An unassuming, friendly man, Harry sat with me and told me just a few of thousands of stories he has about his fascinating career. We actually have a little bit in common, both growing up in Southern California, then moving to Colorado for the “good life”.
He talked about his days riding horses, living on a ranch outside L.A. when it was still mostly ranches, working with John Ford and John Wayne and the others, why he became an actor, and where it all goes from here.
Here are some excerpts from the interview…
TN: Let’s start with history. I know a fair amount from COMPANY OF HEROES, but most of that is about John Ford and John Wayne.
HC: Yes, I hope it doesn’t make him (Ford) too cruel. Behind all that bravado and sometimes scary tactics, he could be a very gentle man. He was a very complex human being, a genius at what he did.
I was going to say something about John Wayne, as a person. He was a good guy and I worked with him before he was a movie star, back in the late 40’s, before he became a legend, and he was like a big kid, alot of fun to be around, and we used to have great times together.
When he got old, towards the end of his career and his life, it was sad, he became crotchety on the set. I did 3 movies with Duke after John Ford passed away, and he became very inpatient with directors because he knew more than they did. He knew more about how to set up cameras, he knew how to tell more in one shot than in a bunch of cuts. But he didn’t have any tact, so instead of saying ‘I have a better idea’, he would throw a fit and scare the hell out of the director.
There was a period of time when Duke wouldn’t talk to me. He had a quirk in his personality, and that was that he would believe gossip. And that’s what happened to my relationship with him. I saw him one time at a Memorial Day celebration, and he wouldn’t talk to me. He had heard some rumors about me and my career, and it made him angry with me.
TN: Was this the same time period when you weren’t working for John Ford?
HC: No, this was after that…
TN: You made several movies with Ford, then you didn’t for him for awhile, then you worked for him again
HC: That happened with alot of actors with John Ford. For example, the actor who was a big league man back in the 30’s, George O’Brien. He was a terrific guy, ruggedly handsome, he was one of Ford’s stars, the star of one of Ford’s first movies, The Iron Horse. It was a silent movie. He and Ford went to China, when they were both quite young. Ford went on a big “toot”, and George left him behind and came home. Ford wouldn’t hire him again for 10 or 15 years.
For me, I forgot to thank him once. When I finished a picture I would always go to his room or leave him a note in his box at the hotel thanking him very much for giving me the role and how much I enjoyed working for him, and I didn’t do it on one picture, and I didn’t work for him for 5 years.
TN: Wasn’t he mean to you at the end of a picture; was it in Moab?
HC: Oh, that’s right, you read it in the book. It was the last shot in The Searchers and he said I didn’t get on my horse right.
TN: These are great stories.
HC: Yeah, well they’re all true, and they’re in Company of Heroes, my book. I have almost total recall of my John Ford movies.
TN: When I read your book, I realized you must have hundreds of other stories…
HC: Yes, we’re working on another book of stories, it’s about “growing up Western”. I did grow up Western. I grew up on my Dad’s big ranch and learned to ride a horse since I was a little bitty kid.; that’s always held me in good stead as far as motion pictures and Westerns are concerned. I never had to learn how to ride. I learned how to Roman ride along Sherman Way. For people who don’t know what Roman riding is, it’s standing on two horses at once.
TN: What was your favorite film you ever worked on?
HC: Well the best film I ever worked on was The Searchers. I worked in a lot of terrible films. I was never a wealthy guy, so I had to take what I could get. There were some years there that were a little tough.
TN: You were paid by the week, and Ford was fast. He would sometimes finish a film infive weeks.
HC: He would finish in a month! In She Wore A Yellow Ribbon I played a spoiled rich kid stuck out on the plains, in Indian country.
TN: So how much did you get paid for She Wore A Yellow Ribbon?
HC: Twelve Hundred dollars.
TN: A week?
HC: No, for the whole picture! $300 a week for four weeks.
TN: So you made $1,200 in a month, which was pretty good money in those days, but then you wouldn’t have work for several months sometimes.
HC: That’s right. When television came along it filled in the gaps. We would make $750 for 3 days of work. It was all the same guys, all my cohorts.
TN: What did you think of yourself back then? Did you think you were a movie star, or just a working guy? Many actors seem to have an elitist attitude about themselves.
HC: Well, I never was a movie star; I’m kind of a legendary guy because I saw a lot and was around alot of big stars. Actors aren’t usually the best friends to have. I like writers and photographers, guitar players.
There was once that I thought I was going to be a movie star, during the Three Godfathers. But it didn’t take me long to realize that I was not going to be a movie star.
TN: But you weren’t even sure you wanted to be in the movies. You wanted to be a singer, right?
HC: No, I didn’t know what else to do, which is terrible. Then I was offered a role in a movie as soon as I got out of the Navy, then I did a picture with Robert Mitchum, then Red River after that, and I said ‘Boy oh boy, I’m on my way.’
But if I had it to do over again, I probably would have done something different. I either would have started out as a journalist for the newspaper, or, and this sounds very extreme, I would have been a trainer of race horses.
But I had a family and needed a job that paid well right off the bat. When my father was on his sick bed I asked him ‘Should I use the name Dobe Carey, Henry Carey, or Harry Carey Jr.’ He said “I would like you to use the name Harry Carey, Jr., and carry the name on.”
TN: What was the film you wanted to work on but didn’t. Was there any film like that for you.?
HC: Oh, yeah. The last film I wanted to work on and would have played anything was Lonesome Dove. Did you see that movie?
TN: Yes, I did.
HC: I think any actor would have been proud to work on that film. I would have loved to work on a Gary Cooper film. There were some Westerns. I would have loved to have been in Stagecoach.
TN: Ford had this simplicity about him.
HC: You hit the nail on the head about simplicity. We filmed in 28 shooting days. It was the simplicity. He didn’t waste time doing close up, close up, close up. What they do now is just big heads of everybody all the time. Very few of the modern directors do it the old way, about four. One in particular is Clint Eastwood. He shoots very similar as a director to the way John Ford did, a lot of master shots.
TN: I love the beautiful backgrounds and scenery in your films. They’re like an Edward Curtis photograph.
HC: Ford loved the country more than the actors. In those days they staged a scene, as a group shot, and you could see the interplay between the actors, and for a key line they would have a close up. It’s harder to do it that way, it takes more knowledge of what you’re doing to get the looks right; that’s why directors duck it now.
TN: Why did they call you “Old” Dobe?
HC: My Dad called me Ol’Dobe from the time I was four years old. It was just a term of affection. Of course now it’s true. Duke Wayne always called me Ol’Dobe.
TN: If there was one thing I would call you these days it would be a story teller. Some people just can’t tell stories well, but you sure can.
HC: Yeah, I know. I can do it verbally too. I give lectures and talks sometimes. I could do more; I have clips I could go out and lecture with.
TN: What about appearances? In the U.S., Europe?
HC: Yes, many appearances. I would like to go to Germany before I kick off; I hear there are many fans there. We go to film festivals, and have our own in Durango every year. I’m going to be the Grand Marshall for the 4th of July parade in Cody, Wyoming. That’s a big job, because John Wayne was the Grand Marshall of that parade once.
TN: Do you think you’ll act some more?
HC: No, I don’t think so… The thing is, it’s not fun anymore.
TN: That’s funny, I heard Paul Newman say the same thing recently on a talk show. He said his main problem is that his salad dressings are grossing more than his movies.
HC: I know! And he gives that away. He’s got no worries though. I worked on Tombstone (1993), and I didn’t find any laughter anymore. There always used to be laughter on a movie set. None, none. It was like everybody was going to a lynching or something. I’ve done some narration and documentaries. But basically all I want to do now is write…
Many thanks to Tom Nora of Wonders Of The West for posting this interview years ago.