Various versions of how John Wayne’s relationship with Bond began have been told the best known comes from Duke himself
None of John Wayne’s show-business friendships were as enduring, or as entertaining, as the kinship he forged with two men he met around the same time—character actor Ward Bond and director John Ford. The trio hooked up when Ford, in 1929, hired both Duke and Bond, former teammates on the USC football team, along with other former football players, for small roles in a movie called Salute.
Duke’s friendship with Ford has received most of the headlines over the years, but that’s possibly because it lasted longer. He was as close to Bond as any man he ever met, but unfortunately lost his buddy to a premature death at the age of 57 in 1960.
Various versions of how John Wayne’s relationship with Bond began have been told. The best known comes from Duke himself, as he wrote it in the unpublished, partial manuscript about his life. In the manuscript, Duke wrote that Ford put him in charge of wrangling the football players Ford had hired for Salute. Duke wrote that he initially rejected Bond’s participation, because “he struck me as ugly and a potential discipline problem.” Ford found Bond’s unruly youthful nature to be pleasantly unpretentious, however, and hired him anyway.
Apparently Bond didn’t show up when the cast and crew were preparing to board a train for Los Angeles until the last minute. Duke wrote of this instance that “the last player to arrive, an hour late, a dollar short, one pocket torn, and a gin bottle hanging out of the other, was Ward Bond.”
Basically, Bond drove John Wayne nuts on that trip—spending money irresponsibly, getting drunk, and disobeying rules. Ford, however, realized both Duke and Bond had honest, self-effacing natures, so he paired them together, hung out with both of them, and the trio eventually became inseparable. Duke wrote that Ford’s decision to have them room together was “his idea of a joke.” However, “over corn whiskey and a few nocturnal escapades, Ward and I became close personal friends, and that friendship lasted until the day Ward died, over thirty years later.”
It was also a professional collaboration—the two of them appeared together on screen in 22 movies and two television shows, starting with the long-forgotten Salute, but continuing into some of the most memorable projects of both of their careers, including Ford’s seminal The Searchers (1956), which made Duke into a permanent star.
Bond was also notable for his high-profile Conservative political activism that, from time to time, even had John Wayne—himself a rock-ribbed Republican icon—playfully teasing him about “being on his Communist kick again,” if letters in the John Wayne Archive are any indication. But that teasing is sort of the point—the friendship between the two men was so much deeper than a shared profession or shared ideological or political beliefs. Their brotherhood was built on genuine personal affection, some wild adventures, a humorous outlook on life, and genuine humanity.
Letters found in the archives are filled with playful ribbing between Wayne and Ford, poking fun at their beloved Bond. In one letter, Wayne joked that Bond had given up the sugar substitute saccharine because someone told him it was bad for his virility. In many of them were ongoing jests about Bond’s appearance—jokes that had been making the rounds almost since the time the two men first met.
Bond, of course, gave as good as he got over those years. In one way, he got the last laugh. In his will, he left John Wayne a shotgun as a permanent reminder of one of Duke’s biggest foul-ups. It was the same shotgun that Duke, years earlier, had borrowed on a hunting trip and accidentally used to shoot Bond in, yes, his butt. No significant damage was done, but Bond never let John Wayne forget it, even after his passing.
But for all the teasing, John Wayne was heartsick when Ward Bond died suddenly in a Dallas hotel room from a massive heart attack in 1960 just as he had rejuvenated his career as the star of the hit TV series, Wagon Train. He accompanied Bond’s body back from Dallas and took part in the ceremony-at-sea that preceded the disposing of Bond’s ashes into the ocean. In his eulogy, Duke was quoted as saying “we were the closest of friends, from school right on through. … He was a wonderful, generous, big-hearted man.”
In his biography manuscript, when talking about Bond, Duke went a lot further, making clear that he basically never stopped thinking about Ward Bond the rest of his life, even going so far as to fantasize about casting him in various movies when he read screenplays over the years that followed Bond’s death.
“When you lose a friend that close after so many years together, you realize you’ve reached the time of life when the ghosts surrounding you are some of the most significant people in your life,” Duke wrote in the manuscript during the 1970’s, not long before his own life would draw to a close. “Part of me knows he’s gone; another part automatically spots good parts for him. Instincts stay long after friends are gone.”