Last Updated on February 7, 2021 by Steve Mayhew
John Wayne Male Character Actors – The Top 15 (15 – 11)
This is the ‘real list’ of my best John Wayne’s male character actors, appearing least to most favourite.
We got quite a few comments from our readership, most of them positive, when the previous article on JWs’ leading male co-stars was published. A number, however, questioned why actors such as Ben Johnson, Victor McLaglen, Ward Bond and Ken Curtis, to name just a few, didn’t make the cut.
Apologies if it wasn’t made very clear, but that article was specifically based around those actors who appeared second in the cast list to Duke.
I always intended on putting together a list of some of my favourite male character actors who graced JWs’ oeuvre throughout the years, and here they are, fifteen in all.
This list is a purely personal appreciation, just as the leading male actors article was, but please don’t let that stop you making your feelings known one way or the other.
The story goes that John Wayne was originally approached to play Matt Dillon in the TV series Gunsmoke – which for some strange reason was called Gun Law over here in the UK – but he turned it down and recommended Arness, and went the extra mile by introducing the first episode when it was screened in 1955.
The rest, as they say, is history.
Prior to playing Matt Dillon though, Arness acquitted himself reasonably well co-starring with Duke in Big Jim McLain, Island in the Sky, Hondo and The Sea Chase, but to be honest I don’t really feel any of those performances are necessarily etched in the memory.
On the other hand, Gunsmoke was at one point the longest running TV series in America, so I guess someone must have liked him.
To my mind, he was so much more impressive as one of the murderous members of the Clegg gang in John Ford’s 1951 film Wagon Master.
I have to admit I haven’t seen Arness playing Wayne’s role as Thomas Dunson in a TV remake of Red River, but at least he had the build and stature to match.
I recently came across a documentary entitled TV Western Heroes, hosted by Will ‘Sugarfoot’ Hutchins, and to my surprise the show contained footage of a program aired on American TV back in – I think –1959, featuring James Arness staging a fistfight for a behind-the-scenes sequence.
Suddenly, seemingly from out of nowhere, Wayne appears, looking as though he’s just wandered off the set of Rio Bravo.
Arness faces him down and says ‘Hey, Duke, don’t you know you brought me up to do my own fightin’?’ then promptly catches him with a feigned right hook.
Wayne staggers off rehearsing his comedic punched-in-the-face look that he later employed to such perfection in North to Alaska.
I caught the program on Amazon Prime but there’s a DVD available if anyone’s interested in checking it out. You’ll find the sequence round about the 47 minute mark.
In 1974 Kennedy turned in two performances back-to-back that fought to outdo each other in the pure evil stakes.
One was playing opposite Clint Eastwood in Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, in which Kennedy, as killer Red Leary, kicks Jeff Bridges so hard in the head the kid eventually dies of brain damage.
Red’s reward is to end up as live dog food after crashing his car into a department store which unfortunately for him is guarded by a man-eating canine.
Next up was as killer Abe Fraser opposite John Wayne in Cahill U.S. Marshal, so it’s not going to be too much of a stretch to figure out exactly how things are going to turn out for Mr. Fraser by the end of the film.
George did a dry-run for Abe in The Sons of Katie Elder, playing psycho gunslinger Curley.
We know he’s a no-good snake on account of 1) the soundtrack music goes all doom-ridden and menacing when he gets into town 2) he’s wearing a black hat and 3) he’s played by George Kennedy.
He also laughs out of context a lot whilst torturing the local undertaker with a crude form of water-boarding, earning himself a smack across the face with a piece of wood courtesy of John Wayne.
Afterwards, there’s quite a tense standoff in the local saloon between Kennedy and the younger Elder brother, played by Michael Anderson Jr., in which Kennedy adopts a Richard Widmark / Tommy Udo giggle that disappears once JW walks in.
Although Kennedy finally gets his comeuppance in the climactic shootout, at the hands of JW naturally, I think it would have been so much more effective if they’d faced each other down in a High Noon / Shane kind of way.
Apart from a small role in In Harm’s Way, George eventually got to play opposite JW again in Cahill, having in the interim won a best supporting Oscar for Cool Hand Luke.
I’ve already mentioned Kennedy’s role in Cahill, with specific regard to the ‘Night of the Hunter Robert Mitchum vibe’ that Kennedy brings to the part, which is much more prominent than that of Curley in Katie Elder.
He’s rather more subtle here, playing a con-man as well as a killer, manipulating the trust of Wayne’s wayward kids to the point that they commit a bank robbery for him.
He get’s a few good lines as well this time around, chastising the older kid with ‘The trouble with you boy is, you got no grace. You should allow a man his illusions’.
It all ends in tears though, as indeed it should, with Abe getting shot from his horse by the elder boy before JW finishes him off with a few well-placed missives of his own.
George enjoyed a pretty good film career in later life, and is probably best-known for the Naked Gun comedy films and a three-year run in the Dallas TV series. Personally, I prefer him as a villain. That man really knew how to die.
Where do I start with George ‘Gabby’ Hayes? I’m prepared to make the case that if it wasn’t for old Gabby there never would have been any need for sub-titles, because I sure as hell need them whenever I catch one of his films.
To be fair, I’m also going deaf so I guess that exacerbates the difficulty when it comes to ‘Gabby watching’.
I note that he appeared in approximately fifteen films with John Wayne as his ubiquitous sidekick, starting with Riders of Destiny in 1933 and making a world-beating 10 appearances with JW the following year.
I’m not totally familiar with all of John Wayne’s early 1930s work, a situation I’m working on by viewing as many of his pre-Stagecoach films as I possibly can, but I have seen the Gabby Hayes / JW films that came after that, so hopefully that provides me with some credentials on the subject.
Looking back at the reviews I wrote for the later JW / Hayes vehicles, I note that I first started to understand exactly what Gabby was gabbing on about in the 1940 film, Dark Command.
To say it was a revelation is an understatement. It’s like that scene in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest when Chief, played by Will Sampson, suddenly utters his first word in front of Jack Nicholson, who up to that point had assumed his friend was mute.
I had assumed up until Dark Command that Hayes was actually communicating to the world either in tongues or some long-lost Mayan dialect that only he was familiar with.
On the other hand, if he’d been too coherent then he wouldn’t have been Gabby, would he? I mean, ‘Articulate’ Hayes doesn’t quite have the same ring.
In a film career that lasted just over twenty years – he went on to TV fame in The Gabby Hayes Show and Howdy Doody – Hayes appeared in an astounding number of films, approximately just under two hundred by my count.
When he wasn’t moonlighting in John Wayne movies he also had another day job as sidekick to Hoppalong Cassidy.
I see that to save any confusion, he also played quite a lot of characters called Gabby. He should have gone the whole hog and played Gabby Hayes all the time which, to be honest, is all he really did anyway.
I recall Chill from when I was a kid starring in a TV series with John Derek called Frontier Circus. To all you JW fans out there, however, it’s as Beekeeper in The Alamo that he will always be remembered.
I have already mentioned his role in my review of Allegheny Rising, and I see he was also the surgeon in Rio Grande prior to his Oscar-nominated role in The Alamo, but I don’t recall him figuring that prominently in the Ford film.
As for the whisky-drinking Tennessean sidekick, although frankly I’d say that describes nearly all of Crockett’s men, Chill the Beekeeper is probably the most notable of them all.
He’s also certainly the biggest and every time I watch the film and it gets to the scene where he tries to dance with three-year-old Aissa Wayne, you can tell by the look on her face that she does not want to partner with this man.
I’m sure you can all read up for yourselves the story of Chill’s ill-fated Oscar campaign, so I won’t bore you with the details here.
Despite JW distancing himself from Chill’s ham-fisted attempts to schmooze the Academy, he knew a good actor and a screen presence when he saw one, which is why Chill got the chance to redeem himself as Duke’s goombah in McLintock! a few years later.
To be honest I think anyone could have played his character, Drago, in McLintock! whereas he was perfectly cast as Beekeeper.
In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me one bit if it turned out Chill was adopting a method acting approach to his role in The Alamo by maybe savouring the delights of some Tennessee sippin’ whiskey before treading the boards in front of the camera.
And if he wasn’t, then I reckon that the Academy got it wrong when they gave Best Supporting actor to Peter Ustinov instead of Mr. Wills.
Cabot’s most famous role was as Jack Driscoll in the original 1933 version of King Kong, bravely running through the prehistoric jungle of Skull Island to rescue Fay Wray from a doomed marriage to a very large love-struck ape.
Bruce first worked with Duke in Angel and the Badman in 1947, having lost out to JW for the part of the Ringo Kid in Stagecoach a few years before.
In later years Duke compensated Bruce for missing out on the role by gifting him the real-life part as one of the so-called ‘Wayne’s regulars’, a performance which required exposing the liver to a constant diet of whisky on an almost daily basis.
Bruce then went on to appear in approximately ten other Wayne films, either as a main character ie. The War Wagon, or in a fleeting blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo role ie. In Harm’s Way.
Cabot was usually more effective playing the villain, such as Laredo Stevens in Angel and the Badman and the baddie, Pierce, in The War Wagon.
I actually thought he was quite good as the non-PC character The Indian in Hatari!, in which he’s gored by a rhinoceros and can only be saved with a blood transfusion from The Frenchman, also known as ‘Chips’.
What with a plethora of other characters with nicknames such as Dallas and Pockets then it’s obvious we’re in Howard Hawks country.
Not exactly an actor possessed of great emotive skills, Cabot was rarely going to rise much above the level of a reliable character actor.
On the other hand, he appeared in over ninety films in all, so either he had a good agent or he knew where the bodies were.