Channel-surfing the other day and came across ‘The Quiet Man,’ one of my favorite John Wayne movies – which always reminds me of having met the man once.
My favorite Wayne films were before he became so iconic he couldn’t get out of being typecast. As a kid, I thought ‘Hondo’ was the best picture ever made, and later I thought ‘The Searchers’ was one of the better Westerns put on film. Still do.
Back in 1977, working at The Register in Southern California, I was assigned a reception at the Orange County Tennis Club for a pair of Cosmonauts. On the guest list was Mr. Wayne, then 70 years old.
Arrived to find Wayne the center of much attention. He was 6-foot-4 and a bit gaunt, already fighting stomach cancer that would kill him in another 18 months. Wayne had the look of all men who have lost weight fast – his clothes didn’t fit well, even his toupee seemed not quite right.
And while everyone noticed, no one cared.
Someone asked if Wayne would toast the Russians when the time came, and he agreed. I was talking to one of the event’s hosts when Wayne came up and, almost nervously, stood beside us. We stopped talking and looked at him.
“I was wondering what you’d think of this,” Wayne said. “‘I don’t agree with your politics, but I sure love what you do with potatoes!’ And then I’d knock back a shot of vodka.”
The host laughed and said it would be fine. Then introduced me to Wayne.
“The fourth estate, huh?” he asked. “I’ve got to say, you people have always been fair to me.”
He didn’t add ‘pilgrim,’ though I wish he had.
When the moment came, Wayne toasted the cosmonauts, who laughed a moment after everyone else – they had to await the translation – and Wayne beamed. He was, that night, a man of charm and stature, accommodating and patient with those who wanted to talk to him.
As the evening neared an end, the cosmonauts sheepishly asked for his autograph. Can’t say I blamed them. John Wayne was impressive, even in obvious decline.