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America Marks John Wayne's 100th Birthday

Jim Olson
Jim Olson, distinguished professor of history, with a wall hanging given him by a colleague commemorating Olson's biography "John Wayne American."
If he were still alive, John Wayne would be 100 years old on Saturday. But maybe he is still alive, not in the sense that Elvis Presley might still be alive, but in the minds of most Americans, and especially Jim Olson's.

Olson is the distinguished professor of history at Sam Houston State University and author of "John Wayne American," which received a 1995 Pulitzer Prize nomination for biography. How else, said Olson, can you explain Wayne finishing third just this past January in an annual Harris Poll ranking of America's favorite movie stars.

"You see that visage everywhere," said Olson. "TV. Cable. The auto shop. Especially places where blue-collar men gather. You don't see that with Gary Cooper."

Wayne's conservative, tough-but-kind, war hero, cowboy-like persona was the connection to a past that many admired and still do.

"That image struck a chord in modern American culture," said Olson. "Part of it was that the frontier lingered in the American memory. Wayne was a sort of celluloid connection to that past."

Olson points out that Wayne made almost 200 movies, from 1929 to 1976--"for most of the 20th Century Wayne is kind of in our face." He was a big influence on people like Ronald Reagan, Richard Nixon, and George H. W. Bush, who we know was a big influence on George W. Bush.

"Wayne saw things as right or wrong," said Olson. "There was no doubt in John Wayne's mind that evil existed in the world and that at times it had to be crushed with force. "I'm not saying it necessarily critically, but a whole generation of American political leaders were brought up on John Wayne movies."

 While Wayne died in 1979 of stomach cancer, Olson said the John Wayne persona probably peaked with the Gulf War of 1991.

"Saddam Hussein was evil," said Olson. "We crushed him. End of story. But the War on Terror is much more complicated."

Olson also believes that Wayne was misunderstood in many ways and not the overly simple person his political foes made him out to be.

"He was salutatorian of his high school class in a big school in California," said Olson, "an award winner in calculus and science. Some people thought that because he was a man of few words on the screen that there just wasn't much up there."

Olson went through Wayne's letters in preparation for the book he co-wrote with Randy Roberts. He believes you can learn a lot about a person by their letters--not just by what they said but little things like punctuation and spelling.

"His letters were always gracefully written," said Olson. "Grammatically correct. No misspellings, commas in the right places."

Wayne was loyal to his friends, Olson said, and scrupulously honest.

"He would never turn his back on someone he knew was in need," said Olson. "He would hire older Hollywood actors whose careers had passed them by for salaries they could no longer command at the box office."

As for the honesty, Olson said one of Wayne's interests was a restored World War II minesweeper that he used as a yacht. When he was dying of cancer in 1976 he decided to sell it. After the sale he found out that the engine had needed an overhaul.

"One of the last things he did," Olson said, "was he found out the price for the engine overhaul and paid for it."

Wayne had a violent temper, Olson said, and a short fuse. But he was a producer and director's dream, because he knew his lines, showed up on time, and couldn't abide by prima donna actors who drank too much, stayed out too late, and caused film production costs to soar. He was also image-conscious.

If he was planning to shoot a film in a small town, Olson said, Wayne would show up a few days early and hang out at a popular gathering spot, spending time drinking coffee and having lunch with the locals. He carried around a pocket full of autographed cards that he handed out readily.

He would walk up to obviously star-struck spectators on the set, as he did once on the set of the 1968 film "Hellfighters," which was being shot near Baytown, stick out his hand and say forcefully, "Hi, I'm John Wayne," as if anyone in Texas, or the country for that matter, wouldn't know who he was.

"Then when someone in one of those small towns saw him explode on the set," Olson said, "they might say to a friend, 'you wouldn't believe what John Wayne did today. He's a jerk.' And the friend would say, 'no he's not. I had lunch with him the other day and he's really a nice guy.'"

Olson is not at all surprised that much is being made about John Wayne's 100th birthday, and that people love him whether they agree with his political persona or not.

"When he died, liberals and conservatives alike hailed him as a powerful voice for one element of American society," said Olson. Angie Dickinson was his love interest in "Rio Bravo," and recently described her reaction to Wayne.

She didn't know him well because they didn't talk a lot, she said, "unless you got on a certain (conservative) topic. I didn't get on those topics because I was a young liberal." Nevertheless, she found him to be gentle and amusing, "a sweetheart."

"I always wondered what would have happened if I had not had a boyfriend at the time and he had not had a girlfriend," she said. "Because I always felt like I could get hung up on him." Dickinson was apparently not alone in that attraction-over-politics reaction. Wayne was married three times and had seven children.

Olson believes that Wayne's reputation as an actor was probably affected by his politics.

While Wayne won an Academy Award late in his career for "True Grit," Olson said that co-star Maureen O'Hara told him that Wayne would probably have won for the 1952 film "The Quiet Man" if he had not made so many political enemies in Hollywood.

John Ford directed that cast , which also included Andrew McLaglen, Ward Bond, Barry Fitzgerald, and O'Hara.

Modern-day directors like Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, Paul Schrader and George Lucas have been influenced by Wayne's movie "The Searchers," which is considered a western classic, said Olson, but Wayne's personal favorite was "The Quiet Man."

In that movie Wayne played a depressed prizefighter who had traveled from America to his family home in Ireland to try and forget or reconcile the fact that he had killed a man in the ring.

"In other films he was never depressed about killing anyone" said Olson, "because he only killed people who needed killing."


SHSU Media Contact: Frank Krystyniak
May 24, 2007
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