Nobody wanted to say anything, because I was with John Wayne
Today, Scott Eyman is a journalist, adjunct professor and author of numerous biographies covering actors and filmmakers from the Golden Age of Hollywood, but in 1972, at the age of 21 and armed with only the knowledge that he wanted to “write about the movies,” he found himself sitting with legendary Western star John Wayne. That meeting would lead, over 40 years later, to his writing the biography John Wayne: The Life and Legend.
“If I hadn’t met him,” Scott, who was born March 2, 1951, muses, “I probably wouldn’t have written the book. Over the couple of hours I sat with him, I found that there was an interesting gap between who he was as a human being and what he played. I mean, not 100% — there was definitely an overlap — but he was much more … thoughtful … as a person than his screen character was. He was much more contemplative than his screen characters. His body language was different as a person than it was on screen. So there were just all of these interesting differences between what he did and what audiences thought of him, and who he actually was.”
Noting that he had been a fan since the time he was a kid, memories still burn fresh of going to the local theater and watching all of those movies. “I was actually kind of young for John Wayne,” Scott suggests. “He belonged to an earlier generation and most of my friends thought I was kind of goofy, because I would go see The Sons of Katie Elder or Big Jake and things like that. I wouldn’t have thought of missing a John Wayne movie.” Just as he couldn’t have imagined spending five years of his life to come writing about him.
It Started With a Letter
With no idea of how he was going to pursue his dream of writing about the movies, Scott began writing letters to everyone. “In that era,” he reflects, “there were a lot of guys sitting around in LA who weren’t working, who had had really interesting careers. I sent several letters to six or eight people, and Wayne was one of them. Although he was still working at the time, I figured, ‘Hell, why not start at the top?’ And I got a letter back from his secretary, Mary St. John. Now I had no credentials whatsoever; I was writing for an alternative weekly, but I guess I wrote a good letter. She wrote back and said if I was ever in California, I should call her.”
Two weeks later he booked the trip and made it shortly thereafter. Upon his arrival, he called Mary to let her know he was there. She said, “He’s shooting a TV show at CBS. What are you doing tomorrow at one o’clock?’ I said I could be there and she arranged it and that was it. I showed up and was ushered into his dressing room. There he was, smoking a cigar, which was funny in and of itself, because he was America’s most famous cancer survivor.”
Making the Rounds With the Duke
While Scott was expecting a short meeting with the legendary actor, things went on for about 90 minutes with him asking questions and John Wayne answering. “What I didn’t know is that he hated to be alone,” he says with surprise. “He liked having people around him, and part of Mary St. John’s job was to fill up his day so that he wasn’t sitting by himself in his trailer, you know? Most actors don’t want to put the public anywhere near or around them, but he would talk to almost anybody rather than be alone. So I got 90 minutes, and every once in a while somebody would stick their head in the door and say, ‘We’re almost ready for you, Mr. Wayne,’ and he’d say, ‘I’m doing fine, I’m doing fine. Got my friend here.’ Finally the time came when he had to go to the set, and he invited me to come out with him. It was a 50th anniversary salute to CBS and Bob Hope was there, Jack Benny was there. And he takes me around, introducing me to all these people who are looking at me, like, ‘Who the hell is this guy?’ I didn’t have a pass and was taking pictures with my 35mm camera and they didn’t know who I was. Nobody wanted to say anything, because I was with John Wayne.”
wo years into college, he lost his football scholarship and, as a result had no choice but to drop out of school. “He busted a shoulder surfing and nobody needs a tackle who can’t block, so he got cut,” says Scott. “As a result, he couldn’t afford to pay the tuition, which is why he had to drop out. So then he decided to stick around Fox and go into the movie business. It’s that John Lennon lyric, life is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans. At Fox he became a laborer, an assistant camera man, he did make-up — he did everything, because he was just a kid trying to make a living and Ford took a liking to him and made him a part of his crew. Gradually Ford gave him some small parts — walk on parts, nothing special — because he had a nice face. Then he got the job working for Raoul Walsh on The Big T
s Scott, “and she worked with him at the tail end of their careers in Rooster Cogburn — and she adored him. Most people, even liberals, loved working with him, because he was a very good actor and he worked hard. He was the first guy on the set and the last guy to leave. He was a pro’s pro and actors like that. He wasn’t phoning it in. Politically, she said he was reactionary. She said his political philosophy was based entirely on his own experience. Because he made it starting from nowhere — the family was lower middle class on its best day, and there weren’t too many good days in that era for him — why couldn’t everybody else make it? Completely overlooking the fact that, A, he was extremely handsome, was six-foot four, had a skill set that was remarkable and was a powerful locomotive. He was extraordinarily ambitious. Well, not everybody has that group of characteristics. There are people who work really hard and don’t have his talent. They’re not particularly talented in a way that’s going to bring them a lot of money, you know? And she said he just couldn’t grasp that. He figured, it’s America. If you work hard enough, you can make it.” Well … not necessarily.”
Released in 1939 (the same year as both The Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind), Stagecoach is looked upon today as a seminal Western about a group of strangers riding on a stagecoach through what is deemed dangerous Apache territory. Director John Ford, despite protests from studios and producers, refused to make the film without John Wayne. The gamble obviously paid off, with Ford commenting at the time, “He’ll be the biggest star ever, because he is the perfect ‘everyman.’”
Enthuses Scott, “What you see is a guy who doesn’t have a great hand of cards at any one time, but he’s working and working and getting better and better at the craft of acting. So when Ford finally says, ‘Let’s do Stagecoach,’ he was ready. He’ learned how to act. He’s learned how to react. He’d learned how to work a scene with another actor He’d become a professional.”