Holy Christmas, it’s John Wayne! A Duke marathon rides tall on INSP TV

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Exclusive John Wayne reminiscences with cruel cowboy villain Gregg Palmer, Chris Mitchum, and only surviving sons Patrick Wayne and Ethan Wayne shed light on the Hollywood icon’s latter day Westerns such as “Chisum,” “Big Jake,” and “The Shootist.” Seen here sitting atop Dollar, a sorrel gelding with a narrow blaze and high stockings on both hind legs, the Duke is mighty tall in the saddle during an early scene from “The Cowboys” where he rides into the nearly deserted trail town of Bozeman, Montana, circa June 1971. Photography by David Sutton / Warner Bros.

Saddle up, pilgrims! The INSP cable network augmented 2020’s quarantine Christmas with a marathon sampling nine of John Wayne’s best Westerns distributed between 1944 and 1972. Within an astounding 167-film canon, the American institution appeared somewhere in the neighborhood of 87 Westerns in his workaholic 50-year career on the silver screen.

Affectionately known as the Duke by his army of aficionados, the late action star’s cultural impact is still felt over three decades after his death from the ravages of stomach cancer. Believe it or not, Wayne regularly places in the Top Five on the annual Harris Poll of America’s favorite living or deceased actors. He is the only actor to remain firmly ensconced on the list every year since the poll originated in 1994. No other major entertainment personality of the era comes close except Elvis Presley.

In chronological order, the Wayne films consumed during the holiday weekend were Tall in the Saddle [the alluring Ella Raines more than matches Wayne’s swagger], The Fighting Kentuckian [a rare chance to catch the rotund Oliver Hardy of iconic comedy duo Laurel and Hardy in a solo outing], Hondo [John Wayne: The Life and Legend biographer Scott Eyman places it among the actor’s 15 all-time greatest films], the Taming of the Shrew homage McLintock! [witness the expertly choreographed mud fight], Howard Hawks’ successful reimagining of Rio Bravo into El Dorado with drunken sheriff Robert Mitchum, an Oscar-winning performance as the over the hill but always gets his man Marshal Reuben J. Cogburn in True Grit, the sprawling Lincoln County War-rendered Chisum, the revenge-fueled, brutal Big Jake, and the coming-of-age, unsettling The Cowboys [On Golden Pond director Mark Rydell’s sole Western].

In an exclusive interview with Wayne’s eldest surviving son, actor Patrick Wayne reveals, “I’d have to say Big Jake was really the most fun I had working with my dad. My younger brother Ethan Wayne was in the film, and my older brother Michael was producing it via Batjac. It was a little family affair. We were on location in a remote part of Mexico — Durango and Zacatecas — and your family tends to get closer when you don’t have a lot of distractions like television or whatever.”

In preparation for his final role as gunfighter John Bernard Books in “The Shootist” [location shooting would commence in Carson City, Nevada, on January 12, 1976], a mustachioed John Wayne grabs Santa Claus’s boot aboard his treasured Wild Goose yacht during Christmas 1975. Photography by Pat Stacy / John Wayne Enterprises

Late character actor Gregg Palmer left an indelible impact on my psyche growing up. Wielding a vicious-looking machete in Big Jake, Palmer fondly remembered the taut Western two years before his 2015 passing at the ripe old age of 88.

“I still get comments when I go to film festivals,” said Palmer. “I’ll be signing a picture and I’ll hear a voice say, ‘That’s the man that killed John Wayne’s dog, son.’ Of course, forty-plus years ago I was 6’4’’ and nearly 300 pounds, so hopefully I’m not as intimidating today [laughs].

“It’s me with the machete getting that dog or Richard Widmark pushing that lady in the wheelchair down the stairs in Kiss of Death [1947]. Folks tend to remember those things [laughs].

“I portrayed a vicious outlaw named ‘John Goodfellow.’ At the film’s climax, Dick [Richard] Boone yelled, ‘Get the kid!’ Duke’s eight-year-old son in real life, Ethan, was playing Big Jake’s grandson. Anyway, I went after him, and he was hiding in a haystack. Big Jake’s dog, perhaps in a nod to Duke’s dry humor, had the no-frills name of ‘Dog.’ He protected the kid and chewed me up real bad until I got him with my machete. Big Jake comes to the rescue, and I try to kill him, too. He runs out of bullets, so he grabs a handy pitchfork when I lunge at him. I get it in the gut.

“Duke was a generous man who never forgot a favor, and he personally selected George Sherman, nearing the end of his decades-long career, to helm Big Jake [Sherman directed all eight of the Duke’s 1938–1939 Three Mesquiteers B-westerns just prior to John Ford’s Stagecoach lifting him to A-list status]. The director wasn’t always in the best of health, so Duke took over much of the action-outdoor scenes. However, he refused to be credited as co-director.”

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In preparation for his final role as gunfighter John Bernard Books in “The Shootist” [location shooting in Carson City, Nevada, began on January 12, 1976], a mustachioed John Wayne surveys a red poinsettia, Christmas tree, and various presents aboard his beloved Wild Goose yacht during Christmas 1975. Photography by Pat Stacy / John Wayne Enterprises

While the programming choices were perpetually vulnerable to debate — no trace of the renowned Red River, Ford’s cavalry trilogy, The Searchers, or even the Christmas-themed 3 Godfathers [Turner Classic Movies nabbed it]INSP’s final contenders signified exactly why the Duke’s legacy transcends most of his contemporaries.

His natural acting technique has been derided by critics for over three quarters of a century. However, examine any of the seven movies showcased and see if his genuine charisma doesn’t leap off the television screen. Stints as an apprentice prop man and stuntman in his journeyman years enhanced the Duke’s knowledge of what constituted a good film. You really believe he is the genuine article.

In the years after the elder Wayne’s passing, was it tough to revisit his films? “I’d have to say no to that question with the exception of one film,” admits Patrick. “I couldn’t watch The Shootist as it was so close to reality. He played an old gunfighter who was an anachronism dying of cancer.

“Too many of the elements in there were just too close to what actually happened to him in his real life, so that film took me about 10 years to watch again. When I did finally watch it, I have to say that it’s probably his finest performance as a pure actor, using all his skills and being more than just a cardboard cutout, but more of a real human being — a vulnerable human being — and I think he pulled it off really well.”

Take a look at the veritable laundry list of classic Hollywood stars that populated the Wayne films on INSP — Robert Mitchum, Maureen O’Hara, Richard Boone, Bruce Dern, James Caan, Ed Asner, Dennis Hopper, and Robert Duvall. Directorial masters Howard Hawks, Henry Hathaway, and Mark Rydell are analyzed in film schools.

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John Wayne and his three children with third wife Pilar Pallete — Marisa [born 1966], Aissa [1956], and Ethan [1962] — open gifts on Christmas Day 1976 inside the actor’s Newport Beach, California, home. The Duke would methodically peruse mail order catalogs and stores for months in preparation for the holidays. Photography by Pat Stacy [Wayne’s final secretary and companion]

Ethan did visit one of his father’s cowboy sets in Durango very early on. The sixth of seven Wayne offspring clarifies, “I was only three years old but probably The Sons of Katie Elder for real clear memories — Dean Martin and the spurs.”

The oft-imitated Oscar winner truly tried to maintain a more active presence for his three kids with third wife Pilar Pallete, although his driving acumen left much to be desired. “Dad had a couple of green Pontiac Grand Safari station wagons featuring a customized roof for his Stetson and even a telephone with two channels,” says Ethan. “They were customized by George Barris who did the Batmobile.

“When I was about five he would drive to Los Angeles, put me on his lap, and make me steer. If I would start driving out of the lane he would yell, “Hey — get back in the lane!” and scare the crap out of me. He would also accelerate when we would go into a corner. He had a lot of fun doing that.”

Chris Mitchum rose through the ranks of Wayne’s stock company in three consecutive westerns — Chisum, Rio Lobo, and Big Jake — and evidenced the Duke’s principled morals. “Duke was big enough that he would state when he was wrong,” confirms Mitchum. “He also was extremely fair. I remember one time when we were doing Chisum, the prop guy asked the cast to check their guns when they left the set as it was unsafe around Durango and he did not want them to be misplaced.

“This prop guy had to go running after Geoff Deuel. He hadn’t checked his gun, and Duke saw that. Duke waited until everybody was seated having lunch. Duke stood up and ripped Geoff apart for not checking his gun. He hollered, ‘Everybody on the set has a job to do, and we help everybody do their job. We work as a single unit here. You were asked to check your gun. Do it and don’t make him come running!’

“The next day there was an actor standing and Duke said, ‘Why don’t you go sit down? It’s hot.’ This actor replied, ‘Well Duke, I don’t have a chair.’ Duke had gotten his start as a prop man for Twentieth Century Fox in the late 1920s. He called the prop guy over and just ripped him a new one for not having a chair there. Duke gave it out to everybody who was out of line” [laughs].

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Pilgrim, you better do like I tell you: Union Colonel Cord McNally [John Wayne], forced to dress as a Confederate officer, gets the drop on wet-behind-the-ears Sergeant Tuscarora Phillips [Chris Mitchum, son of laconic tough guy Robert Mitchum] in director Howard Hawks’ “Rio Lobo,” dropped to abysmal reviews but decent box office returns on December 18, 1970. Photography by David Sutton / The LasBugas Collection / DukeWayne.com / Paramount Pictures; In the color photo from a few scenes earlier, Wayne is held prisoner in the temporary hideout of the payroll train-robbing Rebels with Mitchum’s back to the camera. Photography by David Sutton / MPTV Images

Incidentally, “Holy Christmas” was uttered by the Duke in Cahill: U.S. Marshal [1973]. Go to the scene where a bucking mule and a strategically fired shotgun thwart the crusty marshal’s plans to frighten teenage sons Gary Grimes and Clay O’Brien into turning themselves into the law as they unearth stolen loot in a spooky graveyard.

Remember when TBS and AMC used to air Christmas and Thanksgiving Western marathons alternately featuring Wayne and Clint Eastwood? While that’s a bygone tradition, let’s applaud INSP for having the guts to recommend the Duke to a slew of iPhone-brandishing millennials.

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John Wayne happily brings daughter Aissa Wayne — and likely a grandchild bringing up the rear — down the winding staircase of his Encino, California, to open presents circa December 25, 1958, about five months after he completed filming Howard Hawks’ “Rio Bravo.” Photography by Phil Stern
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Dressed as Sheriff John T. Chance, John Wayne plays chess on the set of director Howard Hawks’ classic “Rio Bravo” with visiting son Patrick Wayne circa May 1958. The Duke relished the game and was often guilty of cheating unless an opponent nixed his skullduggery. Image Credit: DukeWayne.com forum / Las Bugas collection
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John Wayne and youngest son Ethan Wayne hide behind a haystack as Richard Boone’s vicious gang approaches during the finale of “Big Jake,” a popular western released to cinemas on the occasion of the Duke’s 64th birthday on May 26, 1971. Photography by David Sutton / Twentieth Century Fox
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Circa October 1970, Gregg Palmer betrays his downright nasty characterization of outlaw John Goodfellow to tip his hat and smile broadly in a still from “Big Jake,” his fifth film collaboration with John Wayne. Image Credit: The Gregg Palmer Collection / Paramount
On the Warner Bros. set of director William “Wild Bill” Wellman’s “Blood Alley” in 1955, John Wayne, in character as Captain Tom Wilder, encourages listeners to buy Christmas seals and help end tuberculosis. Video Credit: YouTube user BJ’s Records & Nostalgia
Click to watch two American institutions, John Wayne and Bob Hope, shoot the breeze and sing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” for a wonderful segment of the “Texaco Presents Bob Hope’s Comedy Christmas Special,” broadcast on December 13, 1976, via NBC. Video Credit: NBC / Texaco
In this clip, Western hero John Wayne shines in one of his last televised appearances celebrating the season in colonial Williamsburg, Virginia, with beloved crooner Perry Como in “Perry Como’s Early American Christmas” broadcast on December 13, 1978. Video Credit: GetTV
Watch as Western hero John Wayne shines in one of his last televised appearances celebrating the season in colonial Williamsburg, Virginia, with beloved crooner Perry Como in “Perry Como’s Early American Christmas” broadcast on December 13, 1978. Video Credit: GetTV

© Jeremy Roberts, 2011, 2017, 2020. All rights reserved. To touch base, email jeremylr@windstream.net and mention which story led you my way. I appreciate it sincerely.

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Retro pop culture interviews & lovin’ someone fierce sustain this University of Georgia Master of Agricultural Leadership alum. Email: jeremylr@windstream.net

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