“Mark, let’s have dinner.”

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Mark Rydell, director of “The Cowboys”, and his star, John Wayne

Mark Rydell was about 30 years old when he directed (and produced) The Cowboys. It was 1972. John Wayne had been making pictures since the 20s. He had been a star for decades. Not just a star, but an icon. A legend. Rydell was a Jewish kid from the Bronx who had directed a couple of episodes of Gunsmoke and, I think, 2 feature films. What would the experience be like?? Would John Wayne run all over him? How on earth would he direct John Wayne? There are a couple of great stories about the filming of this marvelous movie (and I also love Rydell’s image of John Wayne sitting, on break, trying to eat his lunch, while all the kids who were in the movie climbed over him “as though he was a monkeybar …” They loved and trusted him that much.) – but here’s one of my favorite stories. It reveals John Wayne as the honest and true artist that he is. Humility is at the heart of it. And self-knowledge. Like I said to Alex once, when we were watching some clip he did – a commercial for the Red Cross – and I was totally struck (yet again) by him, and I demanded of Alex, almost angry about it, “Does the man ever lie?” Alex replied immediately, in a flat no-nonsense voice, “No.” Nope. Didn’t think so.

Here’s one of Mark Rydell’s many moving memories of what it was like to direct John Wayne in The Cowboys. This is an anecdote about the filming of the beginning of the cattle drive – obviously a complicated shot, with horses and herds of cattle and camera equipment, and extras and cowboys and stunt doubles … not to mention John Wayne.

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Chaos.

I’ll just let the anecdote speak for itself. It brings a lump to my throat, and the last bit leaves me barely able to speak or even type. That’s what John Wayne does to me.

So. Here’s Mark Rydell on what happened on that day.

And we had 1500 head of cattle. And there’s an interesting story of the first angry moment that I had with John Wayne. I was sitting up on the head of a crane. We had 9 cameras, and we were shooting this scene which had to do with starting the cattle drive. And in the background of this 1500 head of cattle, we had all the families of the kids, and all the kids are in position getting ready to start this cattle drive, and being said goodbye to by their parents. And John Wayne was seated on his horse about 50 feet in front of me and I was facing all these cattle on the top of the crane, and the scene begins with him riding over to Roscoe Lee Browne who was sitting on the top of this six-up that he had to drive, and the dialogue, if I remember correctly, is he says, “Are you ready, Mr. Nightlinger?” and he says, “Ready when you are”, or something like that. And you know, you don’t start 1500 head of cattle by saying, “Go”. What happens is, you have to push the cattle in the rear and they move and they push the cattle in front and sometimes it takes 5 minutes for them to be going. So I didn’t roll the cameras because I didn’t want to waste film until the cattle were moving. There was an enormous amount of cattle. This was really a remarkable production achievement, with Wayne riding past hundreds and hundreds of heads of cattle, all which had to be handled. It was quite a complicated procedure that required a lot of attention. So Wayne decided it was time to go – so he rode up – I hadn’t even started rolling the cameras yet – so he rode up to Roscoe and said, “Are you ready, Mr. Nightlinger?” Well, of course, I hadn’t even rolled the cameras yet. So I lost my temper. I stood up on the crane and said, “Don’t you ever do that. Go back to your spot. I’ll tell you when we’re going to roll our cameras, I’ll tell you when ‘Action’ is!” and as I was talking to him, I was thinking: what a stupid thing for me to do, to yell at John Wayne, in front of all these kids and all these people, it was humiliating. And I was really sorry, but I had stuck my neck out – and I was right, by the way. And he knew I was right. He went back to his place, did the scene, got in his car – it was the end of the day – and drove into town. All of the crew came over to me one by one to shake my hand, as if to say goodbye, because they thought I would be fired for having contested John Wayne in any way whatsoever. And the Ravetch’s were there, and they were horrified, and I got in the car with them to drive back to our production office in Santa Fe, and I was just mortified with guilt for having done this! And they kept saying, “Why did you do that?” And I kept saying, ‘I just lost my temper!” And we got back to the production office and there were four calls from John Wayne. And I thought, this is it. I’m fired. I’ll be on my way back to Los Angeles in a moment and one of John Wayne’s former directors will be down here to take over the picture. So I finally got up my courage and I called him. And he said, “Mark, let’s have dinner.” And I thought, ‘Okay, there’s the kiss of death.” So we met, and, by the way, there was nothing more remarkable than the experience of going to dinner in Santa Fe with John Wayne, who was 6’5″ and an icon. He walked into the restaurant and the place gasped! We sat down for dinner and I am waiting for the axe to fall, for him to say, ‘Son, you’re a nice guy, but I think we’re going to be better off with a better director.” You know, I was waiting for that horrifying moment! Which never came, by the way. And he proceeded to tell me that I treated him the way John Ford treated him. I had yelled at him, and he was very impressed that I had the courage to tell him off. He knew that I was right, and he was wrong. Even though it was something I certainly never should have done, he was impressed that I had the courage to do it. And he called me “Sir” from that day forward, and for the rest of the 102 days we shot this picture. And that’s the kind of guy he was.

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16 Responses to “Mark, let’s have dinner.”

  1. DBW says:

    Long sigh.

  2. red says:

    I know, right?

    There’s another great anecdote from Roscoe Lee Browne (who is so damn good in the film, isn’t he??) – he’s a poet, as well – and Mark Rydell describes walking towards the production office and Browne and Wayne are standing outside, talking – and reciting bits of Sean O’Casey at each other, sharing their love for that playwright/poet. They were totally delighted with one another – Browne, who was psyched that there was someone else who knew Sean O’Casey as well as he did- and Wayne, just because of the joy of the moment, of bantering with a fellow artist. I just love that image – Roscoe Lee Browne, John Wayne, and Sean O’Casey?? Awesome!

  3. shelagh carter says:

    Sheila!

    an amazing and moving account of Mark’s spirit!

    Imagine 30 years old!

    very inspiring as you are with your writing!

  4. nightfly says:

    Geez, I was born in 1972. I am such a punk.

  5. rude1 says:

    The man was beyond words… ’nuff said :)

  6. red says:

    Shelagh!! Hi there! yes, yes, to your comment about Mark’s amazing spirit. So true.

    Miss you – let’s talk soon!

  7. amelie says:

    very, very awesome.

    was wayne also the one in the anecdote you posted about some ‘extra’ looking tired? [[you know which one i'm talking about ... right?]]

  8. red says:

    no, that was gary cooper

  9. amelie says:

    ahh, gary cooper!
    thanks, sheila; that one’s been bothering me all day.

  10. Sal says:

    A wonderful story.
    Forget ‘The Shootist’- this was Wayne’s swan song. Man, I love this movie. The oak that is John Wayne. The lovely interplay between him and his wife. The boys who become men. Mr. Browne as Jedidiah Nightlinger. The absolute psychotic evil of Bruce Dern. The Williams score. The whole thing is perfection.

    I remember hearing Roscoe Lee Browne in an interview about 1979, telling about how Dern got on his case for not shunning Wayne b/c of his political views. (I, for one, would have hesitated to take RLB to task for anything, especially something that was none of my damn business.)So, the O’Casey story makes me smile.

  11. red says:

    Artists are artists – that’s really one of the lessons i got from the commentary. Politics are important – but on a film, the collaboration is more important. Can you do your job? And do it well? It was a very tough time in America – as well as for this film (Rydell was criticized for the violence in the film – especially because it was children revenging the death of Wayne) … The actress who played Wayne’s wife (so wonderful) was one of the blacklisted actresses in the 50s – she was unable to work for over a decade. Rydell, in giving her this job, was doing his part to break that blacklist … so there was all this political stuff swirling on the outskirts of the movie … but when you get right down to it, what you’re doing is making a movie.

    there were also awesome stories about Wayne being surrounded by the new generation – all actors studio, all new york people – completley different acting background than him – and it got his competitive spirit up. No way was he going to be intimidated by the new guard – he was determined to be brilliant. And the new guard, in turn, Dern and Roscoe Lee Browne – were determined to go toe-to-toe with Wayne – so everybody was bringing their very best game. So exciting!

    There’s also a GORGEOUS anecdote about the first scene where Roscoe Lee Browne drives up in the wagon and offers his services to the cattle drive. They filmed it once. Roscoe Lee Browne did his scene, got out of the wagon, said his lines. Rydell called “cut” and they went to do it again – and Wayne pulled Browne aside privately and told him that the way people got out of the wagons in those days was like THIS – one foot – then the other foot down – not jumping off like Browne had done … and so if you watch Browne’s entrance in the film, and how he gets off that wagon – it has such a breath of authenticity to it – and Roscoe Lee Browne was always grateful to Wayne for the graceful way in which he pulled him aside – and gave him a tip on how to make his performance better. He didn’t shame him, or snicker at him … just quietly pulled him aside. That’s a very generous act.

  12. red says:

    And hadn’t Wayne already lost one of his lungs?? The vitality of the man is incredible!!

  13. Dan says:

    Where did you get all these awesome anecdotes about this movie? Once again, I’m stunned by your breadth of knowledge.

  14. red says:

    Dan – they released a deluxe edition of The Cowboys – and Mark Rydell does a TERRIFIC commentary track – and there’s also a mini-documentary with Rydell, Bruce Dern, and two of the young boys in the film (now grown men, of course) – reminiscing about the film. There are interviews with Roscoe Lee Browne and John Carradine – great stuff all around!!! So Im basically just regurgitating what I learned from that!

  15. Dan says:

    The perfect excuse to go and buy and it. I like listening to (well-done, interesting) commentaries – I think they’re one of the coolest things about DVDs.

  16. Victoria Boydd says:

    I was browsing and found this site about John Wayne in the Cowboys. Two of my cousins, RD and Clayton Hunt were stand-ins for two of the young cowboys (I can’t recall their names) and my Uncle Del Hunt was in the last scene sitting upon the fence and jumps down and lets the cattle in. Because my cousins were minors they needed chaparones and my cousin Bobby and I were so lucky to be their guardians. I was fortunate to meet Bruce Dern and Rosco Lee Brown but my greatest joy was meeting John Wayne. My hand felt so small when he shook my hand for the first time. I remember when they were shooting at Warner Brothers and I had to wait for the RED light to go out before entering the set…when it went out and I started to go in, John Wayne was coming out at the same time and we bumped into each other…he laughed because he was so tall and I was so short that my head just reached above his waist. I just remember his gentle way and I have a very special autograph from him in my little address book that I carried that day. We were not allowed to have camera’s in that day…but oh how I wished that I had brought one anyway! Thanks for the memories of that great man. Vicky Boydd

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