John Wayne was famous for his tough guy image on and off screen, mostly being known for playing cowboys and military men. By the early 1960s, Duke was in his fifties, struggling with health problems yet continuing to insist on not only doing his own stunts but also playing characters – including historical figures – he was now much older than. This was especially the case when he was cast in the 1962 D-Day epic The Longest Day, which featured an incredible all-star cast including Henry Fonda, Robert Mitchum, Sean Connery and Richard Burton. Yet Wayne’s inclusion proved divisive.
Incredibly, former President Dwight D Eisenhower almost played himself, but makeup artists couldn’t make him look as young as he did in 1944. Nevertheless, a set decorator with no acting experience with the spitting image of the Supreme Allied Commander was cast. Awkwardly, the real Ike ended up walking out of The Longest Day after just a few minutes, frustrated with all the inaccuracies. Although Eisenhower was considered too old to play his younger self, that didn’t stop Wayne from being cast as 27-year-old Lt Col Benjamin Vandervoort, who was very disappointed to find out he was being portrayed by the overweight 54-year-old Duke.
Originally Charlton Heston, who was only a decade older than the real-life paratrooper, had actively sought the part. However, Wayne’s last-minute decision to take on the role blocked him ad it came at a huge price to the film’s producer.
The Longest Day: How John Wayne ‘punished’ WW2 epic’s producer for publicly insulting him
John Wayne was 30 years older than the real solider he was playing
The Longest Day producer Darryl F Zanuck had managed to negotiate $25,000 fees from his ensemble cast for what was mostly cameos. However, Wayne demanded $250,000 or he’d refused to appear in the movie – a request that was granted.
The reason Duke “punished” the producer with this action was because he’d been quoting in an interview calling the Western legend “poor John Wayne” over 1960’s The Alamo.
That blockbuster was produced, directed and largely funded by the star himself. And Zanuck had said he didn’t think much of actors forming their own production companies, citing Wayne’s as an example. Not only was Wayne’s non-negotiable fee request on The Longest Day an act of revenge, but also was a way of him getting a quick payday after all the money he spent on The Alamo.
Aside from being three decades too old for his role in the World War 2 blockbuster, Duke’s contract also included a clause that made his casting even more controversial.
John Wayne didn’t serve in World War II, something he would regret for the rest of his life
Alongside his whopping $250,000 fee, Wayne insisted on getting separate billing on The Longest Day from the other actors. However, to his dismay, this was got around by having the other stars billed first followed by “and John Wayne”, meaning that Duke’s name appeared last on the credits.
Even so, it was highly controversial even then as the Hollywood star did not serve in World War II, something he tried to redeem across his career by acting in very patriotic movies.