John Wayne may have been the biggest movie star of his era, several eras perhaps, but in his ‘Autumn Years’ as a star, he found himself dealing with several perceived interlopers. Men like the edgy and king of cool Steve McQueen, who once described acting as something a real man shouldn’t be doing. But it was one Clint Eastwood who really stuck in the craw of The Duke. Wayne had long considered himself the king of Westerns, but that landscape was changing fast.
The anti-hero was increasingly sticking his oar in and dealing with things using more eye raising methods (today, we call this realism), such as shooting first if necessary. Eastwood was becoming a fast rising star in the genre and those were his preferred methods. But did Wayne resent Eastwood’s characters or Eastwood the younger star?
In 1971 John Wayne, perhaps himself out of touch with changes in Hollywood, turned down the role of a little movie called Dirty Harry. The title role was written for Frank Sinatra who bowed out due to a hand injury. Wayne found playing second fiddle to Frank Sinatra in a movie about a cop using questionable methods unacceptable: “They offered it to Frank Sinatra first, but he’d hurt his hand and couldn’t do it. I don’t like being offered Sinatra’s rejections. Put that one down to pride.
The second reason is that I thought Harry was a rogue cop. Put that down to narrow-mindedness because when I saw the picture I realized that Harry was the kind of part I’d played often enough; a guy who lives within the law but breaks the rules when he really has to in order to save others.” Did Wayne see Dirty Harry as someone who was sort of agreeable after all, or did he see the dollar signs and success that the movie brought in, quite frankly due to Eastwood?
Wayne’s response to Dirty Harry, a role he’d turned down allegedly due to questionable morals, was to star in cop thriller ‘McQ’. Was it irony or hypocrisy that McQ was just as bad, if not worse than Harry Callahan? The poster for the movie read: “McQ, he’s a busted cop. His gun is unlicensed. His methods are unlawful”. The poster featured a picture of an Ingram Mac-10. That’s quite the u-turn there, Duke. Either way, the movie, that just happened to have featured a chase sequence ‘inspired’ by McQueen’s Bullitt sequence, was what we’d call nowadays a bomb, at least somewhat. It took $4 million next to Dirty Harry’s $40 million. Wayne would also go on to make ‘Brannigan’, a cop out of water feature inspired by Coogan’s Bluff. It didn’t set the world on fire.
Whether the two were actual rivals or not, who knows. But in 1973 the first correspondence came, when Eastwood wrote to Wayne asking him if he’d like to star in High Plains Drifter.
It wasn’t long before an angry response came from Wayne: “That isn’t what the West was all about. That isn’t the American people who settled this country.” Keep in mind, this conversation took place during one of the notable highs of Eastwood’s career, right at a notable low of Wayne’s. Was old Clint just having some fun here? Who knows, maybe not. Eastwood vs Wayne, that would’ve been a huge deal. At any rate, a few decades later, Eastwood would finally comment;
“I’ll tell you a story just so we can demystify the difference between John Wayne and me. It has nothing to do with existentialism. Don Siegel was making a western with John Wayne.
At one point, a guy shoots at Wayne, misses, and leaves the room, thinking Wayne is dead. Siegel tells Wayne: “Okay, now you get up and shoot the guy as he’s leaving.” Wayne refuses to do the scene the way Siegel wants. “I can’t do that,” he says. “A cowboy with any self-respect can’t shoot another man in the back, even an enemy.”
So Siegel gets annoyed and tells him, “Oh yeah? Well, Eastwood would have shot the guy.”