Robert Osborne on John Wayne (2007)

Robert Osborne on John Wayne (2007)
by Scott Holleran

Turner Classic Movies (TCM) host and movie historian Robert Osborne talked to me in 2007 about screen legend John Wayne, an actor who represents the iconic American hero.

Scott Holleran: What was your first John Wayne movie?

Robert Osborne: I think it was Tall in the Saddle with Ella Raines. I also remember really liking The Fighting Seabees with Susan Hayward, whom I loved. He was so stalwart and charismatic and handsome. Before I really started looking at him [in pictures], I met him at a party with [his son] Patrick Wayne. It was at John Wayne’s house and there must have been 30 couples [in attendance]. John Wayne came around, shook hands, said he was Pat’s dad and then he split. He just said, “I’m John Wayne, Pat’s dad.” He was so impressive. That started my interest in him as an actor and it helped bring an affection for him.

Scott Holleran: What’s your favorite John Wayne picture?

Robert Osborne: Red River. It’s a great movie and he is terrific in it. I also like The Quiet Man. I thought he was great in Seven Sinners with Marlene Dietrich. I was less intrigued by the older John Wayne. I just love the story in Red River and it’s [directed by] Howard Hawks—and I love the [director John] Ford movies like Fort Apache, though, sometimes, the pictures keep you from getting involved in the story. With Red River, Hawks keeps you involved in the story: will Montgomery Clift get those cattle there? I so admire Howard Hawks. I do love McClintock! It’s fun, it’s sassy and it’s boisterous. Some magic was going on there.

Scott Holleran: How do you select the pictures for the Star of the Month?

Robert Osborne: Mainly from what we have in our library—that’s one of the great things about TCM. We have a great guy, Charlie Tabesh, who does that. We try to present the movies in chronological order.

Scott Holleran: What’s the most common notion about John Wayne?

Robert Osborne: He’s still thought of as a political guy who’s not such a good actor—and he was a hero, another thing we don’t have a lot of. People wanted to emulate him. They wanted to look like Cary Grant and be a tough guy [like John Wayne] who could take care of everything. It’s because of his size and he was very careful about his roles; he never played a villain.

Scott Holleran: What is a common misconception about John Wayne?

Robert Osborne: That he couldn’t act. Like many of those guys embedded in our consciousness, he was never given credit as an actor. He was really acting and he made it look easy. But it’s not that easy. The characters he played were so polished and refined. He played John Wayne for so long he kind of became John Wayne. He was smart to stay aligned with John Ford, though Ford was so tough on him. He was something like 40 when he made Red River, which was pushing the envelope. He was smart—he knew it was time to move on [and play older]. You cannot be a star for that long and not be smart. He also took second billing [to co-star James Stewart] on The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.

Scott Holleran: Why does he represent Americanism?

Robert Osborne: The parts he played. He always picked American-bound movies—he was an American fighting the war in several pictures—and it was an image people liked. We’ve since become more multifaceted; but, back then, he was the image we were or wanted to be. He wanted to be [fighting as a soldier] in the war [World War 2] and he was criticized for not going, though he was older and he was a father. John Wayne gave the illusion of being a simple, uncomplicated guy. He kind of embodied the honest, upright American.

Scott Holleran: Did you interview him?

Robert Osborne: I did once. It was set up by Disney. They had a kids’ magazine and a special feature in which they would interview a celebrity about a pet that was meaningful to him and I interviewed him about his horse Duke. I was a freelance writer and I went down to his house in Newport Beach [in Orange County, California]. It was him and his secretary and we just sat on his patio at this beautiful home and he couldn’t have been nicer and more down to earth. I was there for a couple of hours and he started to reminisce about the old days, talking about Roy Rogers and how he wasn’t a real cowboy and couldn’t ride a horse. He started talking about a movie premiere [for Dark Command] with Claire Trevor and Walter Pidgeon and he started to get loud about how they were paying attention to Roy Rogers not to Claire—it was a Republic [Studios] picture—and it was clearly irritating to him. I thought it was fascinating and I realized he was still mad about that—and I realized that everyone has someone they’re irritated by. He became so red in the face that he was ready to punch Roy Rogers out. It was probably 1975, at that later stage of his career.

Scott Holleran: Were you starstruck?

Robert Osborne: I’m such a movie fan and I should have been in awe of these people but, when I first came to Hollywood, Lucille Ball was my boss—and she used to take a few of us out [on the town]. Because she was in television, I wasn’t in awe of her—I was in awe of movie stars—and watching her [interact with movie stars] gave me an operating base that helped me not to be in awe. I walked in once on Lucille Ball and Marlene Dietrich was standing there scrambling eggs in the kitchen. All I remember was Marlene Dietrich, without even looking up, saying “close your mouth.” Thanks to Lucy, I was always aware that these were basically ordinary people.

Scott Holleran: What is the most popular John Wayne movie?

Robert Osborne: In New York, it would be The Quiet Man. Elsewhere, there’s not one as much as the [whole catalog of] John Ford/John Wayne movies—She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Fort Apache, Rio Grande—it has to be a Western. It’s very hard to think of [just] one.

Scott Holleran: What’s the best John Wayne movie?

Robert Osborne: I’d have to say Red River. That’s the one I’d show to people. The Searchers would be right up there, but the one thing with me on the Ford pictures is that the color really takes you out of it. I love the story, size and vitality of Red River and you don’t always quite know where it’s going and it has a grittiness. Walter Brennan is wonderful in it but he’s not showcased—he’s part of the tapestry. It has what makes The Wizard of Oz great—you can see it on any level and still be entertained.

Scott Holleran: Has Hollywood changed since John Wayne made movies?

Robert Osborne: Yes. I have a photograph of that famous luncheon at MGM [from that era] and you see the back row of those executives. They look like they’re in their sixties and they were making all the great MGM films. Today, none of those guys would probably be able to walk into the studio lot—they’d have to be much younger. Also, they wanted to make something they were proud of that would also make money and that’s kind of gone out of it. [Studio executive Daryl] Zanuck used to write movies—he used to personally produce movies.

Scott Holleran: What’s John Wayne’s most underrated role?

Robert Osborne: The Quiet Man. He is so held in check for the movie. You know sooner or later he’s going to explode. It had to be hard for him to do that and he’s so much the quiet man throughout the whole thing. I like it a lot. It’s not a great film but it is one of the most entertaining films he ever made. He never worked with anybody better than [he did with] Maureen O’Hara.

Scott Holleran: Have you watched all the John Wayne movies TCM’s showing?

Robert Osborne: Yes.

Scott Holleran: What is John Wayne’s best performance?

Robert Osborne: Red River.

Originally published on Box office Mojo in 2007.