JOHN WAYNE : ‘I don’t know if Dobe can act, but he looks right
The actor Harry Carey Jr, who has died aged 91, was the last surviving member of the director John Ford’s stock company, which included John Wayne, Victor McLaglen, Ben Johnson, Anna Lee, Ward Bond, Andy Devine and Harry’s own parents, Olive and Harry Carey Sr. They formed a cohesive group and contributed to the distinctive world of the Fordian western.
Carey Jr, nicknamed “Dobe” by his father because his red hair was the same colour as the adobe bricks of his ranch house, made seven westerns with Ford, typically in the role of a greenhorn soldier. The most characteristic of these was Lieutenant Ross Pennell in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), the callow rival of John Agar for the hand of Joanne Dru. After she opts for the more handsome Agar, Carey is last seen staring out into the darkness.
In Rio Grande (1950), the third film in Ford’s great cavalry trilogy – after Fort Apache (1948) and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon – Carey and Johnson are two spirited troopers showing their horsemanship often without stunt doubles. In The Searchers (1956), arguably the peak of Ford’s westerns, Carey, when he realises many of his kin have been murdered and mutilated, and his girlfriend kidnapped by Comanches, goes mad, rides into the Comanche camp and is killed.
Carey was born on his parents’ 1,000-acre ranch in Saugus, north of Los Angeles. Because of the many Navajo people who worked on the ranch, he spoke Navajo before he spoke English. He had a chance to demonstrate this gift in Ford’s Wagon Master (1950). His father had formed a close relationship with Ford in the early days at Universal, starring in about 26 of Ford’s two-reelers. His mother later appeared with her son in two Ford westerns, The Searchers and Two Rode Together (1961).
Carey joined the navy in the second world war and served in the South Pacific in the medical corps, before being transferred (against his will) to serve under Ford in the Office of Strategic Services, assisting on a number of propaganda documentaries.
After the war, Carey’s attempts to escape the world of his father by trying a singing career failed, and he entered films in 1946 with a bit part in a B-melodrama, Rolling Home. This was followed by Pursued (1947), Raoul Walsh’s atmospheric psychological western, in which the boyish-looking Carey played the nervous suitor of Teresa Wright. He is egged on by the villain (Dean Jagger), in a suspenseful scene, into gunning for Robert Mitchum over an imagined insult to her.
In the same year, Howard Hawks cast Carey and his father in Red River (1948), though they had no scenes together. “I got the part when the young man originally cast was fired,” Carey told Sight and Sound in 2004. “Duke Wayne said, ‘I don’t know if Dobe can act, but he looks right.’ My big scene was with Duke when I’m talking about buying shoes for my girl. Hawks called ‘Cut!’ I thought I’d messed up. But he said, ‘Duke, you’ve lost your character. You’re smiling.’ Duke said, ‘Well if I was grinning, it’s only because the kid’s doing a good job.’ Right then I felt I had the world by the tail.”
Ford then cast him as one of the eponymous heroes of the religiose Three Godfathers (1948), dedicated to Carey Sr, who died in 1947. (Carey Sr had been in the 1916 silent version of the film, directed by Edward LeSaint.) In Ford’s film, Wayne, Pedro Armendáriz and Carey Jr, as the Abilene Kid, are three “wise” bank-robbing bandits on the run in the desert, who rescue a baby after the death of his mother. Carey sings Streets of Laredo as a lullaby and has a moving death scene in which he lapses back into childhood to recite the Lord’s Prayer. According to Carey, after the first take of the death scene, which he fluffed, Ford left him to bake in the scorching heat of Death Valley for 30 minutes. When the director returned, a near delirious Carey delivered his speech, his mouth so dry he could not swallow and with a voice that resembled the croaking of a dying man. “Why didn’t you do that the first time?” a grinning Ford asked Carey. “See how easy it was? You done good! That’s a wrap!”
Ford’s splendid Wagon Master had the extremely likeable and unaffected Carey and Johnson as two young horse-traders who join a wagon train of Mormons headed for Utah. Carey seldom had a lead again on the big screen but he was visible in dozens of westerns, mainly because he had become an iconic figure through the Ford classics.
Among his many roles, mostly on a horse and in uniform, was the young Dwight Eisenhower in Ford’s tribute to the West Point military academy, The Long Gray Line (1955). On television, he regularly appeared in Laramie, Bonanza and Have Gun – Will Travel. The latter title could have applied to Carey who, in the 1970s, when fewer and fewer horse operas were being made in the US, continued in the same vein in several spaghetti westerns.
He also had small parts in Gremlins (1984); The Exorcist III (1990), as Father Kanavan; Back to the Future III (1990), as a saloon old-timer; and T
ombstone (1993), as a town marshal. In 1994, he wrote the book Company of Heroes: My Life As an Actor in the John Ford Stock Company, which was full of insights into the films and anecdotes about the stars.
In 1944 Carey married Marilyn Fix, the daughter of the actor Paul Fix, who featured in a few westerns with his son-in-law. He is survived by Marilyn and his children, Melinda, Lily and Tom.