John Wayne: The Life and Legend – Exclusive Interview with Acclaimed Biographer Scott Eyman
Even 30+ years after his death, John Wayne is still ‘larger than life’ — a cultural icon whose impressive on-screen persona evokes dignity, integrity and courage, epitomizing the American West and American ideals and values. CMH is very happy to announce that Scott Eyman’s latest biography, John Wayne: The Life and Legend, will be in stores Tuesday, April 1. And — CMH is even happier to say that Scott has honored us with an exclusive interview about the book!
Before we start the interview, I just want to say that the book is a thoroughly enjoyable and informative read, taking us through Wayne’s childhood and college years, his transition into the film industry, his rise to stardom — and beyond. We learn about his relentless work ethic, his profound relationship with John Ford, his political views, his failed marriages — and so much more. All in all, John Wayne: The Life and Legend gives us great insight into the life and legend of a true American icon.
A big Thank You to Scott Eyman for taking the time to do this interview — and to Simon and Schuster for supplying CMH with exclusive photos to use in this blog post plus SIX copies of John Wayne: The Life and Legend to give away during the month of April! Contest details here.
CMH: You’ve written an impressive number of film-related books including biographies of Hollywood legends John Ford, Ernst Lubitsch, Cecil B. DeMille and Louis B. Mayer. What compelled you to write John Wayne’s biography – was it a natural progression from your John Ford work or was there another driving force behind it?
Scott Eyman: It was both. Spending years on Ford naturally led me to give a lot of serious thought to Wayne, but, with the exception of Randy Roberts’ book and Aissa Wayne’s memoir, I thought the books on Wayne were just terrible, either cheaply taking his word for everything or cheaply denying his importance, mostly for political reasons.
CMH: You were able to interview John Wayne before his death – over 30 years ago. What stands out in your mind today about that meeting?
Scott Eyman: He was both John Wayne and someone else, someone I hadn’t expected to meet. He was calmer, more reflective, almost contemplative about all sorts of things, especially the art and craft of moviemaking. Smart. Gentle.
CMH: “I was a carpenter. I was a juicer. I rigged lights. I helped build sets. Carried props. Hauled furniture. I got to know the nuts and bolts of making pictures.” –- such a telling quote from the book. John Wayne had a difficult childhood, yet he grew to be an excellent student, star athlete and quite a popular ‘man on campus’ at USC before getting his start in show business. What was it about his childhood that laid the foundation for his relentless drive and ultimate success?
Scott Eyman: Mostly, I think it was deprivation. He had very little; the family would be characterized as lower middle class at best. I think his early near-poverty gave him a drive, a compulsion, to succeed, and I believe he would have succeeded no matter what profession he had turned to. Between his attractive personality and will, nothing was going to derail his efforts.
John Wayne, with the customized, sawed-off Winchester he
twirls in his introductory shot in Stagecoach
CMH: Wayne claimed that he ‘backed into the movie business simply by being eager and young’ and that ‘acting was the furthest thing from his mind.’ How did he transition from college football to show business?
Scott Eyman: The claim is not remotely true. He wanted to be in the movies, he wanted to be an actor. Otherwise, why join the drama club in high school, why pester producers for acting jobs when he was working a summer job at Fox? Because of his blue-collar and athletic background, acting was not something he could proudly claim was a continuing ambition – but it was. He did everything that was asked of him and more at Fox, for Ford and other directors. Eventually, his good looks, added to his willingness to work hard, got him noticed and he was cast in “The Big Trail.”
CMH: “I simply owe to him every mouthful I eat, every dollar I’ve got, and practically every bit of happiness I know, that’s all.” –a fitting tribute from Wayne about John Ford’s profound influence on his life. What was it about the Wayne/Ford dynamic that yielded such an impressive array of work – and a life-long friendship?
Scott Eyman: They had something very rare in this world – absolute trust in each other, as men, as friends, as artists. Despite the verbal abuse Ford would throw in Wayne’s direction, Ford’s letters to Wayne are very warm and loving, and vice versa. They were devoted to each other.
CMH: It is interesting that Wayne is considered an American icon and patriot, and even a movie war hero, yet he did not enlist during World War II. Can you shed some light on that for us?
Scott Eyman: Wayne tried to enlist in the OSS, but was turned down by Wild Bill Donovan. I think Wayne wanted to work for Ford – who had his own unit in the OSS – and no one else. With that off the table, he simply decided to keep working and allow the studio to file exemptions for him, which was their right under the broad exemption FDR had granted the movie industry for reasons of propaganda during the war. Basically, if you worked in the movies and you wanted to go to war, you were going to have to enlist – as a lot of people did: Gable, Fonda, Stewart, Power, Rooney, Fairbanks, etc.
CMH: You did exhaustive research for this book, drawing on unpublished materials and conducting over 100 interviews with Wayne’s family, co-stars and close associates. Was there anything that you learned from these exclusive sources that truly surprised you about Wayne?
Scott Eyman: His ease in domestic matters; his appreciation of shopping for antiques, and decorating houses and buying clothes for other people. As I mentioned earlier, there were many aspects of his character that were dissimilar from his screen character.
Barbra Streisand presented the 1970 Best Actor Oscar to John Wayne
for his role as Rooster Cogburn in the 1969 film, True Grit
CMH: What are your favorite three John Wayne films and why?
Scott Eyman: She Wore a Yellow Ribbon – for his gentleness.
Red River and The Searchers – for his harshness, verging on savagery.
CMH: If you had to sum up ‘The Life and Legend” of John Wayne in just a few sentences, what would they be?
Scott Eyman: He was that man on the screen in many ways, but he was also self-aware enough to realize all the ways in which he was far from that man.
Thanks again to Scott Eyman and Simon and Schuster for this interview and exclusive photos, and for books to giveaway in April. For those of you who can’t wait to win the book, you can purchase it here:
–Annmarie Gatti for Classic Movie Hub