On the night of March 27, 1973, Liv Ullmann and Roger Moore stepped onstage at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles to present the Academy Award for Best Actor of 1972. The name that Ullmann read was Marlon Brando, for The Godfather. A young woman clad in a beaded Native American dress walked up to the podium and gracefully brushed back Moore’s hand as he tried to hand her the statuette. Her name was Sacheen Littlefeather, and up until that moment, no one save her and Brando (wherever he was) knew what she was going to say; she had refused to be specific with the producers before she took her seat. To the sound of some applause, and a smattering of boos, foot-stamps, and catcalls, she explained that she was refusing the Oscar at Brando’s behest, due to “the treatment of American Indians today by the film industry…and on television in movie reruns, and also with recent happenings at Wounded Knee.”1 After her brief speech, Littlefeather left the stage. The time elapsed from when Brando’s name was read, to Littlefeather’s exit, was about one minute forty seconds. Throughout the night, Littlefeather was dignified and tranquil, which can’t be said for everyone in the Oscar audience. She remained calm, by all accounts, when she reached the press room.
On March 27, 2022, 49 years later to the day, Will Smith stepped onstage at the Dolby Theater in Los Angeles and slapped comedian Chris Rock, who was there to present the award for Best Documentary. I’m not going to describe it any further than that, as I think the full clip has been seen by everyone not presently making their home at the bottom of the sea.
Here’s what we’ll be concerned with. Just after the incident at this year’s Oscars, variations on a certain assertion began appearing all over my Twitter feed.
The accusation rapidly spread to online tabloid-type venues—I’m not linking, but they’re easy to find. Here’s an array of more tweets that come up in a search.
Now, the Academy has issued an official apology to Sacheen Littlefeather, which may be read here (and has no reference to any incident involving John Wayne). She is scheduled to give a talk at the Academy Museum in Los Angeles on Sept. 17. Once more we’re flooded with the tale of John Wayne and the Six Security Men, the lousy variety act many people believe played the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion back in 1973.
On such occasions, it becomes necessary to defrost the keyboard. And dive through archives, and pester historians, and email unsuspecting biographers. Somebody had to—Snopes half-assed it. From the moment I saw these mushrooming accusations of how Wayne was barely prevented from beating up a tiny indigenous activist, I was, to put it mildly, in a dubious frame of mind.
For this allegedly violent night at the Oscars in 1973, the order of the last three award presentations had been Best Actor, which is what we’re investigating; Best Actress (presented by Gene Hackman and Raquel Welch); and Best Picture, presented by Clint Eastwood—a planned presenter of the award, but he had already had a jittery evening as a last-minute substitute for Charlton Heston, whose car had broken down on the freeway. [see endnote] Finally, John Wayne came out to say a few words, gather the remaining stars and dancers, and lead off a rousing final chorus of “You Ought to Be in Pictures.”
Here is John Wayne coming out for the finale of the 1973 Oscars. He’s a little slow getting down the steps and over to the podium. His gait isn’t exactly athletic. But that’s not surprising. John Wayne, then 65 years old, had undergone lung-cancer surgery in 1964. The surgeons made a 28-inch incision, removing two ribs and the entire upper lobe of his left lung. The operation saved his life, but left Wayne with daily breathing problems that he worked mightily to conceal, despite requiring a supplemental oxygen tank on the sets of some subsequent movies.
Wayne looks pretty calm for a man who caused backstage mayhem moments ago. Dapper, too. I do appreciate that the Oscar security men were careful not to rumple his tux.
Note here that there was an interesting set design that year for the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Minimalist, you might call it, since you can see the flies, the back wall, and (so it appears) much of the wings.
To see why I am bringing this up, let’s go to Sacheen Littlefeather’s description of the night in the 2021 documentary short Sacheen: Breaking the Silence, which includes a short clip of the Oscar moment. (It’s up at Youtube for a fee.)
While Littlefeather describes John Wayne “in the wings,” the clip seems to indicate, as Liv Ullmann, Roger Moore and Sacheen Littlefeather exit the stage, that there are no wings to speak of, and no John Wayne. Where was he, and where were the six security men, a six-man-scrum-plus-movie-star presumably being rather difficult to hide? And if this was taking place in a wing-like area further backstage or in the green room, what made Wayne think he could huff and puff all the way to the stage before the orchestra played Littlefeather off? Going back to the original Oscar clip, you’ll see he had just 45 seconds to realize what she was saying, get mad, begin to charge, and be held back by the gathering of the security clan. Littlefeather was always clear that no one knew the contents of her speech until she gave it. She could have been getting up there just to take the award and say thank-you.
For that matter, I wonder when the armed guards who escorted Littlefeather herself offstage showed up. They aren’t in the clip. The photo still in the documentary shows a balding middle-aged man who is wearing one of those ghastly 1970s ruffledy tuxedos. He is holding her hand, and certainly doesn’t look like anybody I’d hire as security, though maybe he was incognito.
and went to the press room, which was on the fourth floor, where she read the lengthy statement she’d brought.
Having examined the clips from the 1973 Oscars in more detail than anyone should examine anything short of the Zapruder film, I repaired to newspapers-dot-com. You would think, would you not, that if John Wayne had been either in the wings or backstage, with six security men tussling with him in some kind of goal-line stand, as Wayne hollered that he was gonna drag Sacheen Littlefeather right off the ding-dang stage, that this would have been noticed and remarked upon somewhere in the many, many, many stories and columns published in the days and weeks right after this particular Oscar ceremony—not least by Littlefeather herself.
You would be wrong. I have failed utterly to find anybody referencing any such incident in the immediate aftermath of the show. And by “immediate aftermath,” I mean from Monday, March 28, 1973, until about February 1974. In addition to what could be found on the internet, Professor Thomas Doherty of Brandeis University graciously offered to access the relevant issues of The Hollywood Reporter, which are not online. Nothing about Wayne. THR, then staunchly right-wing, ran an editorial by Tichi Wilkerson Miles, scolding Brando. There was also a roundup of quotations from various figures. In the approving camp was Alfred Ruddy, Godfather producer; opting for the diplomatic route of “well, you know, artists” was the legendary Robert Evans of Paramount; disapproving, not of Littlefeather but Brando, were Academy president Daniel Taradesh, Michael Caine, and Charlton Heston. And at the end of the THR roundup, a brief interview with Littlefeather herself, with a truly lovely vignette: “She noted that ‘a very nice man,’ Eddie Albert, and his son Edward Albert, congratulated her on her remarks and said they supported what she did.”
No word from John Wayne. His response to the whole affair didn’t come until Dec. 30, 1973, in an interview in the New York Times:
What about that other big kid —Marlon Brando? Does Duke—an Academy Award winner for “True Grit”—look upon Brando’s nixing of his Oscar for “The Godfather” as a mature action, or mere kid stuff?
“You’re going to take this out of context, aren’t you?” Duke squints, and then breaks into a who-gives-a-damn grin. “I think it was sad that Brando did what he did. If he had something to say, he should have appeared that night and stated his views instead of taking some little unknown girl and dressing her up in an Indian outfit.”
When does the Wayne story start showing up? Leaping ahead a bit, there is a 1988 interview with Marty Pasetta, the director of the Oscar show from 1972 to 1988, a stretch of time that in retrospect looks like the Oscar show’s Golden Age. Of that night in 1973, Pasetta told Ivor Davis:
“We had a fight is what we had,” recalls the silver-haired Oscar veteran… “John Wayne wanted to go out there and physically yank her off the stage. It took six men to hold him back.”
Well, hold the phone. There are significant problems with accepting Pasetta’s 1988 recollection at face value (and that is why I am calling Snopes sloppy).
he “six security men” preventing John Wayne from physically assaulting Littlefeather do not appear in a much earlier interview with Pasetta, by Don Freeman of Copley News Service, which dates to Feb. 23, 1974, when the incident should have been freshest in Pasetta’s mind. Asked about his worst “calamity” (“I don’t compare them. I just endure them,” is Pasetta’s amusing response), the show director tells a different story.
How do you predict that some ‘Indian princess’ is going to go on for Brando and make a speech? And there’s John Wayne backstage and he’s in an uproar and I had to calm him down. I said, ‘don’t go out there, Duke, that’ll only make it worse.’ Everybody was in an uproar.
A later version of that interview, republished in 1975,2 adds a kicker from Pasetta about Wayne: “He hollered, but he stayed.”