Authors: Aissa Wayne,Steve Delsohn
In truth, my father could not sing at all, nor play the guitar. So while Hollywood dubbed itâtwo men would stand off-camera, one singing, one strummingâmy father faked it. For a short series of 1930s B Westerns, he was reluctantly billed as a crooning cowpoke named Singin' Sandy. In those days, my father said, Hollywood cowboys were “pretty,” with their snow-white Stetsons, their uncreased faces, their tender, mellifluous voices. One of his favorite stories revolved around one of his earliest casting calls. While he and another cowboy actor read lines at an audition, the manicured-looking man said, “What do you expect? I've been working all day out in the field.” Stepping out of character, my father turned to the producer and director. “I'm supposed to react to that line?” he said. “Look at his hands. Those are field hands? They've never worked a day in his life.” When the Hollywood big shots roared, my dad won the part and shortly after became Singin' Sandy.
Once he begged out of this “embarrassing” role, my father said he shattered the mold forever, evolving the Hollywood cowboy into a steely, masculine loner. Still, effeminate cowboys and Singin' Sandy were images he preferred to
undo. He couldn'tânot completelyâand, as a result, I could often hear him reasserting his male persona, even when he bragged about his customized car.
Pontiac station wagon, with
special engine, is the best performance car
He once told Peter Bogdanovich, when Mr. Bogdanovich still wrote about film, that a hero in a movie should never cry in the presence of his wife or child. He never said so, but I think my father also meant real life. I can't speak for him and my mother, but he never cried in front of me until their marriage was crumbling, his health was slipping away, and my father knew there was no time left for striking poses.
Cutie-pie AISSA WAYNE, 3-year-old daughter of producer-director-star JOHN WAYNE, was the company mascot and general favorite. The little miss also played a part in the pictureâone of the children of Mrs. Dickenson whose lives were spared in the massacre at “The Alamo.”
âPhoto caption in
The Houston Press
, Jan. 11, 1960
Hung on the wall at my home in Newport Beach, I still have a favorite photograph from the film set of
. Cactus and tumbleweed dotted behind us, we lounge on a shaded porch at the front of a sun-bleached cottage in Texas. As my real dark-haired mother curls my ringlets, I glance at my “mother” in the movie, the beautifully blond Joan O'Brien. His jawline firm, wide shoulders filling a buckskin jacket, my father stands gazing at the prairie. No one faces the camera, no one appearing to know it is there, and we all seem to savor this tranquil Western moment.
Although I was not a child actress, and never had any training, my father cast me in a small part in
. As the movie's producer and director, he told reporters he'd first
looked at several child actresses. Then, as I played one morning on our living room rug, my father said he was watching, and my focus on my doll was so intensely undivided, “I knew I'd found my little Dickenson girl.” More to the point, I believe, my father had something in common with Francis Ford Coppola: he liked being surrounded and supported by his loved ones when he made movies. There were big rewards and steep falls from glory at stake, and even Hollywood royalty have their self-doubts.
I played Angelina Dickenson, one of the sole survivors of the real Alamo, and some of my earliest memories come from that set. I was not yet four years old, so what I recall is mostly just snippets. My father giving interviews dressed as Davy CrockettÂ .Â .Â .Â a man zestfully playing accordion between takes, as the actor Chill Wills put my feet on top of his own, dancing me and spinning me around, while the cast and crew clapped timeÂ .Â .Â .Â pretending I was alseep in my father's leather director's chair so Ken Curtis, the handsome young actor who played my father in the movie, would lift me up and carry me inside to my real parents' trailer.
Not all of my recollections are so idyllic. Most precisely, I recall a moment of abject terror. Before one of my scenesâit would later be cutâI was picked up and put on the back of a cart. The script called for me to hide from the invading Mexican army. Just before my father covered me up with a tarp, he reminded me gently. “This isn't real, Aissa, remember that. It's only a movie. Men dressed as soldiers, holding guns, are going to pull up the tarp. But it's just a movie.”
I understood him. When he blocked the sun with the tarp and pitched me into darkness, I didn't lose my composure. I was a paid professional now, earning $250 a week, which my father promised to deposit in my own personal savings account. I knew everyone would be watching me, and I was enjoying the prospect of all their applause and attention. I heard the word
and then they yanked the tarp off. The soldiers held bayonets. Unless I hadn't been listening, no one had mentioned these
things at the tip of the rifles. No
one had said they'd be tilted at my throat. My scream was real and piercing and shrill.
All I recall after that was being mad at my mother, the cast and crew and stunt menâeveryone but my dad. Three and a half years old, I was already learning the pattern.
As I grew up, I came to understand that Hollywood is a labyrinth, a war of attrition, and actually getting movies made and up on the screen is a miracle of finance, persistence, and luck. This, I later learned, was the zigzagging saga of my father's
researched, thought out, scripted, financed, in front of the cameras, into the can, distributed, and onto the screen took nearly ten years of my father's precious life.
Through the course of the 1950s, my dad was possessed by events that occurred a century before. In 1836,150 Texans desperately resisted 4,000 Mexican soldiers by defending the Alamo, a San Antonio fortress. By the end of the siege, all the Texans lay dead, and during the rest of their war for independence, Texans cried “Remember the Alamo.” An aficionado of American history, my father never saw
as just another action movie. He envisioned it as an epic, with acutely American themes: duty, sacrifice, bravery.
“I hope that seeing the Battle of the Alamo will remind Americans that liberty and freedom don't come cheap,” my father told the press. “I hope our children will get a sense of our glorious past, and appreciate the struggle our ancestors made for the precious freedoms we now enjoyâand sometimes just kind of take for granted.”
Staunchly patriotic, a political denizen of deep right field, I think my father believed that. But I also suspect he was eager to make
because of a longtime private regret. Although he never discussed it with me, my father himself had never gone to war. Only seven years old when World War I broke out, by December 1941, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, my father was thirty-four and a father of four. His draft-exempt status notwithstanding, he
wanted to serve, but was then under contract to Richard Yates, the ruthless head of Republic Pictures. Not yet a major box office star, still under the autocratic rule of men such as Richard Yates, my father was flatly rebuked. “You should have thought about all that before you signed a new contract,” Yates told my father. “If you don't live up to it, I'll sue you for every penny you've got. I'll sue you for every penny you hope to make in the future.”
With four children at home, and a lifelong anxiety about money, my dad never went to war. To a man who believed that life largely meant testing one's self, this was an ultimate test untaken. As a result, I think making
became my father's own form of combat. More than an obsession, it was the most intensely personal project of his career.
Beginning at the dawning of the '50s, he pitched it all over Hollywood. He cajoled, argued, seduced and called in old markers. Needing financial backing, and the distribution of a major studio, he flirted with all the top financiers, but each spurned him when he said he had no plans to star in the movie. Instead, he insisted on producing and directing (and having final cut). I think this was partly ego and partly wariness: he did not want his dream distorted by others.
But Hollywood squalked. My father was almost fifty, he'd never directed, and with its size and sweep, this would be a complex and costly project. The studio heads told him to attach a famous director, at minimum, and then come back and see them. Refusing to compromise, my dad took until 1959 to convince a major studio to make the movie on his terms. But United Artists had stipulations of its own. My father had to sign a three-picture deal. He had to star in
as well as produce and direct. His production company, Batjac, had to contribute hefty financing of its own.
That was a problem. Unaware his budget would later double and triple, my father
believed at first he could provide most of the finance himself if he had to. After making movies for more than twenty-nine years, he felt sure he had the savings. But my father was never a savvy businessman, nor a careful one. In his John Wayne biography,
, Maurice Zolotow wrote: “He was a sucker for a hard luck story. He was a soft touch.” It was true. Like his own father, my dad was trusting to a fault. Time after time in his life, he was bilked and exploited. Still, I never quite knew if he was telling the truth when he pleaded poverty, or if we were really in trouble. Because even at the peak of my father's fame, he had a habit of saying we were near-broke. “I have to go to work,” he forever insisted. “If I don't make this movie we're all gonna be hurting.” Then he'd buy a boat, or a $5,000 dress for my mother, or a Porsche for me the Christmas I turned sixteen. For many years these messages were confusing, until one day I understood: it's true, financially my father is no Bob Hope or Gene Autry. But the man has money. More than anything else, even his restless nature, it's his self-esteem that keeps him workingâit is intricately tied up in my father's remaining a star. Once I came to see this about him, his constant working rarely bothered me. Sometimes, at least in this respect, I felt I understood him even better than my mom did.
In 1960, my father's financial problems were shockingly real. When he tried financing
himself, he was told by his personal manager that several of his investments had gone drastically wrong. Rumors flew through Hollywood, and made it into print, that the man had mismanaged millions of my father's dollars. “I had a business manager,” my father later told the
Saturday Evening Post
, “who did not do anything illegal, but we were involved in many unfortunate money-losing deals.”
Whatever the economic outcome, my dad would have to sort it out later, for he now had a film to get made. To close the deal with United Artists, he scraped up whatever cash he had and promised he could find more if it came to that. Starring my father as Colonel David Crockett, Richard Widmark as Colonel Jim Bowie, and also featuring Laurence Harvey, Richard Boone, Chill Wills, and my half-brother, Patrick Wayne,
was somehow finally born.
Its initial budget was about $7.5 million, remarkably high for those times. Determined to make a film that would
endure, my father spared no expense for precise authenticity. To recreate the original fortress town, he commissioned the building of a replica, and this alone exceeded $1 million. He hired 5,000 cast members to ensure that war scenes would look like actual battles, not the same 100 men shot at fifty different angles. Temporary housing had to be constructed. And as I recall, stars and extras alike got to dine on thick Texas steak and lean roast beef. The morale on the
set was soaring.
Unfortunately, so was the budget. With such a costly pre-production, before my father ever said “Roll 'em,” the United Artists money was gone. With Hollywood grumbling, his dream spinning crazily away, he took radical action. First he wooed a consortium of Texas investors, including Clint Murchison (the wheeler-dealer who'd soon own the Dallas Cowboys). Then he mortgaged our house. He mortgaged Batjac. He mortgaged the family cars,
with capital valueâas collateral for loans. “I have everything I own in this picture,” he announced, “except my necktie.”
Shooting commenced, and continued for eighty-one days. By the end, my producing-directing-starring father had stressed himself to capacity. He weighed thirty pounds less than the day he arrived in the Texas desert. He chainsmoked 100 Camels a day, up from his customary sixty. His smoker's hack never sounded uglier.
All that, and when the movie came out it was mostly panned. A handful of critics praised the acting and realism of
and my father's assured direction of the crucial battle scene. But more ripped its sentimental dialogue and its scene-by-scene flag waving. As for my father, as I will talk about later, he secretly cared much more about the critics than he publicly let on, but he was also never the type of man to sit back and let critics determine his fate. As a response to the bad reviews, and in an effort to recoup his investment, my father launched an aggressively expensive public relations campaign. First, an unprecedented 183-page press release was circulated through Hollywood. Then the town woke morning after morning to full-page trade-paper
ads, with bold black headlines like:
S UP TO OSCAR
. Across Sunset Boulevard, the street where my father officed Batjac and where Hollywood took its lunches, ran this large banner:
THIS IS THE MOST IMPORTANT MOTION PICTURE EVER MADE. IT
S TIMELESS. IT WILL RUN FOREVER