The day I met John Wayne on a rusty old industrial estate in Greenford, Middlesex
I’d like to say that I had met John Wayne under a mesa in Monument Valley or as the sagebrush swirled across the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. Instead we were, in July 1974, face to face in a static caravan on a rusty old industrial estate in Greenford, Middlesex, where, far from his natural habitat in America’s Old West, I’d gone to talk to Wayne about his latest film, Brannigan.
This was the one and only film he made in England (among more than 170 across a career lasting more than six decades). An entirely forgettable yarn about a tough Chicago cop trying to hunt down a fleeing mobster in Blighty, the film’s best bit was a deliciously naff trailer, trumpeting: “The Duke’s in London! God save the Queen!”
He much preferred to chat about anything but a film that would perpetuate all the old touristy cliches
At 67, still a man mountain at 6ft 4in, face leathery as a saddle-bag and with his latest hairpiece perfectly in place, it seemed he much preferred to chat about anything but a film that would perpetuate all the old touristy cliches from toffs in bowler hats and pub brawls to cars leaping across Tower Bridge.
Colourfully and unrestrainedly, it was “fucking” and “goddamn” this, or “shit” and “asshole” that as Wayne, one of Hollywood’s most vocal right-wingers, laid into everything and everyone from “whining radicals who call themselves liberals” and “theatre actors who couldn’t polish a bit player’s shoes” to “bank presidents and stock manipulators running studios who know nothing about motion pictures”.
To make that day even more memorable, his often gleefully intemperate tirades were constantly punctuated by painful throat-clearing and phlegmy hawking which, within minutes, had swiftly evolved into an ear-splitting series of wracking coughs and sonorous spitting (into a hanky).
Yet, as Wayne – who had bravely gone public with his lung cancer, coining the term “The Big C”, just a decade earlier – battled his turbulent throat on this warm day in summer, he never showed any obvious signs of weakening or remotely giving in as I offered the occasional, feeble, “It must be very unpleasant” or “Would you like me to leave?”
Someone once wrote: “Film stars don’t die in Liverpool.” Well, they certainly aren’t meant to peg out in Perivale, west London, either.
In fact, the wheezier he became, the more he seemed to warm to his harangues, which also included “today’s filmmakers who’d let all illusion go out the window”.
When, I asked, would he finally call it a day? “I’m gonna finish,” he declared in that famous drawl, “when they say: ‘Oh, do we have to look at that old sonofabitch again?’”
He died in 1979 after completing just two more pictures.