In 1970 when John “Duke” Wayne won an Oscar for his starring role as U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn in True Grit (1969), the industry was a shadow of its current self. Or perhaps it’s the other way around.
Veteran writer-producer, A.J. Fenady, who was close to “the Duke,” remembers the night well–and how different the industry was then.
Before his Oscar win, Fenady said, “Duke tipped his hand while they were having a drink together at the bar: I said, ‘Good luck tonight Duke,’ and he said, ‘Well, McFenady, we gave it our best shot.’ But, I could tell he was confident.”
And, sure enough, Fenady said smiling, “He let something slip on stage after he presented an award. Even though he was not scheduled to appear again unless he won for best actor, “Duke nodded to the audience and said, ‘I’ll see you later.'”
Over four decades later, Wayne still ranks among the top ten of “America’s favorite movie stars,” while holding steady at #1 among conservative and ‘mature’ Americans, according to the most recent Harris poll. He’s bigger than the very much alive, and liberal, Brad Pitt.
But, the industry was smaller when Duke was charming and inspiring audiences–“a small business,” A.J. says Duke called it.
I spoke with A.J. recently as Oscar excitement was building nearby at red-carpeted Hollywood Boulevard at Highland, where the Oscars are being held–at The Dolby Theatre.
Noting Jack Warner viewed the first Oscar ceremony, held May 16, 1929 across the street at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, with great humor–suggesting Rin Tin Tin for a “Best Actor Oscar”–A.J. laughed. Mention of Jack Warner brought to mind his early days in the industry.
“In 1958, ‘Stakeout on Dope Street,’ the first feature Irv Kershner and I made,” he said, “cost $21,000 dollars cash, and we sold it to Jack Warner for $150,000 and thought we were the richest people in the world.”
“Today that kind of money is loose change–and it’s double tough to get one done if you’re and independent producer-writer–and I’ve been that almost all the time–a wildcatter.”
To give an idea of what a “small business” it was, A.J. said, “Columbia’s entire budget for 50 features (A’s & B’s) a year was $17 million dollars. Today if a single picture doesn’t open for $17 million it’s usually in trouble.”
“At Paramount one man, D.A. Doran could green-light a $250,000 feature,” he said. “Today, it takes a battalion of vice-presidents, agents, lawyers, actors, directors and assorted stooges to pull a feature through ‘development hell’ to fruition–and most don’t get that far.” Ah, but he still eyes the opportunity to make a film, telling me he has “more than one in the chute.”
Nonetheless, given “how hard and expensive it is to put all the pieces together,” he said, “I prefer to concentrate on stage plays (he’s written a dozen) and novels (17, and counting).”
It’s a “much more uncluttered, cleaner, more rewarding process,” he said, “where we need only please a minimum of kibitzers.”
The latest of these Fenady endeavors is a novel, The Range Wolf, a western version of his favorite author, Jack London’s classic The Sea Wolf.
“My son, Duke, and I previously wrote and produced ‘The Sea Wolf’ starring Charles Bronson as Wolf Larsen and Christopher Reeve as Humphrey Van Weyden,” he said.
In April, Kensington will publish The Range Wolf, a westernized version of the novel.
“The Westernization works amazingly well–with the same basic characters on a perilous cattle drive instead of a sailing schooner,” A.J. said.
The Sea Wolf has been filmed in silent and sound versions more than a dozen times with Wolf Larsen portrayed by actors as short as Edward G. Robinson and tall as Chuck Connors. None had delved as deeply into the conflict between Wolf and his brother as The Range Wolf novel does.
A.J. wrapped up our chat by saying, “In ‘Chisum’ (1970), I wrote a line for John Wayne saying, ‘Things usually change for the better. That’s still true,” Fenady smiled, “but it all depends on which side of the teeter-totter you’re on–and for how long.”
Asked about this year’s Oscar nominees, he said, “Well, they’re not Rin Tin Tin, that’s for sure.” More seriously, he said, “I wish them all well.”