Henry Fonda suffered severe bullying on John Wayne movie Fort Apache, as did co-star John Agar who stormed off set and almost quit the Western over his wife Shirley Temple.
Back in 1947, John Wayne filmed the first movie of what would become the Calvary Trilogy with his lifelong collaborative director John Ford. Fort Apache was shot in the filmmaker’s favoured Monument Valley, where the blazing heat, high winds and desert storms proved to be an incredibly challenging production for the cast and crew. To add to the difficult conditions, the eccentric Ford would berate and bully on set, partly to assert his dominance and also to try and squeeze out the best performances he could from his stars, including an enraged Henry Fonda.
Wayne’s Lt Col Owen Thursday co-star found the director’s stubborn refusal to rehearse emotional scenes infuriating. Fonda discovered that if he wanted to discuss a scene with Ford, the director would just change the subject or tell him to outright shut up. He also found the filmmaker’s swearing and bullying very uncomfortable, even to the point of making him cry. Wives and girlfriends weren’t allowed on the Monument Valley set, but Duke’s son Michael Wayne was. He recalled: “I literally saw tears coming out of Henry Fonda’s eyes on Fort Apache. He just turned and walked away.”
Another actor in the film insulted and poked the most by Ford was John Agar, who was making his movie debut at 26-years-old.
Agar was playing Lt Michael Shannon and was newly married to his Miss Philadelphia Thursday co-star Shirley Temple. Ford would constantly call him “Mr Temple” in front of the cast and crew and slam his lack of horse riding experience and the way he delivered lines. This seriously got to Agar one day, which resulted in him storming off set and claiming he would quit the movie.
To help defuse the situation, Wayne – who played Captain Kirby York – came alongside the young actor and mentored him with the more difficult aspects of the production. The 26-year-old never forgot the Western legend’s kindness to him and later said: “I would go to hell and back for Duke.”
Incredibly, despite all they had to put up with, both Wayne and Fonda couldn’t deny Ford’s sheer genius as a filmmaker.
Fonda would work with Ford nine times and felt the director was responsible for some of his best movies. Film critics at the time believed the director turned him from a movie star into a proper actor.
As for Wayne, he would give over to the director’s dictations and put up with his terrible temper and insults since he’d made him a Hollywood star. Admiring his filmmaking talents, Duke once said: “When he pointed the camera, he was painting with it. He didn’t believe in keeping the camera in motion; he moved his people toward the camera and away from it.”
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