Catching up with the son of ‘The Duke’
Patrick Wayne talks about his life, his career and his famous father
If you had told Patrick Wayne that his father, western movie icon John Wayne, would still be in the top five favorite movie stars 38 years after his death, he would have thought you were crazy.
The Duke was ranked #4 most popular in Harris Poll’s 2016 annual list of “America’s Favorite Movie Stars” and is the only late actor ranked in the Top 10 and has never fallen out.
“I’m shocked and surprised every year,” Wayne said. “ I don’t think any of us had any idea that he would still resonate so strongly this far into the future. That’s quite amazing.”
John Wayne appeared in more than 175 films — including 83 westerns — in such classics as “Stagecoach,” “The Quiet Man,” “The Searchers,” and “True Grit,” which earned him an Academy Award as Best Actor in a career that spanned five decades. He died on June 11, 1979 of stomach cancer at age 72.
Patrick, who made 10 films with his famous father, said he believes his father’s popularity endures because people still identity with the core values of America that John Wayne personified.
“It was about being trustworthy, loyal, brave, being independent, self reliant, unselfish, somebody you could count on, love of one’s country” Wayne said. “These are the kinds of refreshing things you see when you see him on the screen. Those are things I think people respected whether they agreed with him or not. And I think those are things people still hold forth even though it is a different world.”
Wayne will be one of the featured guests this year appearing at the annual Memphis Film Festival June 7-9 at Sam’s Town Resort in Tunica.
Patrick followed in his father’s acting footsteps and developed a resume as a busy character actor in the 1950s and 60s, and made 47 films of his own.
He was even considered for the role of Superman in the 1978 big screen version that eventually went to Christopher Reeve.
Wayne was 11 years old when he landed his first acting job in the 1950 western “Rio Grande” starring his father and directed by his godfather, the legendary filmmaker John Ford.
Wayne asked his son if he’d like to be in the movie. He didn’t get a screen credit, but he was paid ten dollars.
“We were on location in Utah and he said ‘do you want to be in the picture?’” Wayne said. “’It pays five dollars a day.’ I said ‘great! Sign me up.’ And I was off and running.”
He would make eight more movies with his father and seven more with Ford.
Patrick said that acting allowed him to spend more time with his busy father.
“None of my brothers and sisters was interested in doing it,” Wayne said. “So when I went on location, I had my dad’s undivided attention. I wasn’t competing with a brother and two sisters for his attention which was always the case when he wasn’t working. That was an added benefit. So I looked forward to any opportunity to do that.”
He had bit parts in other John Ford movies like “The Long Grey Line” and “The Quiet Man” and while Ford could be a sadistic task master, Wayne said “Pappy” was a genius behind the camera.
“I learned more from him early on,” Wayne said. “I worked for him so much that I thought this is the way all directors work. But that’s not the case.” Wayne said Ford was very witty and smart, but also could be cruel to actors.
“He was a master director, a master cinematographer,” Wayne said. “He had an eye for setting up a scene and organizing actors, where to put the camera. These things were instinctual to him and it was a sight to behold.
“But being able to work with him was another thing. He was a despot. He was a tyrant. He was all controlling. He could be pretty tough on people and you never knew when it was going to be your turn to feel his wrath.” Wayne said he didn’t know it at the time, but he was actually Ford’s pet.
“He put pretty much everybody over the barrel except yours truly,” Wayne said. “I was his favorite. But I didn’t know that I wasn’t subject to that. So I lived in fear of it just as much as anybody else did.”
Wayne said members of Ford’s “stock company” — actors that he used over and over in his pictures like Henry Fonda, Ward Bond, Victor McLaglen, Ben Johnson, Jimmy Stewart, and Maureen O’Hara — were more like family than co-stars.
“They were Dutch uncles and Dutch aunts,” Wayne said. “We were very close and I got to know them very well. They were all interesting people.”
Wayne said he didn’t get much in the way of career advice from his father. He said his father instead encouraged his children to live their own lives and figure out on their own what made them happy, but that he was proud that Patrick decided to pursue an acting career.
“He didn’t give any advice to anybody about their career,” Wayne said. “He said those are things you have to make up your own mind about. He said he would provide us the opportunity with an education, but then we had to sort it out because nobody can decide that for another person.”
Instead, Patrick said he learned by his father’s example. John Wayne was always on time on the set, knew his lines, and followed directions.
“He was a total professional,” Wayne said. “He was prepared in every way.”
In “Hondo,” Wayne said his father had a scene where he had to deliver dialogue while doing some blacksmithing shoeing a horse. His father didn’t know a thing about blacksmithing, so while the crew was setting up the lighting and the sets, he was off working learning how to be a blacksmith so when the scene was shot he could focus on the dialogue.
“His roles required a great deal of physical skill,” Wayne said. “When he had to do that scene where he was heating up a horseshoe, the thing you don’t realize is that you have to do that and carry on an exchange with other actors. So he would always prepare.”
Wayne said his father expected other actors to be just as prepared, including his own son.
One time, while filming “The Comancheros,” Wayne said he had to do a horseback scene. His character was supposed to be a Texas Ranger. While he had experience riding horses, when the dailies came back, Wayne said he looked awful, like he didn’t know how to ride, and his father was not happy.
“It was a running shot where the camera was on a truck and I was bouncing around like it was the first time I had ever been on a horse,” Wayne said. “When he saw the dailies my dad came to me and said ‘you’re going to learn to ride a horse or you are getting out of this business.’ And he put the fear of God in me.”
Wayne said he put in extra hours working on his horsemanship, they re-shot the sequence, and he came off looking like a champion rider.
The lesson stayed with him during his own career.
When he was cast as Sinbad in the 1977 film “Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger,” Wayne worked with a stuntman for a month before shooting began so he could learn how to fence.
The film’s producer didn’t want to incur the expense and told him that there would be a stuntman on the set when they got to Malta, but Wayne insisted.
“I remember how conscientious my dad was about being prepared before he went into a film,” Wayne said. “So I worked with that stuntman and learned a few rudimentary moves because I didn’t feel comfortable going in because I didn’t know anything about sword fighting. By the time we started the movie I could have competed in the Olympics.” Wayne said the work paid off because one of the big fight sequences was scheduled for two days of filming in Spain and instead he did the scene in half a day, which was fortunate because the fencing instructor the studio had hired wasn’t scheduled to be on the set until they reached Malta. After the sequence was shot, the producer came up to him and took credit for having Wayne work with the stuntman.
“If I hadn’t worked with that instructor, we’d still be in that set,” Wayne said. “We would never have got it. If he wants to take credit for it, fine. The important thing is we got the job done and it looks good on film.”
The last film he made with his father was “Big Jake” in 1971.
Wayne’s acting career peaked in the late 1970s with starring roles as Jimmy Stewart’s son in “Shenandoah” in 1975 and “The People That Time Forgot” in 1977. He also appeared in dozens of TV episodes in the 1970s and 80s on shows including “Love Boat,” “Fantasy Island,” “Charlie’s Angels,” and “Murder, She Wrote.”
Today, at age 78, Wayne has mostly retired from acting. He devotes his time to serving as Chairman of the Board of the John Wayne Cancer Institute at St. John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, Calif.
The family started the clinic in 1981 at UCLA where his father died two years earlier. The John Wayne Cancer Institute’s mission is “to bring courage, strength, and grit to the fight against cancer” and has raised more than $18 million in their father’s memory to help support research programs and train the next generation of leaders in the fight against cancer.
“It is so unbelievable,” Wayne said. “I am in awe of everything we have accomplished at the cancer institute and that we continue to do. We do a lot of amazing things and continue to grow.”
Wayne said he wouldn’t rule out another acting role if the right project came along, but said his work with the cancer institute doesn’t leave him much time to look for acting jobs. “If someone were to come to me with a project I would certainly evaluate it,” Wayne said. “I love to work. I’m just not interested in looking for it.”
Wayne said the best work being done today in Hollywood is not in movies, but in television by studios like Amazon, Netflix, and HBO.
“The big blockbusters are all CGI today,” Wayne said. “There are still some good films that come out like “To Hell and High Water” (with Jeff Bridges). But there are some really great shows on cable television that are really well done, well produced, well written, and just worthwhile watching.”
As far as his favorite movies that his father made, Wayne said he enjoys “Red River” and “The Quiet Man.” It has only been in the last couple of years that he has been able to watch his father’s last screen role in “The Shootist” in which he plays an aging gunfighter dying from cancer.
“The movie was so self prophesying,” Wayne said. “So I couldn’t watch it at the time. I was too close to it. But I thought he did such a great job in it. Ironically, “True Grit”, which is a lot of fun, I don’t think is his best film. But I was happy that he won the award for that.”
By Mark Randall