubious when approached to reprise Wayne’s character.
I thought, ‘Good God, to try and fill John Wayne’s boots?'” Cord told me in 2018. “I loved the original, which John Ford directed, and John Wayne was wonderful in it. I mean, it’s a true classic (and) ‘Stagecoach’ made him famous overnight.”
When time came to tackle the role, Cord says he just followed his training.
“I actually approached the role without any conscious thought of John Wayne or the original movie, which I had only seen once. So as an actor, I viewed it as I would any other character. I’m sad to say I never got to meet Wayne later to compare roles, yet his son Patrick is a good friend of mine to this day.”
Constance Towers She co-starred with Wayne in “The Horse Soldiers” (1959).
“He would return from a day’s shooting covered in dirt and stand for an hour talking to fans,“ she told me in 2014.
She recalled a youth on the set asking Wayne’s advice because his father wouldn’t let him use the car on Saturday nights.
“Duke told him, ‘Well, do you ever thank your dad? Do you offer to wash the car? Tell him you love him!’ The kid was in awe.”
Another child in awe of the actor was young Sherry Jackson, who worked in the Wayne sports comedy “Trouble Along the Way” (1953). She especially remembers Wayne coming to her rescue during the screen test.
“I was around 10 and they wanted to make me look older, so (director) Michael Curtiz came over and said, ‘I want to cut your pigtails off.’ I had tears in my eyes and Duke — Mr. Wayne as I called him — patted me on the shoulder and said he wouldn’t let them be cut,“ Jackson recalled during our 2016 interview.
Maureen O’Hara was also fond of Wayne.
“He was a kind, wonderful man,” she recalled to me in 2014.
When the cameras were rolling, however, Wayne could be rough. He dragged her across the Irish countryside in “The Quiet Man,” then repeated the harsh on-screen treatment a decade later in a chase through the Arizona Territory’s dusty streets in “McLintock!”
Left bruised after both ordeals, O’Hara didn’t object. In fact, throughout her career, she performed most of her own stunts, including a dangerous fall backward from a ladder into a horse trough in “McLintock!”
“During filming, John Wayne was actually concerned when I was up on the ladder and yelled, ‘Get down, you damn fool, you’re going to kill yourself!’ But I did the stunt anyway.”
While the Wayne/O’Hara pairing was a winning combination for their five films together, Wayne did have some clunkers like all actors, and 1956’s “The Conqueror” is an often-quoted example. Although modestly successful at the box office, it was largely panned in reviews for miscasting Wayne as Mongolian Emperor Genghis Khan
In 2008, singer Glen Campbell remembered meeting Wayne for the first time when he strolled onto the set of Campbell’s TV show “The Goodtime Hour” in early 1969.
“In walked this building!” said Campbell of Wayne’s massive 6-foot-4 frame. “A few weeks later, I got a call saying John Wayne wanted me to co-star in ‘True Grit.’ I wasn’t an actor, but Wayne was pretty smart. He wanted to get popular contemporary entertainers for his films to attract a younger audience. Fabian and Ricky Nelson also did films with him.”
Probably best known for playing Zuzu in the holiday classic “It’s a Wonderful Life” at the beginning of her career, one of Karolyn Grimes’ last films as a child actor was “Rio Grande” in 1950.
“We were in Moab, Utah, for three weeks and I had a blast riding on a covered wagon being chased by Indians on horseback,” she recalled in 2014. “My birthday is July 4 and somehow John Wayne managed to get $300 worth of fireworks for the day — a lot of fireworks back then. He had a big cake made for me and we had a lot of fun celebrating.”
If Wayne were alive today, he might be celebrating the anniversary of “The Big Trail” release back in October 1930.
As the story goes, director Raoul Walsh spotted Wayne — then known as Marion “Duke” Morrison, an uncredited extra and prop hand at Fox Studios — moving furniture on a set. He was impressed by Wayne’s stature and signed him to play trail scout Breck Coleman to lead a wagon train of settlers across the treacherous Oregon Trail in “The Big Trail.” The film was selected in 2006 for preservation in the National Film Registry and can be viewed on YouTube in its 70 mm grandeur.
Wayne’s on-screen persona may not have been fully developed in “The Big Trail,” but the elements were forming — the voice, the swagger, the humor and the toughness were all there, soon to burst onto the big screen in “Stagecoach.” Nick Thomas.
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