Actor John Wayne was known for his roles across the war and Western genres. He had a signature booming voice and a classic walk that allowed him to command attention from any audience. However, Wayne moved his talent from one studio to the next over the course of his career. He often refused to play Hollywood’s games. He was a last-minute replacement in two movie roles that proved to be major successes.
The major Hollywood studios started changing how things worked in the 1950s. Many movie stars were let go from their traditional contracts. Instead, they hired actors on a per-film basis, rather than holding them on the payroll. Some movie stars opened their own production company, which allowed them more creative control and more cash flow.
Wayne struck a deal with Warner Bros., which offered the opportunity to finance and distribute 10 features he created through his production studio, Wayne-Fellows. The actor was interested in making The Alamo, which no movie studio wanted to touch at the time because of its extreme budget. Nevertheless, Wayne indulged Warner Bros. because he still saw the value in the deal.
According to Donald Shepherd’s book, Duke: The Life and Times of John Wayne, the movie star’s roles and features ultimately made a good deal of money for the studio. Some of these projects ranged from Ring of Fear and Goodbye, My Lady. However, their most successful movies proved to include two times where Wayne filled in roles as a last-minute replacement.
The first was Hondo, which follows an Army dispatch rider named Hondo Lane who agrees to protect a woman and her young son from nearby Apaches. Actor Glenn Ford was the original star meant to play the title role, but he ultimately turned it down because he didn’t want to work with John Farrow again after shooting Plunder with him.
As a result, Wayne took over in Hondo, which went on to become a huge commercial success. He later told the original actor, “Gee, Glenn, thanks for turning down Hondo.”
The second film was The High and the Mighty. It tells the story of a commercial airliner that encounters some serious engine problems during a trans-Pacific flight, requiring a washed-up co-pilot to bring the aircraft to safety. The production initially wanted Spencer Tracy for the lead role, who turned it down after initially considering it. Next up, Wayne wanted Humphrey Bogart for the part, but the actor wanted $500,000, which the movie star wasn’t prepared to pay for movie roles. Therefore, he had no choice but to play the role himself.
The High and the Mighty was a big success, bringing in Oscar nominations for Best Director, Best Film Editing, Best Original Song, and two nominations for Best Supporting Actress. Its only win was for Best Music Score. Additionally, it made a whole lot of money at the box office.
Wayne had plenty of successful movie roles over the course of his career. However, after these two accomplishments, he stepped into one of the worst roles of his career. He played Temujin, also known as Genghis Khan, in RKO’s The Conqueror. Critics and fans alike continue to reflect on how bad of a casting decision was in the modern day, considering it one of the worst films he ever starred in.
The actor wanted to step into another role that would provide him with greater versatility, but he ultimately found himself working on essentially another Western. However, the film and his performance would become a running joke that never died.