I first made contact with Harry Carey Jr., or ‘Dobe’; as he came to be known, back in 1998. I’d met up with the film director Andrew McLaglen at Pinewood studios to discuss a script I’d written about the making of The Quiet Man on which he had worked as an unaccredited assistant director in 1951.
After discussing my script we started talking about John Ford and the subject turned to Monument Valley. I told him I was planning a trip that year over to the States and that I’d recently seen a documentary in which Harry Carey Jr. pointed out some of the locations Ford used in Monument Valley. To my astonishment he gave me Dobe’s phone number and said I should ask him about some of the other locations in the valley where Ford had shot many of his Westerns.
I finally got round to ringing Dobe one evening after watching him get shot by Powers Boothe in the film ‘Tombstone’. Dobe told me that he’d been ‘shot at, stomped on and filled full of arrows’ in practically every film he’d ever made. He said he was coming over to England some time the following year and that we should meet up for a cup of tea but unfortunately he hurt his back not too long after so we didn’t actually meet up until nearly ten years later.
He sent me a copy of his book Company of Heroes My Life As An Actor In The John Ford Stock Company – mandatory reading for all Wayne and Ford fans – which was waiting for me at Gouldings Lodge in Monument Valley. One of my cherished memories is sitting on the balcony of our apartment reading Dobe’s book as the sun went down over the valley, with ‘She Wore a Yellow Ribbon’ playing on the TV in the background.
Some years later I decided to write a thesis on the silent films of John Ford and figured it would be a good idea to contact Dobe, as his father had been the star of approximately 25 of Ford’s early silent Universal Studio Westerns between 1917 to 1921.By this time he and his wife Marilyn had moved from Durango down to Santa Barbara on the West Coast a few miles north of Los Angeles.
I finally got to meet Dobe and Marilyn at their house in October 2007, by which time he was 85 years old, and looking fairly frail, but very much up to talking about Ford and his father. Not having interviewed anyone properly before, we kind of went off on the main subject of the films his dad made with Ford, and, over lunch, got into talking about John Wayne and John Ford instead, and the films that Dobe himself made with Ford.
A couple of interesting pieces of information came out of the conversation, including the fact that Dobe was originally going to be cast in The Quiet Man as the IRA character Hugh Forbes, a part that eventually went to Maureen O’Hara’s brother, Charles Fitzsimons.
Both Dobe and Marilyn said that Ford was quite a formidable character, but Dobe still reckoned he was the best director he ever worked with. He’d also worked with a lot of other directors, including Raoul Walsh and Howard Hawks. I’d asked him previously why he wasn’t in the Hawks film Rio Bravo, even though his name appears in the opening credits. He said he was going to write about that in his next book which unfortunately he never got around to finishing.
If you want to know the reason why he’s not in the film refer to my article on John Wayne films, or alternatively check out the Silver Grey Fox, a biography on Howard Hawks in which Dobe is interviewed on that very subject.
Dobe also talked about how grateful he was to Andrew McLaglen for casting him in the majority of films McLaglen made in the 60s and 70s. He was also full of praise for film director Peter Bogdanovich, who gifted Dobe with an original poster of the John Ford film, Wagon Master, which he’d starred in back in 1950 alongside Ben Johnson. The poster adorned the wall of their home along with numerous other posters and memorabilia relating to both Carey Jr. and Carey Senior.
Just after lunch Dobe declared that it was time for his nap, at which point Marilyn informed me that was his way of saying goodbye. I immediately got up to leave but Marilyn said she was only half joking and I could stay as long as I wanted. Dobe signed a DVD of 3 Godfathers for me, another Ford film, then posed for a photograph with me before saying his goodbyes. After he had retired Marilyn gave me the opportunity to trawl through the large archive of photographs Dobe had collected over the years for anything on his father that I might be able to use in the thesis, a couple of which eventually made the final draft.
I asked Marilyn why they had settled in Santa Barbara, as when I first spoke with Dobe back in 1998 they were living in Durango. She said they had to move because the air was so thin there it was literally killing him as he got older, so they moved to California to be close to friends and family.
She then ruefully told me that her father, the actor Paul Fix, had been cast as the doctor in the pilot episode of Star Trek back in the 1960s. For reasons obscured in the mist of time he apparently turned down the opportunity to play the role once the show was picked up by the network so the part went to DeForrest Kelly instead. Marilyn said if her father had taken the role in Star Trek she and Dobe would have probably been receiving me in their mansion in Bel Air instead.
Marilyn also regaled me with a story about how they met up with a tired and emotional John Wayne at a party one night. He asked Marilyn for a dance then promptly waltzed across the room holding her upside down. She said a remorseful Wayne was full of apologies the following day, and sent her a large bouquet of flowers – but she decided it was best not to dance with Mr Wayne again.
I stayed in touch with both Dobe and Marilyn over the years, and I’m happy to say that due to the research I carried out on Ford’s silent films I was able to send them copies of some of the recently discovered films Dobe’s father made with Ford, such as The Scarlet Drop (1917) and A Gun Fightin’ Gentleman (1919) for his collection. We sent each other Xmas and New Year greetings for a while then things went quiet towards the end of 2011. The news came through just after Xmas in 2012 that he had passed away at the age of 91.
For the Ford aficionados who might be reading this, you’ll know that the director paid tribute to Harry Carey Senior at the beginning of 3 Godfathers, dedicating the film to ‘the brightest star in the Western sky’, just after Carey had passed away in 1948. Well, there’s another star in the Western sky now, shining just as bright. And I’m happy so say I had the privilege of actually meeting him once.
Happy trails, Dobe