“John Wayne: The Life and Legend” by Scott Eyman (Simon and Schuster, 577 pages, April 1)
My first visit to a movie theater was to see “True Grit.”
I was 9 years old and my parents agreed to let my oldest brother, James, escort me on the 10-block walk from our little house behind the Enco gas station to the Time Theater in Stigler to watch the newest John Wayne flick that everyone was talking about.
I don’t remember a lot about being 9, but I remember that night, watching as Rooster Cogburn, that one-eyed fat man as Robert Duvall called him, took the reins by his teeth and charged the Lucky Ned Pepper gang with guns a-blazing.
Several months later on Oscar night, I begged my parents to let me stay up and watch television until the gold statue for best actor was awarded. I needed to make sure the right thing would be done, and John Wayne was going to win.
I am 54 now, and my wife can decorate our house however she wants, but the one thing I insist on is the charcoal sketch of John Wayne that hangs above the fireplace. She is not particularly fond of it, but I stand my ground on this.
Every year at Christmas, a John Wayne ornament goes on top of our tree. I tell my daughters the Christmas tree deserves a real star on top of it.
There are plenty of guys like me still around, boys who grew up wishing to be John Wayne, which is why film historian Scott Eyman’s new biography on the Duke will likely be a best-seller.
John Wayne died more than 30 years ago but remains a favorite movie star.
Eyman’s biography is the best yet on Wayne. Eyman previously published a biography on legendary movie director John Ford, the man most responsible for Wayne’s film career.
Well-researched, Eyman’s book is a sympathetic treatment of Wayne but far from hero worship.
The book examines Wayne’s three failed marriages and his decision not to serve in World War II when other prominent actors did, leaving Wayne with guilt for the rest of his life.
Wayne probably over-compensated by becoming such a fierce patriot. And it helps explain why he made such an embarrassing piece of propaganda as “The Green Berets.”
And then there was his misguided involvement in trying to rid Hollywood of the Communist menace.
An ardent conservative, Wayne came by his politics honestly.
He grew up in poverty with an unaffectionate mother, but rose above it, which shaped his views of self-sufficiency. He began his career in the film industry by doing whatever menial job was required on the set and ended it as a movie icon.
Wayne was hated by some with opposing political views, which is one reason he was underrated as an actor. That and the fact that he was reluctant to step outside of his comfort zone, choosing to play the same type of role.
But Wayne was more interested in pleasing his fans than his critics.
Even those in Hollywood, with opposing political views who got to know Wayne, liked him. That’s because for Wayne, the person always trumped the politics.
In interviews with those who worked with Wayne, worked for Wayne and even waited tables for him, Eyman’s biography reveals an actor who was a true professional, a hard worker and a man who was well-liked and generous.
The biography also features many interviews by Eyman of Wayne before the actor’s death in 1979 to cancer, a disease Wayne called the Red Witch.
Wayne was a flawed individual, narrow-minded in some views, but as Wayne once said, “I’ve played the kind of man that I would have liked to have been.”
Which is why “The Duke” still sits tall in the saddle today.
— Ed Godfrey