The man who killed John Wayne’s dog: Remembering formidable villain Gregg ‘Grizzly’ Palmer
Without a doubt, it was a bit intimidating interviewing one of the most ruthless screen adversaries to ever cross paths with the iconic John Wayne. It became perfectly evident right off the bat that Gregg Palmer was a gentle, cuddly bear, albeit one with a booming radio announcer’s intonation.
Discovered in 1949 after a producer accidentally heard his rich baritone delivering the news in San Francisco, Palmer headed to Hollywood and never looked back. An uncredited bit part in one of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis’s earliest films, My Friend Irma Goes West, became Palmer’s film debut.
Serendipitously, within months of arriving in Tinseltown, Universal Studios scooped up the fresh-faced, handsome young actor for a five-year contract exemplified by military action, drama, crime potboilers, romantic escapades, and Westerns.
While his prolific Universal stint didn’t catapult the burly actor into leading man territory, Palmer did hone his craft with such future stars as Rock Hudson [Magnificent Obsession], Tony Curtis [The All American], Audie Murphy [To Hell and Back, Universal’s top grosser until Jaws’ sudden impact 20 years later], and Clint Eastwood. The Creature Walks Among Us, a shining example of the low budget monster mania that swept America’s Eisenhower era, wrapped up Palmer’s Universal tenure.
But forays into the Western genre became the journeyman actor’s true bread and butter over a 30-year celluloid career. The Rare Breed with James Stewart and Maureen O’Hara, guest spots on Gunsmoke [an astonishing 21 episodes available on Paramount’s meticulously assembled Gunsmoke: The Complete Series], Bonanza, The Virginian, and six films with John Wayne — all Westerns — enabled the actor to make countless appearances at cowboy festivals in modern times.
As he grew older, the actor seamlessly transformed his persona into the consummate bad guy, exemplified by an unkempt, unruly beard and matched by a towering build. Unfortunately, a painful knee injury on the set of the Civil War miniseries The Blue and the Gray precipitated his early retirement in 1982.
Palmer first met the Duke while on a date with Oscar-nominated actress Ann Blyth [i.e. Mildred Pierce, starring Joan Crawford], but the duo would not work together until nearly a decade later in The Comancheros.
By far, Big Jake contains the actor’s best work with Wayne. In it, the 6'4", 300-pound Palmer memorably plays a vicious machete-brandishing villain who kills Big Jake’s dog and threatens his grandson’s life with near deadly results. For this writer, witnessing Palmer’s performance as an eight-year-old impressionable kid was downright scary.
The Shootist, the Duke’s final film incidentally directed by Clint Eastwood’s mentor Don Siegel, found Palmer setting the elderly gunfighter’s last hurrah in motion via a bold highway robbery that quickly went south in the opening frame.
Without further ado, sit back and enjoy Palmer’s heartfelt recollections of what it was like to work with Wayne, an actor whose staggering popularity continues to confound his detractors while remaining the quintessential genuine article to his legions of fans.
Plenty of tantalizing anecdotes you don’t want to miss include “Grizzly” — Wayne’s nickname for his buddy — playing chess in Durango with the cheating star, why he nearly passed on accepting a cameo in The Shootist, teaching the Duke’s youngest son Ethan how to properly spit watermelon seeds, and the day Palmer had trouble pronouncing a seemingly straightforward word on the set of Chisum.
Stick around for further tales of Palmer’s distinguished World War II service, favorite roles, traveling to Rome for a pair of rip-roarin’ Spaghetti Westerns, whether sagebrush sagas can mount a comeback, and the secret to maintaining steady work in the business of show.
Palmer regrettably passed away at age 88 on October 31, 2015, at the Providence Tarzana Medical Center in Los Angeles. This phone interview was conducted two years prior on June 11, 2013, while the charitable octogenarian was enroute to the Van Nuys, California, airport to make his fourth and final appearance at the Memphis Film Festival.
The Complete Gregg Palmer Interview
How did you arrive in Hollywood in early 1950?
I grew up in San Francisco. When I graduated from high school, I immediately enlisted in the Army Air Corps in 1944. I was 17 years of age. World War II was almost over when I joined — fortunately I got in on the tail end of the fighting. I became a cryptographer, which meant I intercepted and decoded enemy messages. I rose to the rank of sergeant and was discharged in 1946.
When I got out of the service I thought I would go back to school and become a corporate attorney. I didn’t plan on going into radio, but a friend of mine was trying to get in and he convinced me to give it a try. That was a long time ago [laughs].
A producer at KNBC in San Francisco heard me reading the news. Apparently he liked what he heard. I was blessed with a deep voice. It took them eight months to talk me into coming to Hollywood. Next thing you know you’re meeting people and making a screen test.
The first movie I worked in was My Friend Irma Goes West in 1950. I played an uncredited ambulance attendant. It was Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis’ second film. If you can believe it, John Lund and Marie Windsor were billed over the comedy team. A year later I had a minor part in That’s My Boy, another Martin and Lewis film.
Universal put me under contract in 1951, and I stayed there for about five years. I made three films at the studio with Audie Murphy, still one of my favorites. The films were The Cimarron Kid, Column South, and To Hell and Back. Audie and I reunited a decade later for The Quick Gun, produced for Columbia.
I received a special “Introducing Palmer Lee” billing in Column South. Palmer Lee is my given name. Universal built me up as a romantic leading man, even convincing me to change my name in time for the 1954 shoot-‘em-up, Taza, Son of Cochise, starring Rock Hudson. However, the studio’s plans for me never really materialized.
I started freelancing after that. If you have a computer and visit my IMDB page, you can easily see all of my credits. I don’t have a computer — I don’t fool with one because they send you all kinds of emails or whatever.
What are some of your favorite roles?
That’s a tough question. It’s like playing a piano — which is your favorite tune? I made so many films that it’s tough to remember them all [laughs]. I’ve done hundreds of television episodes and approximately 70 films. Plus, I’ve met a lot of nice people.
There are several films from my days at Universal that I still enjoy. Sally and Saint Anne  was a nice contemporary one with Ann Blyth and future television stars Hugh O’Brian [The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp] and Jack Kelly [Maverick]. I enjoyed working with Ann. Everybody loved her. The first time I was ever on a set where all the crew came to work with shirt and ties.
I thought Magnificent Obsession  was a good movie. Directed by Doug [Douglas] Sirk, it also had a fine script and a strong cast led by Rock Hudson, Jane Wyman, Agnes Moorehead, and Barbara Rush. I had a major part as Barbara’s romantic love interest.
I did an episode of Cavalcade of America, an extremely rare dramatic anthology series sponsored by DuPont that ran on radio and television, with future Wagon Train star Ward Bond called “The Marine Who Was Two Hundred Years Old” [January 1955]. I liked that very much. Bond was one of Duke’s best friends, and they appeared in many films together.
When did you first meet John Wayne?
I was on a date with Ann Blyth at the Beverly Hills Hotel. I had made Sally and Saint Anne with her, which was one of my earliest pictures for Universal. We were at some awards presentation — possibly the Golden Globes. We went into the hotel, and Duke was there.
She asked me, “Have you met Duke?” I replied, “No, but I can recall seeing him when I was a kid in the ’30s. He was the hero on the white horse in all those Monogram and early Republic B-westerns.” Ann brought me over and said, “Duke, I’d like you to meet Gregg.” That was when I first met him.
We didn’t appear in a film together until nearly a decade later on The Comancheros . However, I should mention that I didn’t have any scenes with Duke. I was only featured in the opening duel scene involving Stu [Stuart] Whitman. He blows me away, and from then on, the law is hot on his trail. I knew Stu from when we were under contract at Universal.
The Comancheros was directed by Academy Award winner Michael Curtiz, and he passed away several months later. Curtiz had originally wanted me for a Warner Bros. picture called Jim Thorpe — All-American  with Burt Lancaster, but I couldn’t break my contract with Universal.
Later I made a science fiction picture at Churubusco Studios outside Mexico City with Debra Paget called Most Dangerous Man Alive [Author’s Note: Finished in 1958, the film sat on the shelf for three years after original financing studio RKO went defunct due to Howard Hughes’s excessive mismanagement]. I had a reunion of sorts with that film’s unit production manager when I began filming The Comancheros.
Over the years, I did six films with Duke, all Westerns: The Comancheros, The Undefeated [directed by Andrew V. McLaglen, 1969], Chisum [McLaglen, 1970], Rio Lobo [Howard Hawks’ final film, 1970], Big Jake [George Sherman and an uncredited John Wayne, 1971], and The Shootist [Don Siegel, 1976].
I’ve done many films for Andy McLaglen. It’s possible he could have recommended me to Duke for The Undefeated, as it had been eight years since The Comancheros. Then too, it got to a point where Wayne took a liking to my work. Andy comfortably retired to Seattle, Washington and would always call and ask, “How’s Gregg?” And I would say, “How’s Andy?” [McLaglen died in his sleep of natural causes at age 94 on Aug. 30, 2014].
[Author’s Note: In Herb Fagen’s excellent 1996 book, Duke: We’re Glad We Knew You: John Wayne’s Friends and Colleagues Remember His Remarkable Life, John Mitchum, the composer of Wayne’s only spoken word album, America, Why I Love Her, and younger brother of another acting legend, Robert Mitchum, relayed a funny anecdote involving Palmer and Wayne that happened on the set of Chisum, directed by McLaglen: “Gregg played cattle rustler Karl Riker. He’s sitting in jail and Wayne is talking to him. Gregg says, ‘I wasn’t wrestling,’ pronouncing it like the sport rather than ‘rustling,’ the term associated with stealing cattle. Andy yells, ‘Cut!’ Gregg asks, ‘What’s the matter?’ Andy tells him, ‘You don’t wrestle steers, you rustle steers.’ They did it four times and for some reason Gregg couldn’t get it right. Wayne had finally had enough: ‘Grizzly, if you say I wasn’t wrestling one more time, I’m gonna knock you on your ass. You were rustling, not wrestling!’ Action: ‘I wasn’t rustling,’ Gregg says clear as can be. He got the message”].
You really scared me when I first saw you wielding that machete in Big Jake .
I still get comments when I go to functions. 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 . 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.
George Sherman directed Big Jake. He had directed me in three features for Universal in the early ’50s [The Battle at Apache Pass with Jeff Chandler, Back at the Front, and The Veils of Bagdad with Victor Mature], so I knew him pretty well.
Sherman had worked in the late ’30s with Duke, before he became a bona fide star, on several of the popular Three Mesquiteers quickie B-movies for Republic. Wayne was a generous man who never forgot a favor, and he personally selected Sherman, nearing the end of his decades-long career, to helm Big Jake. 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.
After completing Big Jake, it appeared your working relationship with the Duke was over. However, he had one final ace up his sleeve.
I understand that Duke asked me to appear in The Shootist. It was the only time I hesitated before accepting a part with Duke. To be honest, the producers, M.J. Frankovich and William Self, wanted to hurry. You know, ‘Maybe we can get you out early on a flight. When you finish up we can get you back to the hotel.’ Come on. I paid my dues. I didn’t wanna be rushed, so I decided, “Aw, I’ll just pass on this.”
This is where Luster Bayless enters the picture. Luster worked with Duke for 10 years as his special costumer, beginning with True Grit. Anytime you saw Wayne, his costume was done by Luster. He costumed me and everyone else, too. He was a Picasso in the industry. I’ve known Luster since he first landed in Hollywood over 50 years ago.
Anyway, Luster told Duke, “Well, you’re not getting Gregg.” But Duke insisted that he wanted me. So they called me back up, and I finally agreed to take the part. My character didn’t have a name. I was simply referred to as the “burly man.”
However, my character more or less set the stage to demonstrate The Shootist’s [named John Bernard Books] strength and character. On his way to Carson City, Nevada, I play a highwayman who tries to steal Duke’s wallet. He surprises me with a hidden derringer and shoots me in the belly. As he rides off, he pushes me into some icy water. He didn’t even have to get off his horse [laughs].
When Duke did that, director Don Siegel yelled, “Cut! Print! Next set-up. Let’s move.” And the crew began moving their equipment. But Luster spoke up: “That’s no way to treat a star like Mr. Palmer. Push him into the water and just walk off.” So they went into the kitty box and pulled out a few hundred and said, “Give this to Gregg. Tell him to have dinner on us.”
Everything worked out fine. I’m glad I was in the film. It was Duke’s last movie, one of the last major films that Jimmy Stewart and Dick [Richard] Boone made, and the last time I saw my friend.
I never fraternized with Duke after the movie was finished or visited his home in Newport Beach. Shortly before he passed away, a couple bought his beloved sail boat, the Wild Goose. They hosted a dinner party years later, and I had a wonderful experience.
What are some of your special memories about being on set with the Duke?
First of all, I did many appearances in Gunsmoke — 21 episodes in all between 1958 and the show’s cancellation in 1975. Shug Fisher had the most with 27 combined appearances, Morgan Woodward is third with 19 guest spots, and Victor French did an astounding 18. Jim [James] Arness was huge at 6’7”, so I got a lot of calls for Gunsmoke. It was a similar scenario with Duke. With my stature and size, I made a good match for him onscreen.
If Duke liked you, you became one of the troops. I’d have conversations with him. As a matter of fact, he gave me a nickname — “Grizzly.” He would tell folks, “Get me Grizzly.” We used to play a lot of chess on the set, especially during the morning. Duke could play you a good game, although he liked to cheat [laughs].
But he always kept a sharp eye on every aspect of the production, never interfering with the director but always concerned. For example, Duke would inquire, “Are you gonna move in for a close-up? How are you gonna cover the scene?” Or he might ask the cinematographer what lens he intended to use for a certain scene.
You have to understand, Wayne started his career as an assistant prop man and made over 150 films with some of the best directors — Andy McLaglen, John Ford, Henry Hathaway, Howard Hawks — so he usually knew what worked best.
Quite a few of my collaborations with Duke were filmed in Durango, Mexico [The Undefeated, Chisum, and Big Jake]. It’s an old town, probably about 300 years old. A group of us, including Duke, went out a couple of times to a club. It got to a point where people thought I was a visiting American checking on his property [laughs]. It was fun to work there.
After we had finished the day’s scheduled shooting, Duke would say [Palmer’s Wayne imitation is remarkably accurate], “Well Grizzly, get in the car.” So I would jump in. We would be the first one down the dirt road. That way the dust wouldn’t be kicking up and going into his car.
Duke had an aura about him. He could walk up behind you and you could just feel it. One day I asked Ethan, Duke’s son, and Josh, Andy McLaglen’s son, “Have you guys ever spit watermelon seeds?” “No. What do you mean, Gregg?” So I went over to the truck and pulled off a watermelon. I cut it open and I told them, “This is the way you do it.”
All of a sudden, I could see Ethan’s eyes widen, and I realized his dad was walking up. “Whatcha doing?” “Oh, Gregg’s showing us how to spit watermelon seeds.” I kinda looked at Duke, and he looked at me. “He is, is he?” A little smile appeared through his eyes as if he remembered as a kid when he used to do it. And Duke walked off.
He had great presence, that man. It’s tough to fathom that Duke has been gone since 1979, but I have a lot of happy memories from our time together. I miss him.
According to IMDB, you appeared in an exhaustive 156 films and television series within a 32-year time frame. What do you attribute those impressive stats to?
It’s pretty simple. You’d be working, or maybe just eating in the commissary, when a director or producer would spot you and think, ‘Gee, we’re starting such and such soon. He’d be right for this role. Bring him in and let’s talk.’ Or in many cases property/wardrobe people would get a script to break down, and your name would come up. That’s better than having an agent [laughs].
I’ve worked in 90 different television shows — legendary Western series like Bonanza, Gunsmoke, The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, Have Gun Will Travel, Wagon Train, and Death Valley Days (13 episodes). Some of them I appeared in once or twice. Other times it could escalate to 5, 10, or even 20 episodes.
From my experience, if you come prepared and do your best, you’ll work. When you don’t perform right, you’re not called back.
Is it true you appeared in a Spaghetti Western?
I’ve shot films all over the world — Durango, Acapulco, Churubusco Studios in Mexico City, you name it. I even went to Rome and Spain for three months and did not one, but two Spaghetti Westerns — Life Is Tough, Eh Providence?  and the sequel — Here We Go Again, Eh Providence? . I had only been home for a month when the producers asked me to return for the sequel.
Both were comedies and were produced at a time when the Spaghetti Western and the entire genre were dying. I played Tomás Milián’s sidekick in a definite homage to Bud Spencer of They Call Me Trinity fame, a hugely successful Spaghetti Western comedy. Oddly enough, Tomás was emulating Charlie Chaplin with a black bowler hat, black moustache, and umbrella.
Believe it or not, I was asked to go to Taipei City, the capital of Taiwan, and appear in a Kung fu Western shortly after I finished Here We Go Again, Eh Providence? I thought, ‘Well, we’ll see.’ The Kung fu project never came to fruition.
Why did you quit acting in 1982?
I tore my knee up while I was filming The Blue and the Gray, a Civil War CBS mini-series directed by my pal Andrew V. McLaglen featuring an all-star cast. I had to go in and have an operation done. They took a meniscus cartilage out, but it just never healed up right.
To this day I still have people, including an HBO director who wanted me to travel down to Santa Fe, New Mexico, calling me on the phone and saying, “When you’re ready, give us a call.” I simply reply, “Alright.” Who knows, maybe one day.
You know, Westerns are always there and always will be. They’re playing them now in television reruns like you wouldn’t believe, every day. Folks love Westerns all over. I think the genre is about to return.
When you consider the classic actors like the Jimmy Stewarts, the Gary Coopers, the John Waynes, the Walter Brennans — they always went for a Western, and it brought ’em back. Look at all the Westerns Duke made over and above the other contemporary ones. He won an Academy Award for a Western [True Grit, 1969].
You stayed relatively under the radar in the early twenty-tens. Was there a reason?
It just got to a point where I wore my knee out. I finally had a complete knee replacement about six months ago that I kinda kept putting off. My other knee has to be worked on too, but I’m not in a hurry to rush into it. The first time around wasn’t much fun. I’m doing the exercises, trying to build up my strength.
Fortunately, I feel good enough to where I am able now to get out, meet my friends, and get on with it, so to speak. I must have three or four other festivals that organizers want me to attend. I told them, “Let me see how I fare at the Memphis Film Festival, and I’ll get back to you” [Palmer’s fourth and final appearance at the MFF was celebrated a few days after this interview occurred].
In the past I’ve done a bunch of Western festivals and celebrity golf tournaments in states including Utah, Arizona, Florida, and North Carolina. I have a soft spot for Kanab, dubbed “Utah’s Little Hollywood.” I made several films along with a lot of television up there.
They even have a special Gregg Palmer Suite at the world famous Parry Lodge [laughs]. Not only that, but I have a plaque with a picture of me in a cavalry outfit from Revolt at Fort Laramie , one of the films I made there. I have accepted plaques for both John Wayne and Chuck [Charlton] Heston in the past which are located in the city. It’s a very nice honor, and I’m especially proud of it.
Is there anything that you would like to say to your fans?
It’s nice to have somebody come up to you and say, “Gee, I saw you in such and such a film, and I really liked your performance.” Earlier in our conversation, you mentioned that I really frightened you in Big Jake. Well, I had to be doing a good job. That’s rewarding, especially when actors or directors have recommended that I work with them.
My fans are too kind, and I love them all. For those that have written me nice letters, I’ve saved them. Give them my best, and be good to themselves.
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Exclusive Interview: “Dad had a few green Pontiac Grand Safari station wagons. They were customized by George Barris who did the Batmobile. When I was about five he would drive to L.A., 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.” Ethan Wayne, costar of “Big Jake” and director of the John Wayne Cancer Foundation, jump starts a mesmerizing if laconic journey of his back pages in an exclusive interview entitled ‘Gettin’ Back in the Lane with John Wayne’s Youngest Son.’
Further Reading: John Wayne possessed no plans to retire after “The Shootist” opened to excellent reviews but middling box office receipts in August 1976. After open heart surgery two years later, the Duke was determined to begin work on “Beau John.” He went to impressive lengths to secure the screenplay, actually buying the film rights via Batjac, the first time that had happened since he unsuccessfully bidded for “True Grit” 10 years earlier. The legend also had plans to reunite with recent costar Ron Howard. To learn more about the one project that gave Wayne some much needed hope during his final days, head on over to “‘Beau John’: The Untold Story of John Wayne’s Last Film Project.”
Exclusive Interview No. 2: While eating some scrumptious lunch inside Universal Studios’ renowned green room commissary, illustrious scene stealing character actor Dan Duryea pointedly remarked to 25-year-old protégé Robert Fuller, “I know ‘Laramie’ is your first series, and I’m gonna tell you something about money. I want you to save your money. Don’t be like all these actors and run right out and buy a new car, okay?” You’ll have to visit “Chewin’ the Fat with Iron-Willed ‘Laramie’ Cowboy Star Robert Fuller” to learn what happened next. Fuller later starred in the long-running “Chicago Fire” precursor “Emergency!”, took over Steve McQueen’s role of gunslinger Vin Tanner in “The Magnificent Seven” sequel with Yul Brynner, costarred with Chuck Norris in “Walker, Texas Ranger,” and danced cheek to cheek with Marilyn Monroe in the legendary “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” production number from “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.”
Exclusive Interview No. 3: “When I was younger, I had been in a class at George Washington High where I saw a teacher hit a guy on the knuckles with a wooden ruler. He broke the ruler. I was pretty impressed. Later when I was going to the Academy of Perpetual Help, some nun smacked me across the hand with a wooden ruler. I took the ruler and cracked it. I was just some punk kid. From then on I became the hero.” Puerto Rican actor Henry Darrow overcame an early childhood riddled by hard knocks to star as heartthrob Manolito Montoya on the venerable NBC Western series “The High Chaparral,” not to mention building up a résumé littered with guest-starring turns on “Bonanza,” “Gunsmoke,” “Zorro,” and even “Star Trek” over a prolific 50-year career. Check out “Totally Immersed in the World of Henry Darrow” for further illumination.
Further Reading No. 2: Head ’em up! Move ’em out! As trail boss Gil Favor on the long-running 1959–1966 Western “Rawhide” — the CBS Western series that incidentally made costar Clint Eastwood a household name — Eric Fleming engendered a three-dimensional portrait of a harsh as nails protagonist capable of genuine empathy for his motley crew of trail drovers. A little over a year after controversially departing “Rawhide,” Fleming was in the remote jungles of Peru filming an ABC TV movie entitled “High Jungle” when he perished at age 41 in a horrific canoe drowning accident. To read a harrowing first-hand account detailing Fleming’s final hours from “High Jungle” costar Nico Minardos, head on over to “Now or Never: Remembering ‘Rawhide’ star Eric Fleming.”
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