Yesterday marked the 35th Anniversary of John Wayne’s passing. A moment mostly forgotten since, for most people, he’s a Hollywood star a lifetime in the past, someone they only know from perpetual Saturday re-runs on AMC.
And most of the rest of us only knew him as a Hollywood Star who churned out a half dozen movies a year, mostly Westerns.
As a kid, I loved John Wayne movies because they were full of bravado and action. I didn’t have the intellectual skills to see all the character levels he built into “Red River” or “The Searchers”. And by my late teens, he was a symbol of an American way of Life and set of values that didn’t seem to fit anymore, a guy so out of touch, the sunset he walked into at the end of “The Green Berets” was actually a sunrise.
But my appreciation of the man has grown over time, grown through the realization of how hard he worked at his craft and the business and the humanity and basic decency that pervaded all that he did.
I never got a chance to experience John Wayne in person. But a good friend of mine did, Canadian director/writer/producer Allan Eastman and I asked if I could post a small section of the journal Allan’s been keeping all his life.
The following excerpt is from 1977/78:
I suppose I was ahead of my time. Nobody was in the market for directors in their 20‟s those days and that’s all they want now. Eventually, my career took me from being the youngest person in any room to being the oldest so I guess you have to count that as some kind of a success. Back then, I read the trades, took meetings and waited for the phone to ring, a universal pastime in Los Angeles. And then one day - inevitably in retrospect - corny old Lew Sherrill came through. He had a non-union director’s gig on a NBC network show for me, “Grizzly Adams”. It seems that the video of my wholesome family entertainment TV show, “Beachcombers”, had fit right into their profile niche and Lew had pitched me as the next big thing.
“Grizzly Adams” was a queer success in those unrelentingly trying to be hip times, the continuing adventures of a bearded mountain man and his sidekick bear righting wrongs, fighting bad guys and delivering moral messages in the high country of the western frontier. It had struck some chord with a significant portion of Middle America, presumably those searching for old fashioned values in a post Vietnam, post Watergate era now encumbered with the weakling prez, Jimmy Carter. Also, at a time when most TV shows were all about a high jiggle factor (“Good morning, Angels…”) and heaps of blood drenched cop show violence, Grizzly Adams was something the whole family could sit down in front of on Wednesday night at 8 and not have to cover up the children’s eyes.
Accordingly, a few weeks later, I flew by standard jet liner to Flagstaff, Arizona and then by two engine prop plane up to the location, which was in a small town high in the mountains – Payson, Arizona. This place was a nowheresville hamlet, one building deep, strung along a secondary highway like the bones of your vertebrae – café, bar, general store, gas station and a mock Alpine Chateau motel called, what else, the Swiss Village. A place where weary motorists could bed down when they got too frightened to drive the narrow winding canyon roads after dark anymore. All pretty Twilight Zone for a city boy like me, but logical enough for the production which needed mountains, forests, virgin wilderness for its frontier setting.
This was my first foray into what was the real American West and right from the start, I was a stranger in a strange land. Everybody walking around sported weather beaten cowboy hats, sheepskin coats, flannel shirts, well broken in jeans and scuffed cowboy boots. I was only a year from living in London and Paris and still sported hip European threads that fit in fine in LA or Toronto but made me look like a Martian in this neck of the woods. The 70’s were the most terrible time for fashion ever – I’m sure you’ve laughed at the antique videos on MTV of those platform heeled, tight shiny jump suited, broad belted, afro wearing musicians of the time. And those were the white guys. In fact, it seemed like the designers were pushing as hard as they could to make everybody look as much like circus clowns as possible – wide lapels, wide loud ties, floppy bell bottoms – ridiculous, really. I wasn’t quite that bad but still dressed like I was strolling on the Champs Elysee or Oxford Street – long double breasted black leather coat, beret (I still wear a beret in cold weather), waist length bright yellow turtleneck sweater, flared pants, Beatle boots. I still had traces of an English accent from my 3 years living there. Dan Haggarty, who played Grizzly Adams, surrounded by the film crew who all looked like the Dalton Gang, took one look at me and said, “You’re going to direct us?!” I was nothing if not cocky in those days, so I looked him hard in the eye and said, “Yup!”.
Actually, despite looking like some hippie dandy, I was already a pretty good filmmaker – visual, very well organized, analytical, production savvy, comfortable directing actors and able to put together and shoot a strong action scene. And confident with youth. As I prepped the show, the people I was working with started to see that I knew what I was doing and the word got around. My show was about the Wright Brothers fictional father showing up in the high country to test out a prototype glider. After an initial nasty crash, he is nursed back to health by old Griz‟ and given pointers in aerodynamics by a friendly Hawk so he is eventually able to make a successful maiden flight. Not a bad little story.
While prepping, I spent a lot of time on the set, watching how it all worked and getting to know some of the crew. The bear was a gigantic female named “Daisy” or some such, declawed and defanged, and in general was docile and surprisingly effective
walking through her paces for a food reward. One day though, she was in a bad mood and they had to keep her locked in her cage all day, which she rocked and rattled on its axles in a series of powerful jumps and shoves, trying to get the hell out of there. The trainer pointed out that some days, you couldn’t expect to get any shooting done with her.
Patrick Wayne was guest starring in the episode that was shooting while I was prepping and one afternoon a couple of 4x4‟s rolled into the location deep in the woods and out of the front seat of the first one, stepped his old man, come for a visit. The Duke in person, John Wayne, greatest hero of all my childhood Saturday matinees – Big Sam, Sgt. Stryker, Nathan Brittles, McClintock, Davy Crockett himself! Everything stopped dead and we all crowded around. The Duke was well into his 60‟s by then and didn’t bother wearing his girdle or his wig when visiting his son but was hale and hearty, unbelievably tall, raw boned and definitely bigger than life. Seeing him in the flesh, I realized that he bore an uncanny resemblance to my Father.
That evening, we all hung around the Duke in the Swiss Village bar and he regaled us with a ton of great stories – how he had scooped a Mexican beauty right off Tyrone Powers’ lap in the Brown Derby one night, how cranky John Ford was when drunk (usually), what a pussy Ronnie Reagan could be, what a great kisser Bette Davis was and so on through a hundred more. Duke was gregarious, had a huge laugh and a rough sweet natural rumpled comfortableness to him that made you love him. He bought every drink in the bar that night until long after midnight. His last words to me were, “Give ‘em hell, kid!” with a solid clump on my back. That made me feel great for weeks and I can still hear it in my mind.