Each year Harris polls Americans about their favorite actors.
The answers aren’t all that surprising – Tom Hanks, Mel Gibson, Julia Roberts, George Clooney.
Yet there at No. 7 – between Clint Eastwood and Denzel Washington – sits John Wayne, who was born in Winterset, Ia. Even though he’s been dead for 25 years, he makes the Harris poll year after year.
How do you explain Wayne’s enduring popularity even though there are now millions of Americans who have grown up without his films? I put that question to Gretchen Wayne, president of Batjac Productions, a California company that holds the rights to most of Wayne’s films. She’s the widow of John Wayne’s oldest son, Michael.
“My husband was very good at having the taste to keep his father’s name in the public eye,” she said. “And there was some kind of romance between the public and Michael’s dad.”
Gretchen Wayne first met her future father-in-law at age 14, so she’s been able to make a pretty good study of the Duke. “He would say to you, ‘I’m just an ordinary human being. I’m not a hero.’ “
Wayne was not just a hero, of course, but The Hero. He acted mainly in Westerns and war films, almost always the good guy, of course. Americans like good guys.
But why Wayne? Why not Jimmy Stewart or Humphrey Bogart or Cary Grant?
“Maybe it’s just an accident of timing,” Wayne suggested. “He made those films during the second World War and people identified with that.”
Maybe it’s just one of those pleasant mysteries of life that we would be better off accepting and not questioning.
Whatever it was, Wayne knew he had it. In 1969, he told Time magazine: “I would like to be remembered, well . . . the Mexicans have a phrase, ‘Feo fuerte y formal.’ Which means; he was ugly, strong and had dignity.”
By JEFFREY BRUNER
REGISTER FILM CRITIC
Copyright ? 2004, The Des Moines Register.