Last Updated on January 25, 2020 by Steve Mayhew
Seeing as how the articles on John Wayne’s leading ladies made such an impression with all you John Wayne fans out there, I thought it might be worth looking at some of Duke’s leading male co-stars as well.
This article lists my favourite top 10 actors who have appeared opposite John Wayne, in ascending order. All of these actors have, at one time or another, appeared second in the cast list after John Wayne.
Dan Dailey | The Wings of Eagles (1957)
In The Wings of Eagles, Dan Dailey, as ‘Jughead’ Carson, plays a character very similar to that of Lee Marvin’s ‘Boats’ Gilhooly in the later John Ford film Donovan’s Reef.
The film is a biopic of ‘Spig’ Wead, who in real life eventually ended up scripting a couple of films for Ford himself.
After Wead is paralysed with a serious back injury, it falls to Jughead to help his friend recuperate, turning up at the hospital with a banjo and singing ‘I’m gonna move that toe’ until the toe obeys and Wead walks again.
This testament to the power of song shows that the approach Jughead adopts in his friendship with Wead is a damned sight more effective than that of Boots Gilhooly, who most likely would have just punched Mr. Wead in the face before passing out in an alcoholic stupor on the hospital floor.
Dan Dailey isn’t the most effective of John Wayne’s leading men, but the scenes in which he helps Spig to start walking again certainly make him one of the most memorable.
Henry Fonda | Fort Apache (1948)
Although Henry Fonda and JW were both cast in How the West Was Won, The Longest Day and In Harms Way, it was only in the earlier Fort Apache that they actually co-starred with each other onscreen, a small scene in In Harm’s Way notwithstanding.
Fonda is superb in John Ford’s Fort Apache, as the stiff-backed martinet, Lieutenant Colonel Owen Thursday. Wayne, as Captain York, finds himself the object of Thursdays disdain due to his sympathetic treatment of the Apache leader Cochise, and the sparks really do fly between the two of them whenever they butt heads together.
Thursday sacrifices himself and his command in a doomed encounter with the Apaches, leaving Kirby, who has been consigned to non-battle duties, to pick up the pieces.
In the spirit of the later Ford classic, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Kirby decides that when the legend becomes fact, you should print the legend, in the process protecting Kirby’s legacy.
This is a significant film for both actors as Fort Apache is the vehicle in which Fonda finally hands over the baton to Wayne as John Ford’s leading man, Fonda appearing only once more in a Ford film six years later in Mr. Roberts. The rest, as they say, is history.
Montgomery Clift | Red River (1948)
I can’t think of a more apposite actor to co-star with JW than Montgomery Clift. The gap that separates their differing approach to acting is so wide you could drive a thousand herd of cattle between it, but strangely enough they work perfectly together as father and adopted son in the Howard Hawks film Red River.
Watch Clift’s performance closely and you’ll see he hardly does or says anything that might crowd Wayne off the screen but still turns in a performance equal to that of the main star.
Wayne apparently had reservations about whether Clift could deliver a credible performance opposite him, but his co-star definitely holds his own onscreen with Wayne throughout the film.
Personally, I’m still not convinced by the anti-climactic ending to the film, in which the inevitable violent encounter between Wayne and Clift is broken up by Joanne Dru’s character, but Clift, as much as Wayne, still holds the attention.
Robert Mitchum | El Dorado (1966)
Although Mitchum and Wayne both appeared in The Longest Day, it wasn’t until El Dorado that they actually played opposite each other onscreen.
A virtual remake of Rio Bravo, also directed by Howard Hawks, Mitchum reprises Dean Martin’s role from the earlier film, as Sheriff J.P. Harrah. Just like Dude, Harrah also turns to the bottle after an unhappy affair with a woman.
Also, and again just like Dean Martin, Mitchum is one of the few actors to match Wayne onscreen, the both of them displaying the same kind of chemistry that JW and Martin enjoyed in Rio Bravo.
Richard Boone | Big Jake (1971)
Richard Boone is billed as a ‘guest star’ in The Alamo, playing Sam Houston, but it is his performances in Big Jake that qualifies him as a bona fide Wayne leading man.
Boone is billed fifth on the cast list as one of the many killers lining up in The Shootist to send J. B. Books to meet his maker, which of course he fails to do.
He’s second on the bill to Wayne in Big Jake, in which he’s at his most vicious as gang leader John Fain, dispatched by Christopher Mitchum, playing one of Big Jake’s sons, via a close encounter with the business end of a shotgun.
Kirk Douglas | The War Wagon (1967)
Before appearing together in Cast a Giant Shadow and The War Wagon, JW and Douglas encountered each other at a screening of Lust for Life, in which Kirk played the doomed French painter Vincent Van Gogh.
Duke took Douglas to task for playing such a weak character although, seeing as we now live in more politically correct times, I can’t repeat the exact word Wayne used in describing Van Gogh.
Douglas stood his ground, telling Wayne that he was an actor, films are make believe anyway, they’re not real and besides, ‘You’re not really John Wayne either’.
Whilst there are some who might take issue with that last point, it’s good to see Douglas adopting more of a JW approach to his role as gunfighter Lomax. The pair seem to enjoy sparring off each other onscreen, and it’s a much more enjoyable viewing experience than their previous screen partnership in Cast a Giant Shadow.
Dean Martin | Rio Bravo (1959)
I’m sure I’ve said this already so apologies for repeating myself, but there is definitely a case to be made that Rio Bravo is just as much Dean Martin’s film as it is Wayne’s.
Three years after splitting with long-term partner Jerry Lewis, Martin proved his acting chops first of all in The Young Lions, opposite Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift, then a year later in Rio Bravo, as the booze-ridden sheriff Dude.
Martin is the first character to appear in the film, skulking into the saloon and looking for a free drink, then smacking Wayne, as John T. Chance, over the head when Chance denies him the indignity of retrieving the silver dollar thrown into a spittoon by the villainous Joe Burdette.
Martin’s best scene in the film is when he redeems himself by pouring a glass of whisky back into the bottle without spilling a drop.
Six years later, Martin is once again Wayne’s leading man in another Western, The Sons of Katie Elder, playing Duke’s brother. Although Martin acquits himself relatively well, I much prefer his performance as Dude in Rio Bravo, which to my mind is a career-best.
James Stewart | The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962
Although John Wayne is ostensibly the main star of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, James Stewart as Eastern lawyer Rance Stoddard certainly gives Duke a run for his money in the acting stakes.
This was the first time they had starred together, and despite the fact that they were way too old to be courting Vera Miles, who was over twenty years younger than the both of them, Stewart turned out be one of the most effective of Duke’s leading men.
It’s a pity they didn’t work together more, a notion reinforced by Stewart’s memorable cameo in The Shootist as the doctor who tells Wayne he’d have to ‘gut him like a fish’ in order to remove the tumour that’s slowly killing him.
Lee Marvin | Donovan’s Reef (1963)
Marvin’s first appearance opposite Wayne is in ‘The Comancheros’, playing the scalped killer Tully Crow. He’s fifth in the cast list and it’s a very short appearance, with Wayne dispatching him in the first hour of the film.
The following year they appeared opposite each other in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, with Marvin as the titular villain and playing the evil Valance to the hilt.
It’s his co-starring role in Donovan’s Reef as the grandly names Thomas Aloysius “Boats” Gilhooly, however, that qualifies him for inclusion in this list. Though not necessarily a vehicle that showed either Wayne or Marvin at their best, nor John Ford for that matter, their scenes together are the highlight of a film that is woefully short on action.
It turns out that Wayne and Marvin’s characters share the same birthday which they celebrate by punching out each other’s lights every year.
Not much of a story if truth be told but, on the evidence of the two Westerns they appeared in together, I would have loved to have seen both actors share the screen more often.
Richard Widmark | The Alamo (1960)
I’ve always maintained that The Alamo had three things going for it. First of all, the magnificent soundtrack by Dimitri Tiomkin. Secondly, the battle and other action sequences, credited to assistant director Cliff Lyons. Third, and most definitely not least, Richard Widmark’s superb performance as Jim Bowie.
I read somewhere a long time back that the first time Wayne met Widmark, some years before they made The Alamo together, Wayne referred to him as ‘that giggling son-of-a-bitch’, referencing Widmark’s star turn as psycho Tommy Udo in Henry Hathaway’s noir thriller, ‘Kiss of Death’.
Wayne’s lack of tact was also to the fore when he welcomed his co-star on the set of The Alamo with a banner proclaiming ‘Welcome Dick’, to which Widmark replied ‘My name is Richard’.
Despite these social setbacks among the two of them, Widmark emerges from the film with all of the acting kudos, pushing Duke as Davy “John Wayne” Crockett and Laurence Harvey’s posturing as William Travis into second and third place in the acting stakes.
Widmark and Wayne never starred together again, although they both appeared separately in the later How the West Was Won.
I’m sure you’re all going to have your own opinion on who did or didn’t make it onto this list. It’s given me food for thought as well, so I’m going to take a closer look at some of Duke’s other co-stars at a later date, both male and female. In the meantime, I hope you enjoyed reading this article as much I enjoyed writing it.
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