Michael Wayne Talks About His Famous Father And The Qualities That Made Him An American Icon
True legends need no introduction, only a moniker. The mere mention of “the Babe” brings to mind the House Ruth Built much the same way “the Golden Bear” conjures up Augusta. When it comes to the American West and all it represents, one name stands out head, hat, and shoulders above all others: “the Duke.”
John Wayne’s performances in The Searchers and Stagecoach not only topped Cowboys & Indians list of the 100 Best Westerns, but he also starred in 16 other featured selections for a total of 18 picks— twice the number of runners-up Clint Eastwood and Henry Fonda. And the Duke’s appeal was not limited to just C&I readers either. Academy Award winners Tommy Lee Jones and Jack Palance and film critic Leonard Maltin were just a few of the celebrities who tipped their hats to the Duke with their selections.
Cowboys & Indians journeyed to the Beverly Hills office of the production company John Wayne founded. There, his son Michael oversees the ongoing business of maintaining his fathers legacy—licensing the use of his image, modernizing films such as McLintock! and Hondo for DVD, and continuing his father’s legacy with the John Wayne Cancer Institute. What follows are excerpts from portions of a recent conversation between Michael Wayne and Gregory L. Brown, chairman and CEO of Houston-based USFR Media Group, the parent company of Cowboys & Indians.
GREGORY BROWN: Let’s begin by talking about the American West.
MICHAEL WAYNE: The West is totally unique to the United States of America. It’s like knighthood and chivalry in England. The West, at least for me, is right after the Civil War until about 1900. From that short period of time have sprung all the songs, all the poetry, all the novels, the movies, the television shows, and the values. And I think that people identify with them. It’s our folklore, our history, and it’s a very different history than any other country has had.
BROWN: Thus the importance of the cowboy.
WAYNE: When anybody in the world sees a man with a big, broad-brimmed hat and pointed boots, he’s American. He’s a Westerner. They know it. They
know it from T\d they know it from movies, and they also know it from photographs.
BROWN: Stagecoach was such a pivotal step for your father’s career as well as the development of the Western genre. How many films had your father completed when he got a crack at the Ringo Kid?
WAYNE: The truth is I think it was about his 64th or 65th film.
BROWN: That many?
WAYNE: He had done all sorts of B Westerns, but it was Stagecoach that really catapulted him into stardom. Don’t forget that Claire Trevor who portrayed Dallas got first billing in Stagecoach. She was a much bigger star than he was at the time. Stagecoach really launched him from B pictures into Class A type films, and at the same time it also launched the Western genre into Class A films.
BROWN: How did he go about landing the part?
WAYNE: Through director John Ford. Ford and my father were close friends. My father had worked for him as an assistant director, as a stuntman, as an extra, and as an actor in bit parts. John Ford was really his mentor.
BROWN: How did Ford help him get the part?
WAYNE: Ford was going to direct Stagecoach for Walter Wanger, a very fine producer, and Wanger was not that thrilled about having my father as the star because my father had established himself as a star of B films. Some people said that Wanger wanted Gary Cooper.
BROWN: How did Ford go about getting around Wanger?
WAYNE: Ford tested a lot of actors. One was a personal friend of my father’s, named Bruce Cabot. And he had some heat on him. He’d starred in King Kong, a very successful film. Bruce went to do the test. They had a stagecoach there and all the Western gear. So Bruce did what Mr. Ford asked him to do, he climbed up on the stagecoach and grabbed the reins. Then they blew dust over him with a wind machine to see how he would look on film. Then he jumped down off the stagecoach, went up to Mr. Ford and said, “Pappy, how’d I do?” And Ford said matter-of-factly, Bruce, you were really great, but Duke’s got the part.” So it was apparent that Ford was just going through the motions in testing the other actors; his mind was made up.
BROWN: That was just the start.
WAYNE: That’s right. Soon afterwards, Mr. Ford called my father into his office. There was a holster and a gun belt sitting there with a gun. He said, “Duke, can you use that thing?” So my father put the belt on, twirled the gun and did other tricks, then smoothed it back into the holster. I Ford smiled and said, “Well, that’s pretty good, but you’re not going to
have a pistol or a gun belt in this picture. I’m giving you a rifle, and what you are is a farmer, a plowboy. You’re not a ‘fast gun’ like you were in all those B Westerns.” And that started my father thinking. The script called for him to carry a saddle in one hand and this rifle in the other for a good portion of the film. If he had to shoot the rifle and anybody threw something to him, he had to drop something to handle it. So he got together with Yakima Canutt, who was the stunt coordinator on Stagecoach and said, “Yak, I’ve got to drop the saddle to shoot the rifle. How am I going to do all that?” So they Canoe up with a large loop Winchester. He was able to cock it, twirl it, cock it, and fire it, all with one hand. And so that’s how the famous John Wayne Winchester came to be, and he carried it throughout all the films that he was in thereafter.
BROWN: Does your family still have that Winchester?
WAYNE: No, its in Oklahoma City. He donated it to the National Cowboy Hall of Fame along with the saddle and the pistol he used in Western films.
BROWN: Let’s go beyond Stagecoach. Who were your father’s favorite co-stars?
WAYNE: He loved working with anybody and everybody. And, of course, the better they were, the better he was. He loved John Ford’s stock company. Were talking about Henry Fonda, Harry and Dobie Carey Victor McLaglen, Ward Bond, and Hank Worden—a whole list of people that were really good actors, including stuntmen. Many of those stunt men were naturals.
BROWN: How about female leads?
WAYNE: Definitely Maureen O’Hara. There was a lot of chemistry between he and Maureen. They made five films together. As far as I’m concerned they were the sort of duo that Tracy and Hepburn were
BROWN: How did John Wayne become so larger than lift?
WAYNE: Well, to an extent, he was. The composer Dimitri Tiomkin [Red River, Rio Bravo, The Alamo] once told me the reason he loved to write music for films with my father was that his shoulders were so broad, he could carry a massive score. With other stars, he said, “we can’t really play our ass off with a big orchestra. It diminishes the actor. But not John Wayne.”
BROWN: Was it just his on-screen personal
WAYNE: Obviously his films played an important part in it. Besides his many Westerns, he also made 27 military films.. But I think it was as much how he was off the Screen as he eras on the screen because he had really strong, strong values and ideals. He had great respect for others, but he demanded respect from them, too. He had integrity honesty, and courage.
BROWN: Was he a religious man?
WAYNE: Let’s say, he was a believer. He believed in God. He didn’t really have a formal religion of any kind and he wasn’t running to church every five minutes, but he had a strong belief and respect for the Almighty and a strong moral Compass and I think that because he had these things in him, these values and these ideals, he was able to project them on the screen. They were inside him. They were believable. He wasn’t just acting—he really felt that way. And I think that people realized that.
BROWN: Even his detractors?
WAYNE: People didn’t always agree with him. He was pretty outspoken about a lot of things, about everything really, and he had his own personal ideas. But he never lied to anybody, and people appreciate that. They also knew he wasn’t trying to be anything except who he was. And he knew what Space he occupied. You look down at your feet; that’s what you occupy That’s it.
BROWN: As the keeper of the flame what is your mission to maintain your father’s place to Americans?
WAYNE: He’s already earned his spot in history, so I don’t have to do anything to maintain his standing. I work with people to protect his image because he’s not here to protect himself. Of course I also like to cooperate with the press and remind people about the things my father thought were important.
BROWN: Give us an example.
WAYNE: They have beautiful sunsets in Durango, and we were making a movie. There was this big wooden rocking chair on the porch where ma father Stared, and he said to me, “Come up here, sit down, and look at this sunset.” And I toll him that I couldn’t. There was work to do for the next day’s shoot, and it was my job to make sure everything was in place. He said, “Let me tell you—the work will be there. It’s going to be there tomorrow, but this Sunset isn’t going to be there. Don’t miss it.” He had a balance in his life. He was in Sync with the world around him.
BROWN: He seem d to have a good sense of perspective.
WAYNE: That he did. My father once told an interviewer, “Tomorrow is the most important thing in life. It comes in to us at midnight very clean. It’s perfect when it arrives, and it puts itself in our hands and hopes we’ve learned something from yesterday”.
Courtesy of Cowboy’s & Indians magazine