I’m a sucker for show business stories, and few have better than Dick Cavett. My favorite, which is among those collected in his book, “Talk Show,” involves John Wayne, whom he was afforded the opportunity to meet on the set of Wayne’s last film, “The Shootist.” During a lull in the filming, Cavett overhears Wayne humming, of all things, a Noel Coward tune. Cavett writes of his incredulity that Wayne, best known for his iconic westerns, is an admirer of Coward’s sophisticated drawing room comedies. Cavett asks Wayne if he ever considered starring in a Coward play. ”Yeah,” Wayne replied, “but it never got past the thought stage. I guess they figured that maybe spurs and ‘Blithe Spirit’ wouldn’t go together. Can’t you see the critics? ‘Wayne should go back to killing Indians, not Noel Coward.’”
John Wayne’s birthday is May 26. He died in 1979 at the age of 72. “I’ve been kicking around Hollywood a long time,” he observed in 1955 when he introduced the first episode of “Gunsmoke” to TV viewers. “I’ve made a lot of pictures out here; all kinds. And some of them have been westerns.” That is the genre with which Wayne is most associated. But as the above Cavett anecdote reveals, there was much more to him than westerns.
This is further illustrated in the book, “On Board with the Duke: John Wayne and the Wild Goose.” For Wayne’s heart was not out west, it was on the open sea. He was, at heart, a sailor. (If you can find it online, there is a documentary with the same title comprised of photos and home movies of Wayne and family’s life on the water).
Wayne, born Marion Morrison, had applied to the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, but was denied acceptance, which he called the greatest disappointment of his life. In 1962 at the age of 54, he purchased the Wild Goose, a 136-foot former Navy minesweeper, which was built during World War II. Until his death, the Duke sailed with family and friends from Alaska to Mexico. Years ago, I interviewed Clark Sharon, who wrote and directed the documentary. He quoted Wayne telling his daughter that, "This is where my heart is," and that when he died, his wish was to be cremated and his ashes scattered over the water. Instead, he was buried on an ocean-view hillside in Newport Beach.
But it just goes to show that we think we know an actor from his or her films. Dick Cavett concludes his story by relaying the incident to Woody Allen, who, according to Cavett, was “disappointingly un-astonished.” Allen’s response: “It reminds you that he’s an actor, not a cowboy.”