A Close Encounter With John Wayne

By Steve Vertlieb: My brother Erwin and I had been listening to the “Red” Benson Show late one night in 1962 over WPEN Radio here in Philadelphia when Paramount Pictures was promoting its then new release from director Howard Hawks, Hatari. Red’s guests on that quite memorable radio program were “Red” Buttons (it was a scarlet evening), Bruce Cabot (King Kong leading man, Jack Driscoll), and a fella named Marion Michael Morrison…or John Wayne. It was a delightful interview with the cast of the newly-released summer escapist family adventure film which was to premiere locally the next morning at The Stanton Theater in downtown Philadelphia.

Erwin and I desperately wanted to see the new Wayne film, but wanted even more to see John Wayne in person. I determined that we could see the film at our local movie “palace,” The Benner Theater, but that this might be our only opportunity to ever see the “Duke” in person. So, rather than sit at the back of a packed movie house and catch merely a brief glimpse of the cast on a tiny distant stage, we resolved to go to the back of the movie theater and see them as they re-emerged from their special appearance.

At the outer entrance to the theater in the waiting alley was a tiny fleet of zebra striped jeeps awaiting their occupants return. As the door flew open, Red Buttons appeared, followed in quick succession by Bruce Cabot…and, at last, The “Duke” himself. I asked both Red Buttons and Bruce Cabot to sign my little autograph book. As the outer door to the movie theater swung open once more, I gasped…for there in front of me stood John Wayne, a giant mountain of a man literally towering over me. I was much too much in awe of this amazing super star and motion picture icon to do much of anything but watch him move gracefully from the theater to his jeep, but we did race to Independence Square on this July 4th holiday to watch him deliver his keynote address at Philadelphia’s Independence Hall that morning.

Some years later I wrote Wayne at his production company, “Batjac” Films (taken from the name of Luther Adler’s shipping company in Wayne’s Wake of the Red Witch), of that quite remarkable day, and of my lifelong love for both the man and his movies. This, then, is the letter that he was kind enough to write me in response.

The “Duke,” John Wayne, in his Oscar-winning characterization as Rooster Cogburn in True Grit. I’d written of my affection for this wonderful actor to his production entity, “Batjac” Productions in Hollywood, and he was kind enough to respond with both a personally inscribed photograph and a lovely letter which I shall also post. While his politics may have been diametrically opposite from mine, both Erwin and I have maintained a lifelong love, admiration, and respect for the “Duke,” whose body of work in motion pictures places him easily, along with Gable, Cooper, Tracy, and Stewart, among the greatest stars in motion picture history. There will never be another John Wayne, nor shall we ever see his like again. He belongs to an era of Hollywood, sadly, “Gone With The Wind.”

19 thoughts on “A Close Encounter With John Wayne

  1. Just fantastic! John Wayne was one of the greats. His personal character (as opposed to his roles) should be the model for most of Hollywood’s current leading actors.

  2. I it is so weird. John Wayne is an icon and I have heard so much about him, yet I can’t for my life remember that I have seen any of his movies. Or even them being played on swedish TV, even when they must have been, at least when I was younger.

    So to fill that hole in my education, if I should pick one John Wayne movie, which one should I pick?

  3. @Hampus

    John Wayne movies–

    The original True Grit. (I think the remake, with Jeff Bridges, is a better movie overall, but Wayne’s Rooster Cogburn is iconic.)

    Stagecoach (directed by John Ford).

    Probably Wayne’s best performance is in The Searchers, but be aware that movie is more than a bit problematic with its treatment of Native Americans. Par for the times, unfortunately.

  4. Probably Wayne’s best performance is in The Searchers, but be aware that movie is more than a bit problematic with its treatment of Native Americans.

    One note about that movie is that although John Wayne plays a central character, that character isn’t a hero, or even particularly admirable.

  5. @Hampus

    Woof. Just one? Can’t be done.

    I agree with Bonnie that True Grit should be at the top of the list. It is a great movie with John Wayne getting a lot of screen time. He got an Oscar for that movie.

    I would also agree that The Searchers is probably his best performance.

    A few others that are worth your time are The Shootist, Sons of Katie Elder, and The Cowboys.

    These films present a range of characters that run from heroic, to a sort of grimdark anti-hero, to the average person just trying to do the best they can.

    The disappointing thing is that these are all serious westerns. He’s done many films that were more light-hearted, and he’s done a ton of military themed films. Many of those films have larger casts, so he has less acting to do. While some of them are great movies in their own right, they do not highlight John Wayne’s acting abilities as much as the five movies above do.

    Happy film watching!

    Regards,
    Dann

  6. A lot of excellent choices named thus far. I’d add The Sands of Iwo Jima to the list.

  7. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence, co-starring Jimmy Stewart, is also very good.

  8. If I could only pick one movie of John Wayne’s to watch from now on, it would be The Quiet Man.

    His Cavalry trilogy with John Ford is excellent — Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, and Rio Grande.

    Don’t bother with Jet Pilot — it is awful.

    El Dorado is more or less a remake of Rio Bravo. The fomer is probably better (and showed that when he brought his A-game, Dean Martin was a heck of an actor), but both are a good watch.

    Neither McClintock! nor Big Jake are what you would call “great” movies, but both are a good way to spend a couple of hours.

    Stagecoach is often thought of as an “early” John Wayne movie, but he had made nearly 100 movies before that. Orson Welles screened it 40 times before making Citizen Kane.

  9. The Quiet Man gets played a lot on the movie channels for those who don’t have cable and I never grow tired of watching bits of it.

  10. Um, just leaving this here:

    “I believe in white supremacy, until the blacks are educated to a point of responsibility. I don’t believe giving authority and positions of leadership and judgment to irresponsible people … I don’t feel we did wrong in taking this great country away from [the Native Americans] … Our so-called stealing of this country from them was just a matter of survival. There were great numbers of people who needed new land, and the Indians were selfishly trying to keep it for themselves.”

    Playboy interview, May 1971. From Wikipedia.

    So “His personal character (as opposed to his roles) should be the model for most of Hollywood’s current leading actors”?

  11. John Wayne was also a mean drunk. So no, his personality was not something to emulate.

  12. He was also either a prude or careful of his reputation; he was offered the Blazing Saddles role that Gene Wilder ultimately played, but said the script was too blue for him.

  13. Actual veterans reportedly were pissed off that he never enlisted, just stayed in Hollywood making these movies.

    Meanwhile, returning to the subject of which of his movies I like best — Rio Bravo gets the most re-watches. He’s got a real strong supporting cast to play off, a great script (co-written by Leigh Brackett), and his character displays a range of strengths and vulnerabilities that makes it one of the most interesting roles he played.

    The Searchers is a better work of art, hewing nearer to the real brutality of the 19th-century West than Hollywood usually got, but it’s not comfort viewing and there’s certainly no comic relief like in most of his Technicolor Westerns.

    At the time I first saw them, I thought highly of most of the movies where he was paired with Maureen O’Hara. However, the characters she plays really aren’t treated very well, and that detracts from the best of them on rewatching, even when some of it is passed off as comedy,

    I wasn’t surprised he won an Oscar for playing Rooster Cogburn in True Grit — he used all his skills to undermine the stereotype Western hero he’d help create. Coming at the end of the iconoclastic Sixties, that was perfect timing. Focusing on the role itself, though, I think his Rio Bravo character did even more to draw out his strengths as a performer, without the irony.

  14. I will say that my father – an actual vet, twenty-plus years, WWII, Korea, Vietnam – did not hold Wayne’s staying at home against him. (I, the one member of the family who neither joined nor married into the military, do – for the hypocrisy of his macho image, mostly.)

  15. I think I’ll go with Stagecoach. That inspired a comic album with Lucky Luke, so it can’t be bad.

  16. My favorite would be Fort Apache though I think of it more as a Henry Fonda movie.

    Bonus, it gets at least two links back to SFF 🙂 Merian C. Cooper, of King Kong fame, co-produced it. Plus, it’s based on the cavalry stories of James Warner Bellah. Best recollection, Bellah’s story Spanish Man’s Grave was the only non SFF fiction to appear in the There Will Be War series.

  17. Stoic Cynic, that looks very promising; thank you! (I need stories for about eight storytellers, so please, folks, keep them coming….)

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