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John Wayne Vs. "Willie" Shakespeare

by Alejandro Grattan

The following tale is at least partially true, though the anecdote within the story might well be undiluted horse manure. The reader will draw his own conclusions. It happened many years ago on a snowy Christmas Eve in a small town in the high country of northern New Mexico.

I had been involved in the production of a TV series called The Bearcats, which featured a couple of gringos (played by Rod Taylor and Dennis Cole) who roam around Mexico in a Stutz-Bearcat during the time of Pancho Villa and the Mexican Revolution.

The TV show’s cast and crew had been granted a furlough to return to LA to spend Christmas with their families, but since I had no family, I stayed on in New Mexico to save myself the plane fare.

The town I was holed up in (the site of our last shooting location) was small, but still swank enough to boast of a Ramada Inn, and there I found myself that Christmas Eve, nursing a terminal case of the lonesome blues, and dead certain that Santa Claus would have no goodies in his knapsack for me that night.

Along about midnight, a tall, middle-aged rancher-type ambled into the bar, ordered a shot of expensive tequila and parked in my near vicinity, where he proceeded to shake the snow from his shoulders, and take off his fur-lined coat and stylish Stetson.

We sat like zombies for several minutes and then awkwardly slung some disposable dialogue at each other, before I tossed out what is usually a foolproof way to jump-start a conversation. I inquired about his line of work.

“If it’s any of your business, kid, I work for John Wayne,” he muttered, carefully chewing each word before he reluctantly released it.

“Oh, really, sir? I’m in the business myself,” I answered, not so reluctantly.

“So you probably think Wayne’s a piss-poor performer,” he said in a threatening tone.

“No, not at all,” I stammered. “Hey, with movies like Red River, Sands of Iwo Jima, The Quiet Man, hell no, he’s terrific—”

“Damn straight he is!” the tall man snarled, and drained his jigger of tequila.

“So what do you do for Mister Wayne?” I quietly asked, trying to lower the conversation by at least an octave. A few tipsy souls in attendance that night had grown weary of punching up Gene Autry’s “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” on the jukebox, and the guy’s voice had carried to every corner of the small bar.

“Again, not that it’s any of your business, but I’m his artistic advisor.”

“His what?”

“I advise him on all that artistic stuff,” he murmured, peering down into his empty jigger glass as if were a crystal ball.

Suddenly I felt stranded in an episode of The Twilight Zone, in a time and place that had little if any connection with reality.

“You from around here, mister?” I asked, trying to recall how many margaritas I’d mangled that night.

“Just passing through on my way back to Newport Beach. That’s where he lives, you know.”

“Uh, you mean John Wayne?”

“Nah, dumbo, I mean Rudolph, the goddamned reindeer!”

     He had obviously grown as tired as I was of hearing the Gene Autry record. Even so, if I had been entirely sober, I might have bristled. Though the guy was old enough to be my father, I didn’t like anybody to imply that I was stupid, regardless of what age-range they fell into. Respect for one’s elders can only stretch so far.

I decided to edge the guy’s nose closer to the smell coming from his mouth. “That ‘artistic advisor’ line is hard to swallow, mister. What advice could you give him that would be any better than he gets from his agent, or once he’s making a movie, any more expert than he can get from a good director?”

The big rancher-type slowly turned toward me, his neck twisting around like I’d seen that young girl do in The Exorcist.

“Say, kid, you some mesquite-smoking Mescalero Indian, or what?” he asked in a poison-tipped voice, the way Jack Palance did in the movie Shane, just before he killed somebody.

“No sir, I’m not a Mescalero Indian...and I didn’t just fall off a turnip truck, either,” I growled, trying to play Alan Ladd to his Jack Palance.

Well, I figured he now had to do one of two things: either answer the question or whip my ass. The odds seemed 70-30 in the wrong direction. But then came what could be called an abrupt change in the climate.

The big guy sighed and released a reasonable facsimile of a smile. “Okay, kid, if I give you just one for-instance, will you let me enjoy my next tequila in peace?”

Fearing another incendiary remark might come out of my mouth, I simply nodded my assent. With that, several dilapidated drunks who had been trying to follow the conversation eased closer, moving about as fast sand crabs. The big man and I seemed the only two quasi-sober guys in the bar, though I wouldn’t have bet serious money on it.

“See, it’s like this, kid. The ‘Duke,’ as he likes to be called, has never been very confident about his acting ability. So once upon a time, he thought of a way to prove that he was as talented as old Marlon Brand-flakes or any of them other mushy-mouth types. Now when the Duke proposes something, it might as well be a law passed by the US Congress. And it’s usually wise for those around him to pretend that our advice dovetails perfectly with his proposal.”

“What was his proposal—to prove he was as talented as Marlon Brand-flakes, as you call him?”

The rancher-type paused for the perfect number of beats. He could have taken his act to Vegas, because he sure knew how to work a roomful of drunks.

“He wanted to recite excerpts from . . . Shakespeare.”

I almost gagged on my drink. “Shakespeare?!” was the most brilliant thing I could think to say.

“And he wanted to do it before a live audience in New York City.”

At that, one of the drunks chirped in with, “He be good, too!”

Turning, I saw that I was the only guy in the room who seemed to think the whole idea grotesquely funny.

“So what the hell happen?” another voice slurred from one side of us.

“Me and some of Wayne’s compadres rented a small theater in New York City, and on the night of the performance, we sneaked in some ringers, all friends of the Duke’s, though he’d said he wanted just a regular audience and to play it even safer, I told the crowd just before the curtain came up, that the one thing they couldn’t do was laugh out loud. They didn’t have to like the show, but if they laughed, it’d be sure to break the Duke’s heart. And then, for the first and last time ever, I said a little prayer.”

“Sometimes it’s the answered prayers that cause most of the trouble,” I said, remembering a swell line I was stealing from somebody somewhere.

The Jack Palance character didn’t seem impressed. “Anyway, the curtain comes up, and there’s the Duke standing all by his lonesome on a bare stage, with a large wooden staff in his hand . . . and dressed in leotards.”

Hearing that, I nearly gagged again. It was getting to be a habit.

“Now the Duke couldn’t rightly see the audience because of the footlights in his eyes, but being off to one side, I noticed that a lot of folks looked a lot like blowfish, cheeks ballooned out, what with trying not to guffaw at the sight of Mister Macho Man standing there in lemon-colored leotards. And then the Duke spoke for the first time...”

Okay, call it auto-suggestion, but the rummies there in the bar of the Ramada Inn that night also seemed to be trying awfully hard not to laugh themselves, with a few even looking like that same species of fish.

“So what did Mister Wayne say?” I gently asked, trying to hurry along the story without breaking its mood.

“Dialogue from some old thing called Hamlet,” the artistic advisor muttered, as if experiencing gas pains. Then his eyes drifted toward the ceiling, and in the best John Wayne imitation I ever heard, before or since, he abruptly exclaimed, “Hark, what is that I see before me, a dag...GER?”

Once again, I gagged. If this kept up, I’d have to see a throat specialist when I got back to Planet Earth.

“Well, you can imagine,” the big guy went on, having no notion of the affect his story was having on me, “the audience now looked like a whole goddamned school of blowfish—and finally a couple of them commenced to giggle. Then a few more started to fall apart. Finally, it seemed like half the audience had gone to wetting itself. The Duke couldn’t see them, but he could hear the commotion, which musta compelled him to do something that to this day I think was most ill-advised.”

A look came across his face, as if he were remembering a gruesome accident. “The Duke started banging on the stage with his wooden staff, darkly muttering one thing or another before he finally exploded. ‘Hey, looky here, you people,’ he thundered, ‘I didn’t write this pile of dinosaur-droppings, a guy named Willie Shakespeare did—so if you got any problems with it, dammit, take it up with him!’ Well, with that, the audience finally fell all the hell to pieces and almost out of their goddamn chairs.”

And with near-perfect timing, I almost fell out of my own chair. I don’t know how long my nose was pointed toward the Ramada’s red carpeting, but by the time I reclaimed my previous position, the big guy, back in his fur-lined coat and safely under his stylish Stetson, was already striding out the door.

I never saw or heard from him again, indeed had never even caught his name. So is his story true? Who knows? But if it isn’t, it sure as hell should be—because I was certainly wrong in earlier thinking that Santa Claus would have no gift for me that Christmas.

    Now if I only had grandchildren to pass it along to, who could hand it on to their grandchildren, though of course by then, it probably will have lost an awful lot in translation.

T h e   E n d

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