Back in 1969, John Wayne discussed his now-legendary performance in True Grit with Roger Ebert, revealing many truths along the way.
The look-back is a phenomenal interview, one written with signature Ebert-artistry. From it, we know several deep truths about the real-life man that was John Wayne. The Duke, if you will (and should!). And at the time, some of those truths still hurt quite a bit.
Amid Wayne’s own office, littered with scripts and writings beneath countless books, awards, and antique firearms, Roger Ebert let the man talk. As he did, the Western icon “walked around the room” before making a purposeful stop at said gun collection.
He then selected one.
“This is my rifle from Stagecoach,” offers John Wayne within. “One of the kind you could spin like this…”
Wayne demonstrates. “He held the rifle in his right hand and spun it. A grimace of pain crossed his face,” describes Ebert in kind.
A “Jesus Christ!” leaped from Wayne’s grizzly lips. He then sat the rifle back in its resting place before massaging the shoulder of a man in his twilight years.
“Jesus, I wrecked that shoulder,” The Duke admits. He did so “Down in Baton Rouge,” when he was making The Undefeated,” he continues. That Civil War-era Western would also hit in 1969, the same year as True Grit.
“I twisted around in the saddle and the damn stirrup was completely loose,” Wayne describes. “I fell right under that goddamned horse; I’m lucky I didn’t kill myself.”
We’re lucky for it, too.
John Wayne on True Grit: ‘My First Decent Role in 20 Years’
Just before this injury reared its sore head (or shoulder, more aptly), Roger Ebert had been struck by how “good” Wayne looked.
For True Grit, Ebert says, the 62-year-old actor became the “fat old man” that was Rooster Cogburn. His “one-eyed, drunken, rascally Rooster” was, to the legendary critic, “the distillation of fat old men” at the time.
Ebert was stunned to see John Wayne “looking, in fact, younger and thinner” in person.
But all that “old” and “fat” paid off. “Rooster Cogburn may be Wayne’s best performance,” he cites in his 1969 write-up, simply titled “Interview with John Wayne.”
The Duke would agree. “It’s sure as hell my first decent role in 20 years,” he told Ebert. “And my first chance to play a character role instead of John Wayne.”
“Ordinarily,” Wayne says, “they just stand me there and run everybody up against me.”
Not a bad gig to have. But one that is sure to burn a man out into “the distillation of fat old men” eventually. Thankfully for us, John Wayne would have a full decade left to make more classics. And, to this day, his work remains a legendary touchstone of Hollywood.