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JOHN WAYNE: THE ONCE AND FUTURE DUKE

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 he’s John Wayne, I naturally wonder if my ears are playing tricks on me, or if maybe I’m 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 Duke’s belly, a surprising puffiness about the sun-tinted face, a slight haze over the once-piercing blue eyes.

Still, you’d think twice before tangling with the Duke. A leathery, iron-willed toughness lurks beneath the worn surface, and you needn’t stretch your imagination unduly to picture Duke running, jumping, punching, shooting and . . . well, you know, all those rugged chores he’s been performing with such splendid, gung-ho passion for the past 43 years on the screen. And which he’ll 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 don’t kid yourself that he’s headed for the last roundup – even though it might have looked that way a while back when he surrendered a lung to cancer. "I’ve 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 isn’t too noticeable in my everyday life."

The disease also hit one of Duke’s 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, ‘you’ll bury us all.’ But he looked so weak."

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, let’s 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 I’ll rest for a while.’ I went home, and that was Pappy Ford’s last day."

Duke 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 Walsh’s 1930 western "The Big Trail," it was his strikingly virile presence as The Ringo Kid in Ford’s 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 wasn’t 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. "What’s the matter, Duke?’ he asked, and I said things weren’t 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 doesn’t want to see you any other way, either. So wake up, Duke! Be what they want you to be.’ "

Duke smiles, a trace of mischief flickering in his narrow eyes. "See," he says, "I’m not against Women’s Lib. Ollie gave me some real good advice."

Some people would go so far as to say that Women’s Libbers are giving good advice right now, but if you’re expecting Duke to comment one way or the other, you’re expecting too much. On the other hand, he doesn’t 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.

"It’s 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. "They’re trying to crucify Nixon, but when they’re 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 Agnew’s 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."

Nixon’s 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, they’ve chosen to blame him for the gradual growth of hypocrisy and individual ambition that have made our political system distasteful to the public."

Duke’s 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 guns.

Is it true that he’s gone a bit softer on the Bolshies in recent years?
"Communism is quite obviously still a threat. Yes, they are human beings, with a right to their point of view . . . but you certainly don’t want your children to share their point of view. That’s all I’m interested in –- seeing that they don’t disrupt what we’ve 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 everyone’s favorite Duke had lost its charm. "We have separated," Duke says, "and it’s a sad incident in my life. It is family and personal. I’d rather keep it that way."

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. I’m 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 hell’s 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 that’s been directing some of his own movies lately. Yeah, that’s the one – Clint Eastwood!"

What about that other big kid – Marlon Brando? Does Duke –- an Academy Award winner for "True Grit" –- look upon Brando’s nixing of his Oscar for "The Godfather" as a mature action, or mere kid stuff?

"You’re going to take this out of context, aren’t 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. "Let’s just say I haven’t made a particular point of seeing that particular picture. Brando is one of the finest actors we’ve had in the business, and I’m only sorry he didn’t 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. "I’m 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 they’ll go see any provocative thing once –- maybe even four or five times -- but eventually they’ll 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?…Lubitsch, Ernst Lubitsch! He could make pictures as risque as anything you’ll 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, it’s pretty hard to take your daughter to see ‘Deep Throat.’ "