The setting was the Universal lot in Hollywood, and I was preparing a prime-time special to be called “Dick Cavett’s Backlot U.S.A.” We’d somehow lured Mae West out of her most recent retirement. We had Mickey Rooney and Gene Kelly. We needed another big-name guest.
Someone came in with a message and casually dropped the words, “The Duke is shooting over on the Western street.”
I was fairly sure that by “Duke” he didn’t mean Edward VIII. Before there was time to even think, “Feets, do yo’ stuff,” I was all but out the door. My producer, the splendid Gary Smith, didn’t need to ask where I was going. He just said, “Get him for the show.”
“Sure thing,” I said, laughing.
I hit the ground running. A man carrying a fake tree pointed the way. It felt like that heavy slogging one experiences in dreams. I knew I’d be too late. I got through a section of London, the New York street, the New England village . . . and there it was up ahead. The square of an old Western town. “The Shootist,” which proved to be John Wayne’s final movie, was being filmed.
Somehow — although it seemed I had met all my heroes and non-heroes in the biz — I had always been certain, deep down, that I was not destined to meet John Wayne. It was just not in the scheme of things.
If the word “icon” — used daily now for just about everybody, even me — ever applied in its fullest force to anyone it was to the man embarrassed as a kid by his real name, Marion Mitchell Morrison.
How could I ever hope to find myself standing beside the star of “Sands of Iwo Jima,” seen five times by Jimmy McConnell and me in our Nebraska youth? (Later, we’d “play” the movie, taking turns being The Duke, our bikes standing in for horses.)
How could I expect to meet “The Ringo Kid” from “Stagecoach”? Or the man in another one of those great Monument Valley John Ford classics (“She Wore a Yellow Ribbon”?), riding toward the camera, the cavalry column behind him, the storm overhead. Surely this mythic figure could not occupy the space right next to you.
And yet there he was.
The gods had smiled and arranged for my first glimpse of him to be the ideal one. Mounted and in full cowboy drag: the chaps, the boots and spurs, the neckerchief and the well-worn Stetson atop the handsome head. He was waiting for the scene to begin.
I moved, or rather, was moved toward him. He saw me gazing upward.
“Well,” he said — in John Wayne’s voice! — “It sure is good ta meet ya.”
I reached up to shake the mounted man’s proffered hand. It enveloped mine like a baseball glove.
He was instantly likable and, although it seems almost the wrong word for such a fellow, charming. We chatted for several minutes until shooting resumed. I watched him ride off for the next shot. I figured that was it. I was satisfied.
Meanwhile, I had forgotten about the special, and I started to leave. I couldn’t wait to phone Jimmy McConnell.
Suddenly, the Duke — preceded by his shadow — came up behind me, on foot now. As with the Great Pyramid at Giza, nothing prepared you for his size. (And there was a rumor that he wore lifts in his boots. I was not about to ask.)
“I’d enjoy talking to ya but I’ve got a scene to shoot with Betty Bacall,” he said. “Do you want to watch?”
The answer came easily. And my new friend led me inside to the set.
It was the old West, and the scene was in the kitchen of the house belonging to Lauren Bacall’s character. She was about to serve him a meal.
“Ya wanna run your lines, Duke?” asked an assistant.
“No thanks, I know ’em. Most of ’em, anyway.” (Crew laughs.)
I was a few feet from him, in the shadows. They were still setting up and Duke was humming to himself, and — I guess unconsciously recognizing the tune — I began to hum along. He spotted me and chuckled. And the following dialogue took place. On my solemn word. (I went straight home and wrote it all down before it faded.)
Wayne: Wasn’t he great?
Me [startled, realizing now that the tune was Noel Coward’s “Someday I’ll Find You”]: Yes.
Wayne: I’ve always loved his stuff. Remember the scene in “Private Lives” when they realize they still love each other?
Me: Yes, and did you know there’s a recording of Coward and Gertrude Lawrence doing that scene?
Wayne: Gee, I gotta get that. I guess I’ve read most of his plays.
Me [still not convinced there isn’t a ventriloquist in the room]: I’ll send you the record.
Wayne: Well, thank ya. I like the line [he switched to quite passable upper-class British], “You’re looking very lovely you know, in this damned moonlight.”
Me: I did a show with Coward and, as he introduced them, “My dearest friends, Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne.”
Wayne: I sure would love to have seen them in “Design for Living.” [Mentally I reach again for the smelling salts.] And, damn, I’d love to see that show of yours.
Me: I’ll see that you do. [Jesus! Did I? Oh, I hope so.]
Wayne: That’d be awful nice of ya.
Me: Did you ever think of doing one of his plays?
Wayne: Yeah, but it never got past the thought stage. I guess they figured that maybe spurs and “Blithe Spirit” wouldn’t go together. Can’t you see the critics? “Wayne should go back to killing Indians, not Noel Coward.”
As I looked around for someone to pinch me, the mood was shattered by a sharp, barking voice: “O.K., people. Places for 43.”
(There is a good bit more to this encounter, including a life-and-limb incident. Interested? Or would you rather have a piece on “Edward Bulwer-Lytton: Man and Boy”?)
It required the common sense of Woody Allen to put the whole thing into perspective. When I burbled the story to him, he seemed disappointingly un-astonished.