JOHN WAYNE: THE ONCE AND
It's a wintry morning in
1973, and Duke Wayne, nursing a hangover from a festive football-league
dinner, manages to be polite and good-humored, even as he fields
thorny questions from the New York Times' Guy Flatley about Spiro
Agnew, Richard Nixon, Vietnam, Watergate and hardcore porn.
"I like your hair," drawls the big boulder of a
man leaning forward in his too tiny chair at the Pierre. Since hes
John Wayne, I naturally wonder if my ears are playing tricks on
me, or if maybe Im being taken for a hippie.
But no, Duke is dead on the level. He does like my hair. "I
wish we could make an exchange," he sighs, manfully tugging
at the shiny tufts of brown hair that jut out, high above his starched
collar. "I could easily give you mine."
So he could. And, sad to say, the fancy toupee is just one of several
proofs that time plays no favorites, not even among royalty. There
is a telltale ring of flab around Dukes belly, a surprising
puffiness about the sun-tinted face, a slight haze over the once-piercing
Still, youd think twice before tangling with the Duke. A leathery,
iron-willed toughness lurks beneath the worn surface, and you neednt
stretch your imagination unduly to picture Duke running, jumping,
punching, shooting and . . . well, you know, all those rugged chores
hes been performing with such splendid, gung-ho passion for
the past 43 years on the screen. And which hell be doing once
again in the upcoming "McQ," the saga of a cop who is
honest, if not quite Serpico-honest.
So Duke is 66. But dont kid yourself that hes headed
for the last roundup even though it might have looked that
way a while back when he surrendered a lung to cancer. "Ive
been allowed a few more years - I hope," he says, puffing
on his after-breakfast cigar. "My lung capacity is naturally
limited now; but I had a pretty good set before the disease hit
me, so it isnt too noticeable in my everyday life."
The disease also hit one of Dukes oldest and most cherished
cronies, and he speaks of him now with melancholy warmth. "John
Ford was like a father to me, like a big brother. I got word that
he wanted to see me at his home in Palm Springs, and when I got
there, he said, Hi Duke, down for the deathwatch? Hell
no, I said, youll bury us all. But he looked
Duke pauses, remembering. "We used to be a triumvirate
Ford and me and a guy named Ward Bond. The day I went to Palm Springs,
Ford said, Duke, do you ever think of Ward? All
the time I said. Well, lets have a drink to Ward,
he said. So I got out the brandy, gave him a sip and took one for
myself. All right, Duke, he said finally, I think
Ill rest for a while. I went home, and that was Pappy
Fords last day."
was at his rough-and-tumble best under the direction of John Ford
- playing ornery but honorable heroes in such toughly sentimental
adventures as "The Long Voyage Home," "They Were
Expendable," "Fort Apache," She Wore a Yellow Ribbon,"
"The Quiet Man," "The Searchers," and "The
Man Who Shot Liberty Valance." And even though he landed his
first starring role in Raoul Walshs 1930 western "The
Big Trail," it was his strikingly virile presence as The Ringo
Kid in Fords 1939 classic "Stagecoach" which provided
the first clue that Duke possessed the stuff of which myths and
millions are made.
Sacrilegious as it sounds today, Duke at first balked at the manufacture
of the myth. He wasnt all that eager to be squeezed into the
mold of the lean, lovably laconic man in the saddle. "Not that
I had thoughts of becoming a song and dance man," he says,
nearly blushing, "but, like most young actors, I did want to
play a variety of roles. I remember walking down the street one
day, mumbling to myself about the way my career was going, when
suddenly I bumped into Will Rogers. "Whats the matter,
Duke? he asked, and I said things werent going so well.
You working? he asked, and I said, Yep.
Keep working, Duke, he said and smiled and walked away."
Will Rogers advice proved sound, even though there were times
when it caused Duke to sink into the doldrums. "Once I was
working in a movie with Harry Carey and his wife Olive, and I was
complaining about being typed. Duke, Ollie said, look
at Harry over there -would you like to see Harry Carey play
any other way? Of course not, I said. Well,
Ollie said, the American public doesnt want to see you
any other way, either. So wake up, Duke! Be what they want you to
Duke smiles, a trace of mischief flickering in his narrow eyes.
"See," he says, "Im not against Womens
Lib. Ollie gave me some real good advice."
Some people would go so far as to say that Womens Libbers
are giving good advice right now, but if youre expecting Duke
to comment one way or the other, youre expecting too much.
On the other hand, he doesnt give the cold shoulder to other
hot issues of the day. Like Watergate. "Watergate is a sad
and tragic incident in our history. They were wrong, dead wrong,
those men at Watergate. Men abused power, but the system still works.
Men abused money, but the system still works. Men lied and perjured
themselves, but the system still works."
And Duke still works harder than almost anyone else to sell that
system. So profound is his love for Uncle Sam that it is said -
perhaps in jest - that he patrols the Pacific coast in his
converted minesweeper, keeping America, or at least its western
extremity, free from foreign foes.
kind of a sad thing when a normal love of country makes you a superpatriot,"
Duke frowns, a hint of impatience stirring in his husky voice. "I
do think we have a pretty wonderful country, and I thank God that
He chose me to live here."
Duke also thanks God that He chose Richard Nixon to live in the
White House. "Theyre trying to crucify Nixon, but when
theyre writing the history of this period, Watergate will
be no more than a footnote. Believe me, I have a high respect for
the bulldogged way in which our President has been able to continue
to administrate this government, in spite of the articulate liberal
press - whose only purpose is to sell toilet paper and Toyotas
- and in spite of the ambitious politicians who would deny
him the help and encouragement that a man needs to face the problems
of this country."
One of the stickiest problems the President has been forced to face
in recent months has been the case of the Vice President who virtually
vanished in a puff of scandal. "I endorsed Spiro Agnews
attitudes," Duke says slowly, choosing his words with care,
"but I knew nothing of his private affairs. I was sadly disappointed
to discover his feet of clay."
Nixons feet, however, are as solid as Fort Knox, and Duke
is dead sure the President did us proud in Vietnam. "The only
way to get 520,000 men home - men who had been practically
sneaked into Vietnam in the first place - was to make the
decision to mine Haiphong Harbor. President Nixon had the courage
to make that decision, and when the other side started using prisoners
of war as pawns, he had to make the awesome decision to bomb Hanoi.
Which he did, and then he brought our prisoners of war home."
Duke is up and pacing the Pierre floor, and vigorously puffing away
at his cigar. "Richard Nixon and I have had a long acquaintance.
I respected him as a goodly man - winning or losing -
over the years, and I think he should be standing in the crowning
glory today for his accomplishments. Instead, theyve chosen
to blame him for the gradual growth of hypocrisy and individual
ambition that have made our political system distasteful to the
Dukes fondness for Nixon was perhaps never more fervent than
in the frightened forties, when the crusading Congressman from California
promised to get those reds on the run. It was the heyday of the
House Un-American Activities Committee in Hollywood, and actor Lionel
Stander has said that Duke used to roll out of bed in the morning
and casually ring up the committee, dropping a name or two that
would then automatically pop up on the blacklist.
"I never in my life did any such thing!" gasps Duke, looking
as surprised as a cowboy cornered at the O.K. Corral without his
Is it true that hes gone a bit softer on the Bolshies in recent
"Communism is quite obviously still a threat. Yes, they are
human beings, with a right to their point of view . . . but you
certainly dont want your children to share their point of
view. Thats all Im interested in - seeing that
they dont disrupt what weve proven for 200 years to
be a pretty workable system, a system in which human beings can
get along and thrive."
Thrive - to the tune of millions - is precisely what
Duke and his tribe (he has six children, ranging in age from 38
to 7) have done. Presumably, his wives have prospered, too, though
Pilar, the third Mrs. Wayne, recently indicated that playing Duchess
to everyones favorite Duke had lost its charm. "We have
separated," Duke says, "and its a sad incident in
my life. It is family and personal. Id rather keep it that
Retreating to a safer, more public, region - how does Duke
explain his astonishing span of superstardom? "My build-up
was done through constant exposure. By the time I went overseas
to visit our boys during the Second World War, they had already
seen my movies when they were back home. Now their kids are grown
up and their kids are seeing my movies. Im part of the family."
Who will be the Dukes for our kids kids? "I think Steve
McQueen and Robert Redford have a chance of becoming lasting stars.
And certainly that big kid -what the hells his name?
Jesus, I have such a hard time remembering my own name sometimes.
Oh, you know the one I mean, that big kid, the one thats been
directing some of his own movies lately. Yeah, thats the one
What about that other big kid Marlon Brando? Does Duke -
an Academy Award winner for "True Grit" - look upon
Brandos nixing of his Oscar for "The Godfather"
as a mature action, or mere kid stuff?
"Youre going to take this out of context, arent
you?" Duke squints, and then breaks into a who-gives-a-damn
grin. "I think it was sad that Brando did what he did. If he
had something to say, he should have appeared that night and stated
his views instead of taking some little unknown girl and dressing
her up in an Indian outfit. What he was doing was trying to avoid
the issue that was really on his mind, which was the provocative
story of "Last Tango in Paris."
A "Tango" which did not provoke Duke into his neighborhood
theater, incidentally. "Lets just say I havent
made a particular point of seeing that particular picture. Brando
is one of the finest actors weve had in the business, and
Im only sorry he didnt have the benefit of older, more
established friends - as I did - to help him choose
the proper material in which to use his talent."
Duke squashes out his cigar and reflects for a moment. "Im
not preaching a sermon from the mount, you know: this is just my
own opinion. But it does seem to me that when our industry got vulgar
and cheap, we began losing our regular customers. Sure, people are
curious, and theyll go see any provocative thing once -
maybe even four or five times -- but eventually theyll just
stay home and watch television.
"There used to be this little Frenchman in Hollywood who made
all these risque movies
what the hell was his name?
Ernst Lubitsch! He could make pictures as risque as anything youll
see today, but he made them with taste and illusion. The only sadness
in my heart for our business is that we are taking all the illusion
out of it."
Duke grunts and pats his toupee. "After all, its pretty
hard to take your daughter to see Deep Throat. "