Ann-Margret and Ben Johnson, who co-starred with John Wayne in The Train Robbers, were both up for Oscars when the movie was filming in 1972. But they were on set in Durango, Mexico, more than 1,300 miles away from Los Angeles when the Academy Awards ceremony took place.
Not wanting them to miss the ceremony, Wayne lent them his plane so that they could attend.
Johnson won Best Supporting Actor for The Last Picture Show; Ann-Margret, nominated for Best Supporting Actress for an acclaimed turn in Carnal Knowledge, lost out to Picture Show’s Cloris Leachman.
“The next day, we were back on the set, and Ben had won and I hadn’t,” Ann-Margret says during a brief phone interview. “I don’t know what Mr. Wayne said to Ben, but he got me in a corner, and he just said some wonderful things to me.”
The singer-actress only worked with Wayne on that one film, but he made a big impact on her, and she’ll be in Dallas on Saturday to introduce The Train Robbers, which is screening as part of the Fourth Annual John Wayne Film Festival. This is the fest’s first year in Dallas after three years in the West Texas town of Snyder. Nearly a dozen Wayne movies will screen during the festival, which benefits the John Wayne Cancer Foundation (Wayne died of cancer in 1979 and underwent cancer surgery in 1964).
“He was so huge,” she says with a laugh of the 6-foot-4 actor. “The man was just colossal. I’m 5-4 and a half, and when he hugged you, you were totally enveloped into him.”
The actress says that when she came to Los Angeles, there were two people she wanted to meet — Walt Disney and John Wayne. She never got the chance with Disney, but she says that when she got to work with Wayne, she was in seventh heaven. But she has trouble referring to him by his famous nickname.
“It’s hard for me to call him ‘Duke,’ because I was always taught growing up that when you first met someone, it’s ‘Mr.’ whatever or ‘Mrs.’ whatever or ‘Miss’ whatever,” she says. “But he was bigger than life. When I went to work with him, I would sit in the back [of a car] and he would sit in the passenger seat. He was such a huge man, and he’d have a window open, and in the fields people would be working and of course everyone knew who he was.”
And that was in Durango, in a fairly remote area roughly 1,300 miles from the California-Mexico border. “There were always people coming up to him, and he had that great voice,” she says. “Between his voice and his walk, he certainly was special, and his fans were in love with him.”
Directed by Burt Kennedy, The Train Robbers is a low-key Western made when Westerns were beginning to be unfashionable in Hollywood. According to the Turner Classic Movies website, Wayne, who didn’t like the increasing sex and violence in Hollywood movies in the late ’60s and early ’70s, formed his own company, which gave him more control over his movies and allowed him to appear in relatively mild Westerns for the era.
Ann-Margret plays Mrs. Lowe, a widow who offers Wayne’s character a reward to retrieve $500,000 in gold stolen by her husband so that she can return it to the bank and clear her family name. The movie puts more emphasis on character than action (although there are gunfights and explosions), with a mix of veteran older actors (Johnson, Rod Taylor) and younger ones (Christopher George, singer Bobby Vinton) along for the ride. Ricardo Montalban also appears as a mystery man pursuing Wayne’s group.
The only woman in the movie: Ann-Margret.
“I loved being the only woman in the movie,” she says with a laugh. “They’re all really men. I’m deathly afraid of horses, and the first night, we all had to ride. Everyone knew how to ride horses except me. And it was midnight, and we all had to gallop up to this one line and stop. Once we did it, it was a take. John Wayne noticed that I was a little apprehensive. He was drinking some mineral water and asked me if I wanted some. He must have seen my hands shaking.”
Her friendship with Wayne continued after filming concluded. She recalls how kind he was to her parents when they visited the set; when her father died shortly after filming was concluded, Wayne sent flowers to the funeral. When she had to cancel an appearance on The Tonight Show because of illness, Wayne showed up in her stead.
Along with Ann-Margret, members of the Wayne family — children Patrick Wayne, Melinda Wayne Munoz, Ethan Wayne, Marisa Wayne, and granddaughter Anita Swift — will be at the festival. They’ll be on hand for the opening-night film, The Quiet Man, which will screen at 6:30 p.m. Thursday.
Other movies in the fest include The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, The Green Berets, The Searchers and The Comancheros (all on Friday); Rio Bravo, The Alamo and True Grit (all on Saturday, before The Train Robbers); and The War Wagon and Red River (Sunday afternoon). For times, visit johnwayne.org. All movies will be at LOOK Cinemas, 5409 Belt Line Road in Dallas. General admission for each movie is $20, with proceeds benefiting the John Wayne Cancer Foundation.
As for Ann-Margret, she’s still acting, in a career that now spans more than 50 years: She’ll be a guest-star this season on Ray Donovan, Showtime’s drama series starring Liev Schreiber as a “fixer” working in Hollywood.
“I just signed up for two episodes,” she says. “But I don’t think I should tell you anything about them,” she adds with a laugh.