Sunday, July 8, 2018

A VISIT WITH JOHN WAYNE (1976) thanks to David Lawrence Wilson

The INSP Network is now a week into its month-long John Wayne celebration, THE DUKE DAYS OF SUMMER, and one of tonight's offerings (at 10pm Eastern) is The Shootist. That film is one of many subjects touched upon in this freewheeling visit with the Duke, reprinted by kind permission of co-author David Lawrence Wilson. (The Shootist repeats Sunday July 15 at midnight and Saturday July 21 at 8pm, all times Eastern.)

The County’s People
by David Wilson and James Brachman

Orange County Chronicle 
September 29, 1976

John Wayne, possibly the world’s best known actor, could be living anywhere.  Wayne’s celebrity -- his travels, awards, and films -- make him a citizen of the nation, or of the world, rather than just Orange County.

Ten years ago he moved to Newport Beach to escape the fast-paced and overcrowded life of Los Angeles.  Now he’s found that civilization -- crowded freeways and swarms of people -- have caught up with him again.

Wayne tries, not always successfully, to spend five or six weeks of every year cruising the oceans of the world on his yacht, The Wild Goose, a converted minesweeper.  When he’s in Newport, he mostly relaxes at home.  In stores or restaurants, he’s usually recognized.  “If there’s any doubt in anyone’s mind who I am, that doubt vanishes after I open my mouth.”  Wayne’s voice is a sure giveaway.

Three reporters caught up with Wayne on a rainy Friday during the first week of September, at his home in an exclusive, guarded community on Irvine Company land.  From the outside, the house is common looking -- a plain white, one-story building, a two-car garage, a wrought iron gate.

Beyond the gate, the patio and swimming pool are immense.  The pool is kidney-shaped, a pair of bright green elephant statues guard its edge.  Through the windows, there’s a view of Newport Harbor, Balboa Island, and the entire Balboa Peninsula.  We’re still outside.

An assistant lets us inside.  The house is even more tremendous.  And so is actor John Wayne, 69, cowboy of cowboys, slightly larger than life, who lumbers over and shakes hands.  He greets his visitors with a shrug, while he holds a letter in his left hand.  It’s almost a shock to see him without a cowboy hat, but there are two of the hats in his den.  A telephone rings and Wayne is summoned.  “Ah Christ.  Pardon my English,” are the first words uttered by that famous voice.  Wayne returns and sits in front of his picture window, sipping coffee, looking out at the thick, sleepy fog and dripping rain.  He grimaces at the weather.

“People like to call me up,” he says, “and ask me to talk to their friends and relatives who’ve got cancer.  They think I can give them a boost.  Damn, I don’t know what to tell them.”  The reason is that several years ago Wayne had cancer and licked it.  He would like to forget that, but the public sin’t about to let him.  Apart from phone calls, he gets at least 50 letters a week -- fan letters, invitations to events, and the like.

Wayne looks healthy.  He’s just a shade pale with some pink showing in his cheeks.  The blue-eyed actor wears a red sports shirt covered by a gray sweater embroidered with fish emblems, cream-colored slacks that are folded at the ankles and don’t quite measure up to him, and desert boots.

He’s happy to talk about his recent film, The Shootist, in which he portrays an aging gunslinger dying of cancer.

Wayne is pleased with the film and the critical reception that it’s received to date.  He’s not sure if the film has been promoted correctly, but he has nothing but praise for his co-star, Ron Howard.  He calls him the best young actor he’s ever worked with.

“I’d like to make about one movie a year,” he says.  “I get lots of scripts that are sent to me, but it’s hard to find one that will fit.  You can’t very well have me chasing around after 18-year-old girls.  It’s got to be a mature role.”  He plans to start searching out a new script during the next few weeks.

“’The Shootist’, as you know, was based on a book.  I’ve known Mike Frankovich (the producer) for a long time.  I decided to do it.  But why do people say it’s autobiographical?  The cancer thing I can see, but the story has nothing to do with me.  Why do they insist on reading this into the story?  I haven’t been a gunman all my life,” he chuckles.  “I can’t ever remember shooting anyone.”

Wayne’s booming voice is harsh and loud.  He emphasizes everything as if you are seated across the room, rather than sitting across the table.  

The Duke places his coffee cup on a napkin and removes a pen from his pocket.  He begins tracing the cup as he speaks, and he seems to be directing his comments into the cup.

“So many movies today are nothing but bad taste.  Sometimes in a book that’s okay.  Put that same material on screen and it becomes dirty.  Your imagination is no longer in control.”

Wayne has finished his initial tracing, and now draws lines out from the circle at right angles. The design has become a sun.  He continues his discussion with the cup.

“This current motion picture rating system produces nothing but bad taste.  It’s for the .. liberal intelligentsia.”  He looks up as he says “liberal intelligencia”, sneering and shouting at once.

“Christ,” he continues, “Lubisch made movies in the thirties that were more sophisticated than this bad taste junk today.  The industry has lost leadership.  When distribution and production were split up, good taste went right along with it.”

Though a little vague on what he considers bad taste (he does not name specific films), Wayne appears to be most offended by graphic sex and extreme violence.  He dislikes special effects which deliver blood and gore by the barrel, and feels that much of it, and sex, is better left to the mind’s eye.  He believes that the rating system, by taking R and X-rated movies seriously, has also legitimized them.

What about the lower-key violence in his Westerns?

“Violence is a lot of ____,” he shouts in anger, “The people who started this violence thing just wanted to focus on violence instead of the godamned bad taste!”

At the moment of Wayne’s volcanic eruption, he is called away briefly.  He vanishes into another room.

The house is filled with homey wooden furniture, some quite old, and attractively rustic.  The floor is covered with thick green carpet.  A lovely atrium at one end of the property, with a wide variety of plants and greenery, gives a plush, bungalow effect.  The rooms are filled with Western relics, including statues of cowboys on horseback.  One shelf, which covers an entire wall, is filled with Indian dolls.  Elsewhere are awards and trophies of every shape and size, photographs of Duke and his many friends, and weapons.

The main bathroom is luxurious, with the appearance of antique gold and white marble, the master bedroom includes a television suspended from the ceiling, a gigantic bed and, mounted on a wall, a very large silver crucifix.

One award -- perhaps Wayne’s first -- is given special prominence.  It’s an acting award from USC, where Wayne was a football player and undergraduate for two years in the 1920’s.  A football injury caused him to drop out of USC, but he stayed on at Fox movie studios, where he had worked one summer as a prop man.  In 1929 he was given his first part in a western entitled “The Big Trail”.

Wayne returns with more coffee, apparently in a better mood, takes his seat, and explains how he obtained the bust of director John Ford, whom he affectionately refers to as “Pappy”.

“Haven’t had your lunch yet?  How about some hamburgers?  C’mon.  Don’t you reporters ever eat?  I swear, you guys are something else.”

That Wayne dialect -- the drawl, the pause, the slur -- is his own, a genuine trademark.  You expect him to say, “All right, Pilgrim, climb down off that horse and get something to eat -- you’ll need it.”

Wayne comes by his cowboy character honestly,  He was born in Winterset, Iowa, in 1907.  His family moved to Lancaster, California, and soon after, his father opened a drugstore in Glendale.  Wayne had to ride a horse to school.

A Western luncheon of hamburgers, watermelon, and more coffee is served in the dining room, where a magnificent chandelier dangles overhead.  Between his mirrored walls, Wayne looks like a roughneck in a Louis XIV drawing room.

Since Wayne is very much interested in politics, the subject naturally arises.  He praises Ronald Reagan (whom he refers to as “Ronnie”), he’s lukewarm toward President Ford, and he hasn’t much use for Carter.

The Vietnam War, however, is what gets his dander up, even more than Watergate.  “I’m not a speaker,” he says.  “But when I have something to say, I don’t mind saying it.”

The Duke begins, between mouthfuls of beef.  “We made a promise to people.  If you make a promise, you have to go through with it.”  He stops eating, puts down his fork.  “But you liberals,” he thunders, “you dear liberals and your frigging liberal press ..”   Wayne’s voice rises as he repeats his lines about the liberal press.

The lecture continues:  “Instead of everybody sticking their nose in, why didn’t they let the military run the war?  If you’re going to war and you send kids over there to get shot at, for Christ’s sakes, you better go all the way.  We lost 50,000 boys over there.  Well, God damn it, we lose 60,000 a year at home on the highways.  Why don’t people do something about that, instead of sticking their nose in other people’s business.

“Johnson -- he was a man of indecision.  He was interested in what everybody had to say about the war.  Always had his ear to the ground.  Johnson thought the butcher’s opinion was as important as a general’s.

“Jane Fonda.  A fine actress.  I’ve known her since she was a little girl.  Always trying to find something wrong with the country.  I don’t understand it.  I just don’t understand it.”

Wayne’s choices for political office haven’t fared well, in the last few years.   The actor appeared in a number of commercials lauding Congressman Alphonzo Bell, in his recent battle for the Republican Senatorial nomination, but the endorsement didn’t lead to a primary victory on June 8th.

When Wayne complains about politicians, he seems to include practically all of them.  He claims Ronald Reagan, however, was an alternative to the professional, Eastern politicians.  Surprisingly, Wayne has also approved of Jerry Brown.  “During his first few months,” he says, “I was very impressed.  Now I’m not so sure.  I don’t think he’s really done anything with the power of the governor’s office.”

In 1972, Wayne was a solid supporter of and campaigner for Richard Nixon.  He has seen the Nixons once, at a party, since they left the White House.  He sent a letter to Pat Nixon after her stroke.  Wayne says she was reading the Woodward and Bernstein book, “The Final Days”, when the stroke began.

His complaints about the press are no longer reciprocal, because, for the first time in his career, pictures such as “True Grit”, “Rooster Cogburn”, and “The Shootist” are receiving genuine critical acclaim.  The actor is finally credited with mastering the subtleties of the dramatic arts.

There is a scene in “The Shootist” tailor-made for Wayne.  An obnoxious reporter, greed in his eyes, approaches the gunman, saying he’d like to write an exploitative book about him, and that he’ll “make up what I don’t know.”  The gunman (Wayne) orders him away, using a loaded pistol placed in the journalist’s mouth for incentive, then kicks the writer in the behind.  You could almost imagine the Duke giving an annoying real-life reporter the same treatment.

Wayne’s voice drops down a few notches.  He continues talking about politics, corrupt politicians (among whom he still does not include Richard Nixon) and taxes.

“Hell,” he laments, “I’m in the 90 percent bracket.  Why should I have to pay all these taxes for nonsense?  If I could just get a fair break on taxes, I’d be a millionaire many times over.”

Lunch, an elegantly served plate of hamburgers and potato chips, is completed and the table is cleared.  The intercom bell sounds, which means another visitor.

He stands up tall and straight.  “Damn,” he says.  “That’s probably the guy from the radio station.  Now I’ll have to go over all this ___ again.”

Also showing today on INSP, at 2pm and midnight, is The Undefeated


Melissa said...

Dave, I have never read this article. Fascinating. Thanks for posting!

Anonymous said...

Melissa --

Glad you enjoyed the article. Sometimes it's fun torevisityour own archives.

David Laurence Wilson