That America craves strength in the face of metastasizing challenges and threats, within and without, makes John Wayne, who died thirty three years ago today, more relevant than ever.
Recently I spoke with A.J. Fenady about “the Duke” to mark the 105th anniversary of his birth on May 26. I interviewed A.J. at his offices in Hollywood near Paramount Pictures. Writer-Producer Fenady’s long parade of credits consists of TV series, including The Rebel, Branded, Hondo, sixteen novels, seven stage plays, many MOWs and features including The Sea Wolf (1993), The Man With Bogart’s Face (1980) and Chisum (1970).
While developing Chisum, Fenady spent much time in many places with the Duke during and between the filming of Hellfighters, True Grit and The Undefeated. He was with him the night Duke won his Oscar and the day Duke, along with friends, celebrated five years after his lung operation, when he was declared cancer free.
Before his Oscar win, Fenady said, “Duke tipped his hand while they were having a drink together at the bar: “I said, ‘Good luck tonight Duke,’ and he said, ‘Well, McFenady, we gave it our best shot.’ But, I could tell he was confident.” And, sure enough, Fenady said smiling, “He let something slip on stage after he presented an award. Even though he was not scheduled to appear again unless he won for best actor, “Duke nodded to the audience and said, ‘I’ll see you later.’”
Fenady “first bumped into Wayne—almost” shortly after arriving in Hollywood in the early 50s, “still smelling of college.” Fenady was tooling around Hollywood in his Oldsmobile looking at the front of the studios, the billboards, the gates—to Paramount, RKO, Universal, Twentieth Century Fox, MGM—as he liked to do, wondering if he’d “ever be able to be inside one of those Camelots.” As he was approaching the Barham Gate at Warner Brothers, he recounted:
All of a sudden, out of the gate and off the curb strides the biggest man—the biggest anything I’ve ever seen in my life—against the light. He had the red light, I had the green and he’s striding across the street like he owns it and I slam on the brakes and twist the wheel and the cars behind me do the same and I stopped and I looked out, and recognizing it was John Wayne, put my head out the window. He turned around and said, “Why you dumb bastard, why don’t you learn how to drive that damn car.” I had a ready reposte—I wasn’t going to take it. I nodded and said, “Yes, sir.” He kept walking to the Mexican café across the street and flipped the Camel cigarette before making an entrance.
Years later, in Durango, while filming Chisum, Fenady said he told Wayne this story: “He looked at me, smiled, and said, ‘Oh, were you that dumb bastard?’ as if he remembered.”
Fenady formally met Wayne while working at Paramount on The Rebel TV series (1959-1961), while Wayne was filming Hatari!. Fenady had hired a “cutter” (now called an editor), Otho Lovering, who had worked on many of Wayne’s films, including Stagecoach, The Long Voyage Home and later, The Alamo and McClintock.
One day, sitting in his office, as usual with his door open, Fenady said, “I hear Otho saying ‘Hey Andy. There’s someone out here who wants to come in and say hello. Is it OK?’ I said, ‘Bring him in, that’s what doors are for.’” So, in comes skinny, little Otho and there “filling the whole damn doorway” is the Duke. “And, he comes over and he sticks his hand out and shakes hands and then Otho says to Duke, ‘Look. See, that’s what I was telling you about.’”
Otho was pointing to a blown-up publicity photo from Hondo that went all the way from the ceiling to the floor of Fenady’s office.
“Hondo. That’s one of my favorite pictures,” Duke said. “The rights to Hondo come back to me in a couple of years.” After that, Fenady said, “Duke would stop by The Rebeldailies or the set grinning, ‘I might want to get into this television business myself some day.’ A couple of years later, after becoming pals and working out with Duke’s son, Michael, at the gym, all the stars lined up. “I’d made a deal with MGM,” Fenady said, “and remembering Duke’s comment, ‘the rights come back to me,’ I worked out a deal, developed, wrote and produced the series Hondo, in partnership with MGM and Batjac (Duke’s production company).”
Working for John Wayne, Fenady said, meant “achievement. You were top of the world. You worked with and moved with the best.” During WWII, he said, Duke got a bum rap because he didn’t join up: “First off, Duke was thirty-five years old with a wife, four kids and a studio to support.” He tried time and again to join John Ford’s Naval Unit but his request was blocked by Herbert Yates at Republic for just ‘one more picture’ – war pictures like Flying Tigers, Pittsburg, Fighting Seabees, Back to Batan. “Duke’s visits and efforts for the troops, like Bob Hope’s,” said Fenady, “continued years after, in Korea and Vietnam.”
The story of how Chisum came about will be told in Fenady’s book, tentatively titled,Big Enough for John Wayne… and me. Though, he did offer one gem in “John Wayne, Cigar Lover”—published in this teaser, along with his “Commemorativo Tequila vs. Gordon’s Gin” anecdote, on the Duke’s birthday.
The film business has changed a lot since Chisum. In spite of what John Chisum, played by Wayne, says, change has not always been “for the better.”
Duke, Fenady said, used to use the phrase “when ours was a small business.” Fenady said Columbia in the 30s and early 40s budgeted just $17 million, with which they made 53 pictures, 3 or 4 for $1 million, whereas the others cost $300,000. “It was a small business,” he said, “but it was largely owned by and controlled by first generation immigrants who came here to succeed, who loved this business. For them it wasn’t a corporation, it was their studio, their home, it was their life.” By contrast, today, “you don’t know who to go to talk to for an OK. I’ve gotten OKs by talking to one person at a studio. Today you can’t do that… There aren’t any Warners, Mayers, Cohns, Fords and Capras. It’s all mathematics.”
Asked what memories well up inside of him on the anniversary of Wayne’s birth and death, Fenady said, his voice cracking ever so slightly, “I don’t need any anniversaries to remember him… There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t remember him.”
Nonetheless, two days later, on the anniversary of the Duke’s birth, when I asked, “Do you remember how you heard the news on the day of Duke’s death?,” he said:
I remember vividly. I got a phone call in the afternoon from a good friend of mine, Ted Thackrey, a reporter at the LA Times. “A.J.,” he said, “we’re not supposed to release this story for another two hours, but I know you’d want to know. Duke just bought the farm.”
The next day while we were shooting The Man with Bogart’s Face, and just before noon, I asked for silence on the set and had the effects man toll a bell nine times for John Wayne, then said, “Duke beat the count – he got up and made it to the Big Sky.”
And during the day a lot of the radio stations kept playing the theme from The High and the Mighty.
Over three decades later, John Wayne remains indelibly imprinted in America’s consciousness. The further out from his death, the more popular he is, ranking as “America’s favorite movie star” as recently as January 2012 according to a Harris poll —a position he’s held since the early 90’s.
He’s bigger than even the very much alive, very liberal George Clooney. This, at a time when TNT has revived Dallas—J.R. more resembling L.G. Murphy, the villain in Chisum,written by Fenady, than the hero, played by Wayne. The new Dallas premieres on TNT this Wednesday, June 13.
But, Wayne—playing the “good guy,” reassuringly leading and trouncing the “bad guys”— remains larger than life.
Why is this so?
Why is it the Duke forever commands that special corner of America’s collective mind, where we desire nothing more than the Old West values he epitomized, where good and evil are clear cut?
The answer, Fenady said, lies in Wayne’s philosophy, which was simple: “There’s only one defense: Strength. Stay strong.” “There comes a time,” Fenady said, “when you find out you can’t do business with Hitler. You can’t do business with Stalin. You can’t do business with L.G. Murphy–and some other current dictators.” All the Westerns Fenady worked on—The Rebel, Hondo, Chisum, he said, “had something in common: They were pushed, and pushed and pushed and finally they had been pushed enough and that’s when Duke says, as in Chisum, ‘Break out the Winchesters.’ That’s the way that he looked at it.”
Critics of “the Old West” ushered in “New Hollywood” –the landmark film Bonnie and Clyde that glorified “bad guy” Western outlaws and outcasts, serving as the vanguard. Fenady responded to “those righteous revisionists of the West who take such great delight in doing everything they can to demean, defame, defile and pervert anyone who ever wore a badge or uniform, any man or woman who ever moved west” in his 1995 off-the-cuff remarks accepting the prestigious Golden Boot Award (1) :
To those critics I would say “Where would you have had the pilgrims and the pioneers stop?” At Plymouth Rock? Manhattan? The Allegheny and Mongahela? The Shenandoah? The Ohio? The Mississippi? The Missouri? The Red River? The Colorado? Where would you have had them draw the line and say, “This is far enough.”
Me? I’m glad they kept coming West. Otherwise California wouldn’t be the 31ststate. There wouldn’t be a Hollywood. We wouldn’t be here tonight and I would not have had the privilege and pleasure of meeting and working with people like John Wayne (and so many others)(2)…
It’s easy for the critics to look back and say, “They could have done it differently—they could have been “kinder and gentler”—well, maybe so; but the wonder is that they did it at all. And a lot of them died a not so kind and gentle death in the doing. On all sides the paths of glory led to the grave. And there was guilt and glory enough to go around on all sides—but for the most part, right was done, and it was done right—and that’s how the west was won!
“Instead of finding the heroic aspect of a character,” Fenady said, “the Arthur Penns and Bob Altmans did everything to denigrate and downgrade the heroes, the Custers, the Hickocks and the Buffalo Bills. They figured that was the way to get the attention of the young revolutionaries—hippies—of the time.”
Ah, but Wayne was kinder and gentler, captured in the story of when Wayne met Fenady’s wife, Mary Frances, mother of their six children. When Duke saw her wearing an elephant pin, he assumed it was because she was a Republican. But she disabused him, telling him, ‘It’s a gift from my husband, lest I forget him when he’s away shooting a film. Elephants never forget.’ Years later, when the Fenadys were having dinner at Chasens with Michael Wayne and his wife, Gretchen—godparents to their youngest child—after drinks, dinner and dessert, Michael reached into his pocket, and pulled out a small elephant key chain.
“J.W.,” Michael said, “asked me to give this to Mary Frances, “so she won’t forget him.”
But, then, who could ever forget the Duke?
(1) The Golden Boot Awards Dinner , held for 25 years from 1983-2007, benefitted the Motion Picture and Television Home and Hospital, which Mary Pickford, “the woman who made Hollywood,” founded to help those in the film industry when they fell on hard times. The Motion Picture and Television Fund sponsors it. Having itself fallen on hard times, in 2009, the fund announced plans to close the home and hospital. Though, it was saved, its finances remain precarious. The night in 1995 that A.J. Fenady received the Golden Boot, he was joined by Claire Trevor and Burt Lancaster (in memoriam) among other stars.
(2) Full list of those A.J. Fenady mentioned the night in 1995 he was honored with the Golden Boot: “John Wayne, Michael Wayne, Charles Bronson, Robert Mitchum, Ernie Borgnine, Richard Jaeckel, Ben Johnson, Any McLaglen, Burt Reynolds, Burt Kennedy, Dale Robertson, Morgan Woodward, Denver Pyle, James Drury, Dan Blocker, Doug McClure, Chuck Connors, Nick Adams, Christopher Reeve (he’ll be up again), Angela Lansbury, Angie Dickinson, Anne Francis, Stella Stevens, Helen Hayes, Joan Blondell, Gail Russell, and oh, so many, many more.”
Mary Claire Kendall , Contributor – http://www.forbes.com/sites/maryclairekendall/2012/06/11/a-j-fenady-remembers-the-duke/