James Drury’s brush with greatness — Encountering genuine article John Wayne
James Drury was a resilient performer who commanded TV airwaves for nine years as the title character of Owen Wister’s The Virginian. Drury’s impressive résumé is littered with roles alongside some of the biggest names in Hollywood. Folks like James Arness [Gunsmoke], Clint Eastwood [Rawhide], Richard Boone [Have Gun Will Travel], and Elvis Presley [Love Me Tender].
Regrettably, Drury never had an opportunity to work with the greatest screen cowboy of them all, John Wayne. As evidenced by the Harris Poll, a survey measuring America’s favorite actors, the Duke is the only actor — living or deceased — to appear in the poll every year since its inception in 1994.
In the second chapter of an exclusive interview, Drury speaks for the first time about a chance encounter outside a Paramount wardrobe department in the late ’50s with one of his biggest matinee idols. The Duke was about to begin work on the project closest to his heart — not surprisingly — a Western. Wayne was often scoffed at by critics due to his natural, reactive acting style. The well-spoken cowboy counters those detractors with powerful results.
The James Drury Interview, Part Two
What do you recall about your encounter with Congressional Gold Medal recipient John Wayne?
I came very close to meeting the Duke during my journeyman acting years on various television series. I was going into the Paramount wardrobe department to get fitted for a part, and he was coming out in his Alamo outfit — the buckskin jacket and coonskin cap.
The Duke had an entourage of about 12 people with him. He came sweeping by me, and I was dumbfounded. My mouth dropped open and I looked at him. I couldn’t even muster a “Hello, Mr. Wayne”. When you see somebody that you admire as much as I admired the Duke — and I did admire him greatly — it’s pretty hard to speak.
Of course, he didn’t pay attention to me, and I went on into the wardrobe department. I was very, very thrilled to have been that close to the man. He wasn’t even more than a foot from me. John Wayne was just larger than life onscreen and in-person, an impressive figure of a man in every way who had a great and heroic life.
Regarding the Duke’s onscreen presence…he listened to everybody, and then he reacted. And I tried to do the same. One of the most important things you can do as an actor is listen. Make sure you listen to every single word, try to understand what it means, and then come back and say your response. It always helps to make the scene very realistic, very believable. That’s the key to any kind of success in that area.
[Author’s Note: The time frame of Drury’s story can be narrowed down considerably, since The Alamo, also produced and directed by Wayne, began filming in Brackettville, Texas, in late August 1959. The Virginian remains a popular live draw at events throughout the United States. Visit his official website to see when he will be in your neck of the woods].
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