He became one of Hollywood’s biggest stars, but John Wayne once saw acting as just ‘a brief detour’. His real dream was to become a film director.
Cinema’s most iconic cowboy could have spent his days behind the camera had he not inadvertently stepped in front of one on a John Ford set, allowing the director to see his potential.
The disclosure is in a memoir he was working on that lay undiscovered among family papers. It said Wayne, who died in 1979, was working at 20th Century Fox in the 1920s simply to pay the bills.
It added: ‘I had no thoughts of becoming an actor. Acting was a kind of apprenticeship toward becoming a director. It was also a source of petty cash …
‘I was dead-set on becoming a director.
Elsewhere, he adds: ‘If need be, I would take a brief detour into acting or whatever else was necessary to accomplish my goal.’
The memoir was found by Michael Goldman in researching his book, John Wayne: The Genuine Article, published this month. Even Wayne’s family did not know of its existence in their archives.
Its 72 typed pages paint a portrait of an ordinary man who became the Oscar-winning star of True Grit and The Searchers, a larger-than-life icon nicknamed the Duke.
Wayne was working on it shortly before his death in 1979, having repeatedly rejected requests for an autobiography.
He wrote about the 1920s, when he headed for Twentieth Century Fox’s studio and found menial jobs in props and stunt-work, learning his techniques for horse-riding, roping, guns and fighting.
The memory of being desperate for money never left him and in the memoir he writes: ‘The big Depression was still two years away, but my one personal depression was staring at me from the bottom of my empty soup bowl.
‘I needed a job.’
He describes working as an extra – kicked off John Ford’s set for inadvertently stepping in front of a camera – and, like some star-struck teenager, was overwhelmed by the excitement of seeing his own movie heroes.
On encountering Tom Mix, a silent Western star, Wayne writes of trying ‘to figure out how to make the best impression possible on the greatest cowboy star in the world’.
He records Mix ignoring him on his attempt to ingratiate himself.
Mr Goldman notes the irony of Wayne idolising Mix: ‘The man who would become “the most iconic cinematic cowboy in history” was racking himself over how to make an impression on “the most iconic cinematic cowboy in history”.’
The biographer says of Wayne’s ‘brief detour’ in front of the camera: ‘It was a detour that lasted until his death.
‘Wayne would ultimately direct just four films, including The Alamo and The Green Berets, “passion projects” for him. But directing was not what he became known for.
‘Wayne does not elaborate in the manuscript on why he never made directing a priority in subsequent years.
‘It was John Ford who saw Wayne’s star potential. He kept him on his prop crew, began using him as an extra, gave him his first on-camera speaking role and went on to direct him in about a dozen films, including their masterpiece, Stagecoach.’
Wayne writes: ‘John Ford would teach me everything I know about filmmaking. The feeling I would come to have for scenes and just about anything else would come from standing behind him and watching him work.’
But another legendary director, John Huston, was not among his heroes and, in his memoir, he takes aim at him over his direction of Moby Dick: ‘I had, for a number of years, blamed Gregory Peck – an otherwise excellent actor – for his bad performance as Ahab in Moby Dick…
‘I had desperately wanted that part and was annoyed with Peck’s portrayal…’
Referring to his own unfortunate collaboration with Huston – The Barbarian and the Geisha – he continues: ‘Sitting on my horse waiting for the cameras to roll… [I] realized what kind of picture and performance this was going to be.
‘Probably worse than Peck’s as Ahab… I finally realized Peck didn’t have a chance. Nor, for that matter, did I.’
Goldman’s book – with a foreword by former US president Jimmy Carter and preface by Wayne’s son Ethan – draws on the memoir, along with unpublished letters and interviews with Wayne’s children and wife, Pilar.