Before John Wayne became John Wayne, when he still answered to the name of Duke Morrison, the 19-year-old college student met his childhood movie hero and was left profoundly disillusioned.
Tom Mix, the popular cowboy star, promised Duke and some of his USC football buddies that he would get them summer jobs at the movie studio. Days later, they showed up to work and discovered that Mix had forgotten about them — and didn’t especially want to be reminded.
But Duke never forgot what happened.
He saw Mix as a big talker who had broken a promise. It became a life lesson for Wayne, who held himself to a higher standard and was famously gracious with fans, even when it was inconvenient.
“They say that character is what you do when nobody’s looking,” says Scott Eyman, author of John Wayne: The Life and Legend, out Tuesday. “If you’re in the movie business, character is how you treat people you don’t have to be nice to.”
Eyman was one of those people whom Wayne was good to.
“I had a very positive experience with John Wayne when I was 21,” Eyman says. “I interviewed him in his dressing room at CBS when he was shooting a TV special in 1972. He didn’t have to be kind to me, because I was a dumb kid with basically no credentials.
“I was intimidated, but that didn’t last long. After 10 minutes or so, I was very comfortable with him. He could put you at ease if he wanted to. And he liked me and he liked my questions because I didn’t ask about politics and cancer.”
Four decades after that interview, one of the highlights of Eyman’s career as a journalist and author, he has written the definitive biography about the legendary star, who died in 1979. The book, a hefty 672 pages, including 24 pages of photos, took five years to research and write.
The Golden Age of Hollywood is a specialty area for you. Two of your books are about John Ford, the great director and Wayne’s mentor. So why did it take so long to get around to writing a Wayne biography?
I basically kept waiting for someone else to write a really good book on John Wayne, and no one did, to be perfectly frank. The books that had been written tended to be written from a political perspective, either pro or con.
If they were written from a conservative point of view, then John Wayne was practically deified. If they were written from a liberal point of view, then John Wayne was a hypocrite who didn’t serve in World War II. But there are many other things that defined him beyond his being politically conservative.
So I nominated myself. I thought, “Let’s just take the politics off the shelf and investigate the rest of his life and career.” Basically, I wanted to approach him without the constant political scrim.
Were you always a John Wayne fan?
I was born in 1951, so I grew up in the ’60s. John Wayne was déclassé in the ’60s. There weren’t a lot of 15-year-old kids going to see John Wayne pictures in the mid-’60s. But I was a throwback. I paid cash money to see all of them, whether they jived with my political orientation or not.
As I got deeper into movies and started going backwards and catching up with the John Ford pictures — She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and Fort Apache and The Searchers — I became an even bigger fan, because I grew to appreciate his work as an actor.
Do you think Wayne is underrated as an actor because people sometimes fail to recognize that it takes talent and hard work to make what he did look so easy and effortless and natural?
He was much more versatile than he was given credit for. But all you have to do is look at his work. Ethan Edwards (his character in The Searchers) is not the same guy as Nathan Brittles ( She Wore a Yellow Ribbon). They’re actually 180 degrees apart.
He doesn’t look the same, doesn’t walk the same, doesn’t talk the same. The characterizations are entirely different. Some movies are better than others, of course. But he really worked at his craft.
No matter how high the bar was raised, no matter how high Ford or Howard Hawks raised the bar, he always got over it very easily. He was a very accomplished actor.
Is it barely possible that, when Wayne’s family put up more than 750 items for auction in 2011, you acquired a piece of memorabilia for yourself?
I was tempted, but the prices were way past what I felt comfortable paying. I mean, what can you really do with John Wayne’s hat once you have it?
But a friend of mine bought a bunch of John Wayne stuff. I believe he bought the hat from Big Jake, among other things. And I did try it on. It fit, oddly enough. It did fit pretty comfortably.