IAR EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: John Wayne's son discusses his father's legacy

Tuesday, 31 May 2011 11:47 Written by  Jami Philbrick
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IAR EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: John Wayne's son discusses his father's legacy

When you think of the idea of a “movie star” you still can’t help but think of John Wayne. He is truly an American iconic. It’s been over thirty years since the late Academy Award winning actor’s death but his name is still synonymous with Western themed movies. Wayne virtually invented the modern day onscreen cowboy in classic films like Rio Bravo, The Searchers, El Dorado, True Grit (the film that earned him his Oscar), and The Comancheros, which was released on Blu-ray on May 17th.

I recently had the rare opportunity to have a conversation with the Duke’s son, Ethan Wayne about his father, and his legacy. Among other subjects we discussed the Duke’s approach to acting, his love for making Westerns, his friendship with fellow actor Robert Mitchum, and The Comancheros. Here is what he had to say:

To begin with, you’re father was a “movie star” in every sense of the phrase but did he have particular kind of acting process? He didn’t really strike me as a method actor; did he have a certain type of approach or style?

Ethan Wayne: It was always a piece of himself. His career evolved. You saw him go from the typical, sort of early western cowboy to having his own look and his own mannerisms. He clung to character traits that he admired in the character he was playing, and he started to adopt those character traits himself as a young man. Then as he became older, he became really seasoned. He was lucky enough to be in films from the time he was twenty till the time he was seventy. It was a huge span of a career. His focus was the story, and then how this man was affected by the circumstances, the situations in this film. And a lot of the time, it would be him thrust into these circumstances and situations, and how he would approach these challenges was interesting. Luckily, in the movies, he gets to live through most of them. He wasn’t a real method actor, I guess, but the story was important to him and really making it real. He spent so much time with his scripts, in a story. He would start working backwards and inside and out, and he would put himself in the situation. “How would I behave? How would I like to behave if I was presented with this situation?” He would make it real for himself, so when you were watching him you were affected by seeing something real. You’d see someone get a phone call that their loved one was just killed in a car accident, you know something’s gone wrong by looking at him. If you see someone in a soap opera do it, you’re put off because there’s not that depth. So I think his focus was to try to make it real.

What do you think was his appeal? Was it because he was essentially playing himself that people loved watching him so much?

Ethan Wayne: I guess what he was really playing with was that he admired the character traits and the values of the American cowboy. I think a lot of his own character came from admiring these men that he portrayed. Just like you grow up with a father who’s a certain way, you absorb that. He absorbed that too, from either his father or his relationships with all these stories and characters that he portrayed. He would cling to certain character traits and values that he wanted to represent. I think a lot of people can associate in life with those character traits and values. We would all like to stand up and tell the boys to back off and go away, or leave the lady alone, or leave the weaker person alone and stand up for them whether it’s the government or a country. In the military, as an individual, we aspire to be those types of people and it’s not always possible in real life. I think he got four hundred awards and recognitions from branches of the government that I didn’t even know existed. He got letters from Eisenhower and MacArthur thanking him for his service. They told him his films were inspirational. To my father, the fighting man was inspirational. He looked to them. People looked at my father as the hero. He looked at the man in the trenches as the hero and he respected them and wanted to try to do justice. I mean everybody looks at him as a hero, and he looked at the characters, the people he was representing as the heroes.

What was it that your dad loved about making Westerns?

Ethan Wayne: I know that he tried to do other types of films, and some were successful and some weren’t. But somebody once told him, “Listen Duke, they’ve told you what they want you to do. They’ve told you where you work well. Don’t forget it.” He never forgot it. He was just trying to do a good job representing them. The films are visually pleasing. It’s always wonderful to be out in that landscape. A man on a horse … it’s a wonderful motion and it’s a wonderful action. It’s sort of heroic in itself. Westerns were popular at the time. He was at the top of the western genre. He loved horses. He liked being on the set.He loved the stories. It’s what they did.

Your father made several movies with actor Robert Mitchum, what was their relationship like? Did they become close friends from working together so often?

Ethan Wayne: I guess so. I was young then. I didn’t spend much time with Robert Mitchum and him. I spent time with Robert’s son, Chris Mitchum, because he was in a film that I was in, called Big Jake; which is actually a continuation of the character from The Comancheros. So (Wayne’s) name was Big Jake in The Comancheros, and years later when I was eight years old, they made a film called Big Jake where I get kidnapped and my father comes to get me. That was with Robert Mitchum’s son, Chris. But he was friendly with the Mitchum brothers. I know that.

If your father were still alive, what would he make of the way in which technology has changed entertainment? What do you think his opinion would be regarding the advent of technology like DVD, Blu-ray, Netflix, YouTube, and iTunes, Twitter, Facebook and the Internet?

Ethan Wayne: I think he would find it exciting. He was always a fan of new technologies. I can remember him ordering these spy cameras out of catalogs and just being fascinated by how tiny the little cameras were. We didn’t have a lot of technology by the time he went away, but he had a phone in his car. We had a Teletype machine on the boat to try and stay in communication. Those were pretty cool things in their day. But I think he’d be happy. He’d be shocked, really shocked and touched that fifty years later we’re re-releasing this film called The Comancheros on Blu-ray. The fact that people are still interested, that they still liked it, he would be so grateful for that because he came from nothing and was able to have a career that spanned many years, which allowed to become seasoned in his craft. He really loved it. He was probably happiest when he was on location, or on his boat. I think he really preferred that to just life at home. He loved being engaged, moving forward, staying positive, and working on projects. He loved it.

He really loved the process of making movies, didn’t he?

Ethan Wayne: He did. As he became older and more seasoned, and younger directors would come in, obviously it can be frustrating when you know something and you’re watching someone have to go through this whole process to come to the answer, and you already know it. So, he had a great, great way of dealing with people. He had a fun personality, even if he was at opposite sides of an issue. It was typically good-natured banter. He had a quick wit and lots of fun.

Did you happen to have a chance to watch the Coen Brothers remake of True Grit? If so, what did you think?

Ethan Wayne: I haven’t, but I’m a huge Coen Brothers fan and I’m a huge Jeff Bridges fan. I just wait to see everything until I can watch it at home. I don’t go to the movie theaters. I don’t know why. I’m just not a fan of crowds, but I can’t wait to see it. I did read the book again, Charles Portis’ book. What an interesting story. You know, I always thought it was an old story. I was a little boy when they made it, but that book came out in ’68. It was a bestselling novel and they made that into a film. I enjoyed reading the book, and I can’t wait to see the Coen Brothers’ and BridgesTrue Grit project. I look forward to it.

Westerns seem to have become popular again but when you think of the modern cowboy you still think of your dad, what do you attribute that to?

Ethan Wayne: Yeah, it’s tough not to think of John Wayne when you think of the cowboys. He had a fifty-year career there where he was in front of everybody and most people liked what he delivered. So, there were very few people who own a space like he owns that.

How did your father feel about this film, The Comecheroes?

Ethan Wayne: I think he liked it, I think he had fond memories of the common sheriff. I think it was a good, good film and he had a lot of fun. There was also the part where he helped out his friend and director Michael Curtiz, who wasn’t feeling good. So, another real life drama right there behind the scenes.

Finally, do you think The Comecheroes would be a good film for Hollywood to remake now?

I think any of these stories could be remade. I mean typically, most of the stuff we see now is a remake of the old films, which come from their roots, Shakespeare and all the old literature. There are a lot of talented people in Hollywood, they can repackage the basic story and make it interesting to us decade after decade.

The Comecheroes is available now on Blu-ray. 

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