a progressive thinker, even though
By the mid-sixties, John Wayne had taught two generations of rednecks (and just plain folks) what it meant to be a man with his steely-eyed pronouncements, terse responses, rugged individualism and a tendency to play absentee fathers who kept their guns and dogs close at hand; men for whom a fist-fight seemed a reasonable way to get acquainted.
"When I started I knew I was no actor and I went to work on this Wayne thing," Duke told a reporter in 1962. "It was as deliberate and studied a projection as you'll ever see. I figured I needed a gimmick, so I dreamed up the drawl, the squint and a way of moving meant to suggest that I wasn't looking for trouble but would just as soon throw a bottle at your head as not. It was a hit-and-miss project for a while, but it began to develop."
Besides being serious about his craft, John Wayne was unapolgetically patriotic. "Sure I wave the American flag," he told the press in the mid-sixties. "Do you know a better flag to wave? Sure I love my country with all her faults. I'm not ashamed of that, never have been, never will be."
One of the sixties' most outspoken conservatives and a vocal proponent of the war in Vietnam, Wayne characterized his pro-war stance this way - "Nobody's enjoying this war but it happens to be necessary. We gave our word." His take on antiwar protesters could be harsh, "As far as I'm concerned, it wouldn't bother me a bit to pull the trigger on one of 'em."
Despite his hawkish position, John Wayne never served in the military. A lack of involvement in World War II was something that troubled him for years; Wayne intended to enlist but his career was on the rise in the early-forties, so he felt he wasn't able to join contemporaries Jimmy Stewart, John Ford, Robert Montgomery and other major Hollywood players who joined the armed forces.
On the other hand, Duke was politically involved in the film industry for decades, serving as president of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals - trust me, this was no left-wing organization.
When fellow actor and friend Ronald Reagan was struggling in his bid for the California govenorship in 1966, Wayne was called on to voice his support, which he did gladly.
"Duke always said family came first, career second, and his interest in politics third," Pilar Wayne wrote in her book My life with The Duke. "In fact, although he loved the children and me, there were times when we couldn't compete with his career or his devotion to the Republican Party."
After Reagan's election, Duke was exiting a victory celebration when he was asked by police not to leave the building - a mob of 300 angry antiwar demonstrators were waiting outside. As you might expect, instead of cowering indoors, John Wayne confronted the demonstrators head on.
When protesters foolishly waved the Viet Cong flag under his nose, Wayne grew impatient. "Please don't do that fellows," Duke warned the assembled. "I've seen too many kids your age wounded or dead because of that flag. So I don't take too kindly to it."
The demonstrators persisted, so he chased a group of them down an alley - wouldn't you just love to have seen that?
Because of his high recognition factor, members of the Republican Party naturally approached Wayne to run for public office. "I can't afford the cut in pay," was his reply. "Besides, who in the world would vote for an actor?"
Eventually the press confronted the actor about rumors that he might run for higher office.
"Bullshit!" was his one word reply.
"C'mon Duke," one reporter persisted. "Are you going to run? Give us a useable quote."
"I just did. You can quote me. Bullshit!"
Like his on-screen characters, John Wayne was a gambler who loved a good card game or professional challenge (he once won the original Lassie in a poker game). In 1968, despite the fact he couldn't get any major studio to sign a distribution deal, Duke decided to direct, produce and star in the first motion picture with a pro-Vietnam war stance - The Green Berets. This was reminiscent of what he went through to get The Alamo made - once again out on a limb due to the courage of his convictions.
He appeared on nine episodes of Laugh-in (the number-one show in the nation) between March and September of 1968 to peak the public's interest in his latest project.
The Green Berets was released to vicious reviews overall - which may have reflected the public's growing hostility towards the war, but in all fairness, it was a pretty lousy movie. The critic for The New York Times wrote, "The Green Berets is a film so unspeakable, so stupid, so rotten and false in every detail that it passes through being fun, through being funny, through being camp, and becomes an invitation to grieve, not for our soldiers in Vietnam (the film could not be more false or do a greater disservice to them) but for what has happened to the fantasy-making apparatus in this country."
This time his gamble paid off - The Green Berets ended up one of the year's highest-grossing movies.
By 1969, Wayne was earning a million dollars a picture along with a third of the profits, so it was in his best interest to hit the TV talk show circuit with each new release.
Although he was unhappy with how his films looked on TV (the aspect ratio was wrong - the vistas that were so much a part of his movies were lost on a tiny square box), that didn't stop Wayne's films from easily garnering a 30-40 share whenever they were broadcast in primetime. It was one of the few surefire programming decisions a network could make. Three years after theatrical release, his movies hit TV as a big event, that's why the nets were paying over a million dollars an airing for the latest John Wayne release.
If John Wayne appeared on a television show, you could be sure his fans would tune in, huge ratings were assured. Using TV appearances as a means to promote his films was a sharp strategy, as a result he never wore out his welcome.
Since one of the costars of True Grit was Glen Campbell, it was only natural that John Wayne turned up on The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour on February 19, 1969. Duke pulled out all the stops in the summer and fall of 1969 to push True Grit and bolster his Academy Award chances.
While filming True Grit, Duke was trying to keep weight off with drugs - uppers for the day, downers to sleep at night. Occasionally, he got the pills mixed up, and this led to problems on a Dean Martin Show taping in 1969. Instead of taking an upper before leaving for the filming, he took a downer - and was ready to crash by the time he arrived on the set.
"I can't do our skit," Wayne reportedly told Dean when it was time to preform. "I'm too doped up. Goddamn, I look half smashed!"
Naturally, Deano didn't have a problem with that. "Hell Duke, people think I do the show that way all the time!" The taping went on as scheduled.
In November, 1969 he dropped in on The Red Skelton Show to celebrate Duke's forty years in show biz and spoof a number of his best-known films. Appearances like this meant John Wayne was well on his way to becoming a television institution.
Here's a sketch from The Red Skelton Show with The Duke in a spoof of True Grit.
A short time later, Wayne filmed a public service message for the National Cancer Society. "Get a checkup," he challenged TV audiences. "Talk someone you like into getting a checkup. Nag someone you love into getting a checkup. And while you're at it, send a check to the American Cancer Society. It's great to be alive."
Because of this spot, ordinary Americans began making donations to the American Cancer Association in large numbers - and they're still giving because John Wayne made it mainstream.
"Even after losing one lung to cancer in 1964, he had not quit smoking," daughter Aissa Wayne wrote in her 1980 memoirs. "Oh, he stopped smoking Camels, but he started chewing tobacco, then he infrequently smoked cigars, then he was smoking cigars all the time."
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