Some of these he passed on for one reason or another, and some he lobbied hard to be in but was either unavailable or just didn’t make the cut. This article will take a look at the films that fall into the first category and a later article will consider the latter.
Seeing as there are so many movies to consider I’m going to have to impose editorial control here and select my ten favourite titles that I think JW would have made quite an impact in if he hadn’t passed on the opportunity to star in them.
The films are listed according to personal preference.
Dr. Strangelove (1964)
Scriptwriter Terry Southern supposedly wrote the part of Major T. J. “King” Kong specifically with John Wayne in mind who apparently turned the role down out of hand.
The character, as eventually portrayed by Slim Pickens, is so eager to drop a nuclear bomb on Russia that he rides the bomb from his plane all the way down to its target like a rodeo performer.
Most definitely a role that would have suited Wayne right down to the ground, particularly bearing in mind that a few years prior to this he’d found out that Russian premier Joseph Stalin had put out a contract on him because of his anti-Communist views.
Heaven’s Gate (1980)
Originally submitted as “The Johnson County War”, a real-life event that was touched on in “Chisum”.
urprisingly JW was offered the lead role in the mid-1970s, a part that eventually went to the much younger Kris Kristofferson, suggesting that the script underwent quite a sea change before it emerged in 1980.
The film notoriously sunk the United Artists studio so maybe Wayne knew something no one else did at the time.
Dirty Harry (1971)
The title role was originally offered to Frank Sinatra who presumably passed seeing as he’d already portrayed a no-nonsense policeman in “The Detective” back in 1968.
Wayne also passed, although it was a decision he apparently regretted according to biographer Scott Eyman, quoting the actor as saying “I made a mistake with that one”.
To be honest, by this time in their respective careers both Sinatra and JW were just too old to be playing believable rogue detectives.
In fact, Duke would have been sixty-four years of age had he taken on the role of Harry Callaghan in 1971, a point reinforced by his uncomfortable looking performance a couple of years later in the title role of “McQ”.
The fact is Clint Eastwood made a much more convincing cop than either JW or ole’ Blue Eyes, going on to play Callaghan a further four times as the detective who shoots first and doesn’t bother asking questions afterward.
The Dirty Dozen (1967)
According to JW biographers Randy Roberts and James Olson, Wayne was offered the lead role of Major Reisman, as eventually played by Lee Marvin, provided the producers removed a suggestion in the script that the character was an adulterer.
Despite the offending section of the script being rewritten Duke still passed, deciding he wanted to make “The Green Berets” instead.
Scott Eyman, however, contends that Duke turned it down “solely because it was going to be shot in Europe and [his wife] Pilar was pregnant and he was concerned that the shoot might run into Pilar’s due date”.
Considering how the critical reception to “The Green Berets” wasn’t exactly all that positive at the time compared to “The Dirty Dozen” it probably wasn’t the wisest choice JW ever made but, on the other hand, seeing as his own project turned out to be the fourth biggest box-office movie of his entire career it was probably enough to convince him he’d made the right decision.
High Noon (1952)
Stating that “’High Noon’ is the most un-American thing I’ve ever seen in my whole life”, JW ceremoniously passed on what turned out to be, depending upon your political leanings, either one of the greatest Westerns to ever come of Hollywood or agreeing with director Howards Hawks that “it was ridiculous.
The sheriff runs around like a wet chicken and eventually, his Quaker wife saves his guts. It was unprofessional”.
Either way, it didn’t really matter because both Wayne and Hawks eventually produced their own riposte to “High Noon”, a film that was written by a previous member of the Communist party, Carl Foreman, and made what is definitively one of the best cowboy films ever, “Rio Bravo”.
Just goes to show there’s a reason for everything if you look hard enough.
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