When Ethan Wayne misses his father, he need only insert “Wake of the Red Witch” or “Reap the Wild Wind” into his DVD player to see his pappy back in his prime. Growing up the son of John Wayne has its advantages. Watching “The Comancheros,” his father’s 1962 Western hit, holds another blast from the family past.
“I get to see my dad around the time that I came about,” the 49-year-old Ethan Wayne says.
John Wayne at home with kids Ethan, Marissa, and Aissa and wife Pilar.
“The Comancheros,” out this week on Blu-ray
, stars John Wayne as a Texas Ranger assigned to bring in a man (Stuart Whitman) charged with killing a judge’s son. The infraction actually occurred during a duel, lending the character’s sin some shading. The two men end up reluctant allies when they square off against a band of outlaws who smuggle guns to a local Comanche tribe.
Ethan Wayne, an actor and stunt man in his own right, says his father regaled him with on-set stories from “The Comancheros.” The western icon bonded with some of his “Comancheros” co-stars, like Lee Marvin and Bruce Cabot.
“It was a group of contemporaries who came up through the ranks [together],” he says.
Wayne recalls a more somber side of his father's "Comancheros" stories, one involving the film’s celebrated director, Michael Curtiz of “Casablanca” fame.
“[Curtiz] was very sick and going through cancer treatments. He couldn’t work some of the days,” he says. “My father stepped in and directed for him.” The humble Duke was offered a co-director credit on the film but kindly declined.
“He really liked Michael Curtiz and didn’t want to infringe on that,” Wayne says.
John Wayne’s legendary love for his country came partly through his own life story. He was a college athlete who suffered a career-ending shoulder injury while bodysurfing. He ended up doing odd jobs like sweeping up leaves and herding ducks around Hollywood where he caught the eyes of people like director John Ford, who would later team up with Wayne for the film classic “The Searchers.”
“Only in America do you have opportunities like that. He was grateful to the country he lived in,” his son says. Later in his career, after financial troubles hit, Wayne was amazed he could still make ends meet in the film industry.
“They’ll pay me, a 65-year-old fat guy,” his father told him.
Wayne the son is diplomatic when asked what his father would think of actors like Danny Glover and Sean Penn who unabashedly embrace rulers such as Hugo Chavez who smite America at every opportunity.
“I wish he was around so we could find out,” he says.
When his father did sound off on politics he rarely alienated people as some actors today routinely do.
“Even people who disagreed with something political, once people knew him, they realized there was a lot more depth there. They ended up liking him and respecting him,” he says.
Wayne says growing up the son of a film icon was more normal than one might imagine. Sure, the family received buckets of fan mail on a regular basis, but his father had long ago processed the trappings of fame.
“The celebrity was secondary. By the time I came along he had been through all that stuff,” he explains. “I grew up in Newport Beach, a small beach town. There were no paparazzi, no bodyguards. I had a tremendous amount of freedom as a young boy.”
Some of his favorite father-son memories involve spending time together on the family yacht,
“A third of my life was spent on my dad’s boat, a converted mine sweeper,” he says, adding the ship sailed along the Panama Canal, British Columbia and Alaska. “We went everywhere on it.”
Wayne now oversees John Wayne Enterprises, the company which protects the actor’s legacy and helps make sure products emblazoned with the Duke's legendary puss pass muster.
Sometimes the Enterprise has control over films in the John Wayne canon. But neither the company nor Ethan Wayne held sway over “The Comancheros.” That isn’t stopping Wayne from helping promote the Blu-ray release.
“I’m here because I think it’s a great film. I have no stake in it,” he explains.
The newly restored "Comancheros" means Duke’s still-large fan base can check out one of his better westerns in high-definition. For Ethan Wayne, it’s another chance to see his later father in action once more. And there’s no one else quite like John Wayne, then or now.
“There are some terrific actors out there, but is there anybody who owns a singular space like John Wayne did [on screen]? I can’t think of anyone,” he says.