JOHN WAYNE was a giant off-screen as well as on it. The towering tough guy was continuously and rashly provoked by his True Grit co-star Robert Duvall until The Duke exploded with rage.
Wayne was just as tough off-screen as on. He famously said: “Before I came along it was standard practice that the hero must always fight clean. The heavy was allowed to hit the hero in the head with a chair or throw a kerosene lamp at him or kick him in the stomach, but the hero could only knock the villain down politely and then wait until he rose. I changed all that. I threw chairs and lamps. I fought hard and I fought dirty. I fought to win.” And, behind the scenes, few co-stars were foolish enough to risk ‘duking’ it out with the strapping 6’3 star.
True Grit, based on Charles Portis’ 1968 novel of the same name, brought Wayne a much longed-for Oscar in 1969.
As soon as he had read the book, the actor actively lobbied for the lead role of grizzled, eye-patched US Marshall Rooster Cogburn.
Despite his legendary status, the Western legend wasn’t able to control the casting, unable to secure the role of Mattie for his daughter Aissa.
However, his own preeminence had also meant that Elvis dropped out of the secondary role of La Boeuf after he was refused top billing.
Wayne himself had wanted Elvis and was deeply disappointed when negotiations fell through, but it was another actor who would cause him the greatest grief once filming started.
Duvall was 38 at the time, already established as a strong character actor, but not yet the leading man and headliner that he would become. He was also known for having a fiery temper.
In his early days in New York, he was boarding house roommates with fellow impoverished young stage actors Dustin Hoffman and Gene Hackman. All three were united by a love of elaborate practical jokes but Duvall and Hackman were also known for their short fuses, which led to explosive bar fights.
Hoffman has described how Duvall would also use his anger to fuel his performances, picking someone in the audience he imagined hated him – and then shouting “F**k you” at them as he left the stage after the curtain call.
Duvall’s temper did not apparently mellow through the decades, with Michael Caine saying it was “quite violent” when they were filming Secondhand Lions in 2003.
Duvall was also a Method actor, and his intense approach and irritation with anything that did not match up to it caused problems with Wayne and True Grit director Henry Hathaway.
This spilled over into loud and aggressive confrontations on set.
Duvall recalled in 2015, “The director and I didn’t get along — I don’t get along with a lot of directors,” and another time, “Henry Hathaway… we won’t talk about him.”
Hathaway also had a very strong personality and was aggressively dictatorial on set, which Duvall did not respond well to.
The actor later recalled: “He’d say, ‘When I say, ‘Action!’ tense up, Goddam you.” It’s hard to work under that as a young actor.”
Wayne’s increasing irritation with the disruptions to his cherished project led to him also fighting with Duvall and finally threatening to punch him out if the other actor didn’t stop arguing with the director.
Duvall later spoke about the experience of working with the screen legend.
He said: “Wayne wasn’t as bad as some supposedly serious actors I’ve seen who trained at the Actors Studio and all that… Wayne was interesting to be around. He was pleasant and outgoing…
“He was an institution unto himself, and that final film he did, The Shootist, it was wonderful what he did. So he was a good guy to work with, absolutely.”
Wayne, himself, was never happy with his work on True Grit. Even on the night, he won his Oscar, the veteran star took fellow nominee Richard Burton aside and told him he should have won for Anne of a Thousand Days.
When Barbra Streisand, who won the previous year for Funny Girl, handed him the golden statuette, she later revealed he had whispered in her ear “Beginners luck.”