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John Wayne

John Wayne Turned Down Roles in These Two Very Different Classic Westerns

It’s safe to say that John Wayne has a complex legacy, as many long-dead figures in the entertainment world tend to have. He’s a cinematic icon who’s inspired a variety of differing opinions from viewers who watched his movies while he was alive and working, and those who’ve arrived at Camp Wayne decades later. He was born in 1907, first attained a level of super-stardom at the tail end of the 1930s, and then proved to be an incredibly prolific actor throughout the decades leading up to his passing in 1979. He was predominantly known for starring in countless Westerns throughout his career, though didn’t shy away from sometimes appearing in other genres that are generally associated with masculine qualities and characters, like action movies and old-fashioned war films. Being in those kinds of movies made him a star in his day, but perhaps not a figure who’s quite as beloved nowadays as some other legends from Hollywood’s Golden Age.

It’s admittedly easy to cherry-pick and point out the roles he didn’t end up playing that probably would’ve helped bolster his legacy in the long run, and as such, it’s important to note he was in many classics. And sure, might not have had the greatest range, but you could say the same about Keanu Reeves and Clint Eastwood (among others), so that doesn’t necessarily get in the way of a strong screen presence or a certain inimitable quality. But it can honestly be interesting to look at the rare Western roles that John Wayne turned down and unpack the reasons he chose to do so. The two key ones of interest are 1952’s High Noon and 1974’s Blazing Saddles, with it also being necessary to first define Wayne’s typical on-screen image, and also acknowledge the times he did come close to subverting his usual kind of role, most noticeably in the final years of his career.’
What Types of Roles Did John Wayne Play?

John Wayne in The Searchers (1956)

Image via Warner Bros.

Before looking at what John Wayne didn’t do, it’s only fair to touch upon what he did. Throughout a career that lasted for close to 50 years, he appeared in close to 200 movies, with many of those being Westerns. Naturally, he came to be regarded as an American icon for being so closely linked to the Old West; a unique period in American history that was also more or less unique to America. There’s every chance his depiction of a cowboy wasn’t perfectly reflective of how real-life cowboys at the time were, but the sort of character he played became representative of the quintessential cowboy to many American viewers throughout the 20th century. To this day, it’s easy to imitate Wayne’s mannerisms, his unique way of speaking, and the way he keeps on saying “pilgrim” at the end of seemingly every sentence (though to be fair, the only time he says it numerous times in one movie is in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance).

John Wayne did, however, have some outspoken views that may have raised some eyebrows back in the day, but have proven to do much more whenever such comments resurface in the 21st century. He was very outspoken against Communism (like many back in the days of the Cold War), and fiercely patriotic, helping to create the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals and the House Un-American Activities Committee, which had a huge impact on Hollywood due to the blacklisting of certain figures in the film industry. Beyond impacting the film industry in this way, many films of his had anti-Communism or conservative values front and center, such as 1952’s Big Jim McLain, which sees Wayne’s character hunting down Communists in Hawaii, and 1968’s infamous The Green Berets, which is one of the few Vietnam War movies to paint the American soldiers fighting in Vietnam as unequivocal heroes (rather than being the “bad guys” or merely victims of the war machine). If younger people are already likely to avoid older movies, then it stands to reason that John Wayne movies may be viewed as extra unappealing. That being said, Wayne was certainly offered roles that might’ve made him appear a little cooler – or at least more daring – to modern-day viewers.

Why Did John Wayne Turn Down the Lead Role in ‘High Noon’?

Will Kane in High NoonImage via United Artists 

John Wayne was in a decent number of Westerns that do admittedly hold up well (many from his collaborations with director John Ford), but arguably none hit as hard as High Noon. This movie debatably functions more like a thriller than a traditional Western, with the plot concerning one Marshal who has to stand up to an old enemy who’s out for revenge and is bringing some extra gunslingers along with him. They’re arriving in town on a noon train, with the film beginning in the late morning. In near-real-time, the Marshal is shown trying to round up anyone to help him, but there are no takers, necessitating him to face the antagonists in a showdown at noon, all by himself. Given John Wayne’s on-screen heroism and the way he could often believably come out of physical conflict unscathed, it’s easy to understand why he was offered this central role in the film.
Yet some people have read High Noon as an allegory for Communism-related blacklisting and, in turn, the actions of the House Un-American Activities Committee. Wayne was one of the people who thought as much of the script, and as such, he turned it down because he believed it went against what he supported. John Wayne even said it was “The most un-American thing I’ve ever seen in my whole life.” It might not be surprising, because the film’s writer, Carl Foreman, was himself blacklisted in Hollywood because he was deemed as an uncooperative witness who wouldn’t reveal the names of other people who’d been associated with Communism. A town full of people who are afraid to help could be read as representing those in the U.S. who didn’t stand up to the McCarthyism blacklists, and the hero refusing to back down could be read as representing witnesses like Foreman who didn’t crack under pressure. On the other hand, other people with conservative views may see it as a celebration of their ideals, or as a no-nonsense approach to doing what’s right and by the law; it was even Ronald Reagan’s favorite film. Maybe John Wayne should have approached it with a mind that was a little more open, and not let his anti-Communism feelings blind him. It could well have stood as his greatest Western, had he taken the part.

Why Did John Wayne Turn Down the Role of the Waco Kid in ‘Blazing Saddles’?

Gene Wilder and Clevon Little laughing in Blazing SaddlesWarner Bros.

High Noon was radical for its time, but might not look that way when viewed 70+ years later. Blazing Saddles, on the other hand, still packs a punch almost 50 years on from release, retaining its power as one of the funniest, most daring, and most subversive Westerns of all time. It’s a satirical film that aims to show the Old West as prejudicial and backward and does so with hilarious irrelevancy, featuring a narrative that sees a Black man appointed sheriff of a particularly racist town. Not only does it poke fun at the attitudes people likely had back in those times, but it also shines a light on those values that persisted into classic Westerns; films that don’t so much swing and miss when it comes to landing within the bounds of political correctness and more so just don’t bother to swing in the first place. And yes, Blazing Saddles can be read as politically incorrect, but it aims its comedy in the right direction, and protagonist Sheriff Bart always comes out on top morally (and is never ridiculed; it’s the racist townspeople viewers are encouraged to laugh at).

The other character who’s not the butt of many jokes is the Waco Kid, who quickly becomes friends with the new sheriff and serves as a sidekick of sorts. This was the role that writer/director Mel Brooks offered to John Wayne, though he turned it down, seeing as the language and content went against the rest of his filmography. Unlike the situation with High Noon, though, Wayne viewed the Blazing Saddles script more favorably, and told Brooks he’d be “first in line to see it.” That’s something at least, but it would have been great if he’d taken the part. It would’ve served as one of Wayne’s final movies and would be talked about to this day for feeling so different from everything else he’d done. It might’ve been interesting to have seen John Wayne try his hand at such an over-the-top, laugh-a-minute comedy, and it’s something people would likely have respected him for doing.

The Roles That Did (Slightly) Challenge John Wayne’s Image

There are interesting movies outside the Western genre that John Wayne almost appeared in. He came close to appearing in the classic action/war film, The Dirty Dozen, and even more intriguingly, almost worked with Stanley Kubrick on Dr. Strangelove. Both of those would’ve been career highlights, but beyond acknowledging his well-known Westerns made around the middle of the century, it’s also worth mentioning that John Wayne’s typically masculine screen presence and overall range were challenged more often in the final years of his career. This was largely due to the actor being in his 60s, and perhaps thanks to the fact that he had a slightly different outlook on life, too.

For instance, audiences can be thankful that The Cowboys didn’t suffer a similar fate to High Noon and Blazing Saddles, in that John Wayne agreed to appear in it, despite it being darker than his usual cinematic outings and having a director who he didn’t agree with when it came to politics. The Cowboys is a fairly brutal film, and Wayne’s character is surprisingly vulnerable. Anyone who’s seen it will know why it stands out among most of his earlier films. The Shootist (his last film) also covers similar ground thematically and provides a bittersweet sendoff for the actor while acknowledging he’s not as young or hard-hitting as he used to be. So inevitably, Wayne wasn’t incapable of appearing in subversive roles and did challenge himself more as he got older. However, it hurts a little to think about what might’ve been when it comes to some of the films he did turn down, and also wonder about how modern-day audiences might see him now, had he been just a touch more adventurous with the sorts of roles he took on.

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John Wayne

John Wayne heartbreak after pleading for one last film before death: ‘Hope to hell I do’

The crowning moment in his acting life came in 1970, when he earned his only Academy Award for Best Actor, as a result of his role in True Grit.

But one project that sadly never made it to life was Beau John, a film Wayne hoped would be his last.
Author Scott Eyman, who wrote ‘John Wayne: The Life and Legend’, discussed what Wayne wanted the project to be like, as well as the confession he made before he sadly passed away.
Eyman noted that Wayne’s wish was made at the end of 1978, just under a year before the western icon died in June.

Wayne reportedly felt directionless without any film work as he’d spent the last years in recovery with health issues as opposed to being behind the camera.
That year, Wayne received the Utah Film Festival’s John Ford Medallion, though he was unable to travel due to his health.
Instead, friend and director Peter Bogdanovich went to accept the award on his behalf, and when the pair were reunited Wayne asked if he’d consider the film he proposed.
Bogdanovich said: “It’s kind of a half-western thing, it’s not cowboys and Indians, you know, it’s — oh, the humour and the wonderful relationship between this grandfather and the son and the son-in-law and the grandson.
JUST IN: John Wayne was buried at unmarked grave with a beautiful message

“Wayne said, ‘I hope to hell I live to do it. Just a wonderful story’.”
His friend reassured Wayne he’d do the project, were he alive long enough to commit to it, and in his later life it became the Oscar winner’s main focus in life.
As he grew even more ill, Wayne then proposed the project to director Ron Howard, though he didn’t want anyone but the dying star to be in it.
According to the book, Wayne told Howard: “I found a book. I think it’s a movie. It’s you and me or it’s nobody.”

John Wayne died in 1979

John Wayne died in 1979 (Image: GETTY)

But sadly for Wayne, he died before anything could be done to start the movie.
Howard added: “It never got past the verbal stage.
“And at that point, he was showing signs of not being well. I was a little doubtful.”
Wayne passed away in 1979 as a result of stomach cancer, and was buried in the Pacific View Memorial Park Cemetery in Corona del Mar, Newport Beach.
His legacy was secured when the American Film Institute chose him as one of the greatest male stars of classic American cinema.

He was among a select group of stars who managed to negotiate their way from the silent film era of the Twenties, into the talkies that followed.
He had seven children in total, and was married three times.

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John Wayne

John Wayne battled crippling injuries and heartbreaking loss on Rio Lobo set

The sight of The Duke thundering across The West on horseback remains one of cinema’s most indelible images.
Meanwhile, “Get off your horse and drink your milk” has frequently been attributed as one of John Wayne’s most famous ‘quotes.’

Despite some claims that it came from an advert he shot, it is actually almost certainly an urban myth, most likely started by comedians doing drawling impressions of the Hollywood Westerns legend.
Sadly, though, by the time the star came to film 1970’s Rio Lobo (a blatant remake of Rio Bravo) towards the end of his career, he was in so much pain struggled to get on and off his horse.
In fact, the entire film shoot was surrounded by personal tragedies for the actor.
DON’T MISSJohn Wayne revealed his own three favourite films from his career

John Wayne on horseback in Rio Lobo

John Wayne on horseback in Rio Lobo (Image: GETTY)

John Wayne starred in Rio Lobo
John Wayne was in agony in Rio Lobo (Image: GETTY )

It was director Howard Hawks’ final film and the third film he made with John Wayne about a beleaguered sheriff standing against outlaws.
In a 1971 interview Hawks said of Rio Lobo: “The last picture we made, I called him up and said, ‘Duke, I’ve got a story.’ He said, ‘I can’t make it for a year, I’m all tied up.’ And I said, ‘Well, that’s all right, it’ll take me a year to get it finished.’
“He said, ‘Good, I’ll be all ready.’ And he came down on location and he said, ‘What’s this about?’ And I told him the story. He never even read it, he didn’t know anything about it.”

Famously, when Wayne realised it was a remake of Rio Bravo and El Dorado, he quipped: “Yes, he said, ‘Do I get to play the drunk this time?”

Hawks was less jocular after the film bombed and blamed it on 63-year-old Wayne being too old and out of shape for the role.
Critics and audiences agreed and the film took just over $4million against a production budget of $6million plus all the extra promotional costs which are often the same again.
Wayne’s physical difficulties were not due to his age, however. He had piled on weight for 1969’s True Grit and then while filming The Undefeated the same year, The Duke fell from his horse and fractured three ribs, leaving him unable to work for two weeks.
Later in the shoot, he tore a ligament in his shoulder. With no movement in one arm, he had to be filmed only from the other side.

John Wayne with a rifle in Rio Lobo
John Wayne with a rifle in Rio Lobo (Image: GETTY)

Wayne came into Rio Lobo in considerable pain, out of shape from True Grit and still suffering from a torn shoulder.
Most of his fight scenes had to be filmed with stand-ins or carefully from restricted angles. Some fights even happened off-camera. And he struggled greatly getting on and off his horse.
He also suffered two devastatimg personal blow when his mother died during filming and then his younger brother Robert E. Morrison lost his battle with lung cancer the month after filming ended.
But there was one shining moment of happiness also.

John Wayne in True Grit
John Wayne in True Grit (Image: GETTY)

Always a dedicated workhorse on set, no matter the physical injuries or personal pains, Wayne took a rare break from filming.
He had a very good reason, since it was to attend the 1970 Academy Awards. After exactly 40 years on screen, The Duke finally won the Best Actor Oscar for True Grit.
Touchingly, when he returned to the Rio Lobo set, he was greeted by the cast and crew all wearing eye patches like True Grit’s Rooster Cogburn.

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John Wayne

Ann-Margret recalls ‘gentle’ and ‘welcoming’ John Wayne who did her a big favour

Legendary actress Ann-Margret turns 80-years-old today on April 28, 2021. The singer, dancer and performer made quite the name for herself in Hollywood in a number of films during the early 1960s, including Bye Bye Birdie and State Fair. She is perhaps best known for her epic performance in 1964 hit Viva Las Vegas alongside Elvis Presley, with whom she shared a passionate love affair. Shortly after working with the King, she joined wild west star John Wayne in his 1973 movie The Train Robbers.

Ann-Margret played the lead in the movie – one of her first lead roles – Mrs Lowe.

The story followed her character after her husband had been killed, leaving her half-million dollars.
Mr Lowe had acquired this money from robbing banks in the wild west, however, she was keen to return it to the government to clear her name. John’s character, Lane, had different ideas. He wanted her to help find the money and claim a reward for it.
Ann-Margret recently gave an interview about her time on the silver screen, where she touched upon working with the legendary John.

Ann-Margret continued: “He was so great with my parents. So absolutely welcoming and gentle with them. And anybody who was great to my parents was on a throne in my eyes.
“I was friends with him forever. He was never [pretentious]. He had so many friends and every single person loved him.”
Ann-Margret also previously praised John for doing her an enormous favour in her time of need.
During the filming of The Train Robbers, Ann-Margret was up for an Oscar alongside her co-star Ben Johnson.
However, considering Ann-Margret was filming in Mexico she was struggling to find a way to attend the ceremony.
Without a second thought, John gave her and Ben his own private plane to allow them both to attend the ceremony.
Ann-Margret said later: “The next day, we were back on the set, and Ben had won and I hadn’t.
“I don’t know what Mr Wayne said to Ben, but he got me in a corner, and he just said some wonderful things to me.”
Ann-Margret also spoke candidly about her relationship with Elvis.
The pair enjoyed a relationship together for just over a year while filming Viva Las Vegas.

Speaking in the same interview, Ann-Margret said: “Just thinking about Viva Las Vegas, or anytime someone mentions it, I smile.
“It was one of the happiest times of my life. George Sidney, who directed Bye Bye Birdie also directed Viva Las Vegas. And believe it or not, I had never seen [Elvis] perform.”

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