Nearly 40 years after his death, the Duke remains a star

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FARMINGTON — In an age in which pop culture icons seemingly have the shelf life of a loaf of bread, John Wayne is very much the exception.

The legendary Western film star died nearly 40 years ago but remains a formidable presence in American life, serving as the embodiment of masculine individualism. Farmington Museum curator Jeffrey Richardson, who has delivered presentations on a wide variety of Western subjects all around the country during his career, said every time he talks about Wayne, he usually does so to a large, rapt audience. In his estimation, the Duke has lost hardly any of his star power.

"He's almost as big a star today as he was 50, 60, gosh, 70 years ago," said Richardson, who will discuss Wayne's legacy in his "God Bless America and John Wayne" presentation at 3 p.m. Saturday at the Farmington Museum at Gateway Park, 3041 E. Main St., as part of the Curator's Choice Lecture Series.

Richardson characterizes Wayne as "a movie star like no other," and that explains why he remains such a cultural force in this country. There were plenty of other big Hollywood stars from Wayne's era, Richardson noted, including such esteemed, beloved actors as James Stewart and Clark Gable. But even though they are remembered fondly and continue to be held in high regard, they can't begin to approach Wayne's immortal status, he said.

Just how far reaching was Wayne's influence? Richardson likes the relate a story from the fall of 1959, when Nikita Khrushchev accepted President Dwight Eisenhower's invitation and became the first Soviet head of state to visit the United States. Khrushchev had two requests — demands, actually — before he agreed to the visit.

First, he wanted to visit Disneyland, which had opened only a few years earlier.

Second, he wanted to meet John Wayne.

Ultimately, the visit to the amusement park was scrapped. But arrangements were made for Khrushchev and Wayne to get together and have a few drinks — a meeting that, by all accounts, overjoyed the famously dour Soviet premier and erased any disappointment he may have suffered by missing the opportunity pose for a photo with Mickey and Minnie.

Richardson laughs when he talks about the surreal nature of Khrushchev's request. After all, Wayne was well known for the depth of his anti-communist, anti-Soviet feeling, and McCarthyism had had a major impact on the American political scene for much of the decade, resulting in the blacklisting of dozens of Hollywood writers, actors and directors.

And yet, there was the Duke, bellying up to the bar, knocking back a few and sharing some yuks with the same Ruskie who had vowed to bury the West during a speech a few years earlier.

"It just shows you John Wayne's appeal," Richardson said. "His aura, his legacy when he was alive went beyond the United States. He was the embodiment of the United States and continues to be so. That's why we're still talking about him."

Richardson has discussed Wayne in previous lectures, but he said he's never devoted an entire presentation to him as he will Saturday.

"It's not so much a new talk, but I want people to understand the man behind the myth — and how John Wayne the legend was formed," he said.

Contrary to popular belief, Richardson said, Wayne did not become an immediate star in Hollywood. In fact, he wiled away his time and talents in B Westerns and other unfortunate, deeply forgettable fare such as "The Drop Kick," "Girls Demand Excitement" and "Rough Romance" for more than a decade — including a near-disastrous turn as a singing cowboy in 1933's "Riders of Destiny" — before his career finally caught fire with his starring role in 1939's "Stagecoach."

Even after that success, it would take many years for Wayne to establish himself as a serious actor, Richardson said, and not just continue to be viewed a Hollywood star. Wayne himself was aware of that criticism and didn't exactly dispute it.

"He joked that 'Stagecoach' made him a star, but 'The Searchers' (the 1956 John Ford-directed picture widely regarded as the greatest Western ever made) made him an actor," Richardson said.

Richardson gives a more generous assessment of Wayne's acting skills than many critics do, though he acknowledges that wasn't primarily what Wayne was known for.

"He was a very good actor," Richardson said, extolling Wayne's range and noting he appeared not just in Westerns, but in dramas, romances and even the occasional comedy. "But more than anything else, John Wayne was a movie star, though not as an overnight sensation. He toiled for 10 to 15 years before he joined that pantheon."

Once he achieved that status, Wayne guarded his image fiercely, Richardson said. Over the years, Wayne played a variety of roles aside from cowboy or soldier – football player, police detective, Roman centurion, lumberjack, even a corpse – but he never played a bad guy.

Richardson figures Wayne was just being true to his nature.

"John Wayne was always very conscious of that," he said. "He said you couldn't fool an audience. You could surprise them, but you couldn't fool them."

Admission to Saturday's lecture is free. In addition to Richardson's presentation, the museum is planning its annual Community Fall Festival that day, which includes museum tours, children's activities, exhibitions and other presentations. The event lasts from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., and admission is free. Call 505-599-1174.

Mike Easterling is the night editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4610.

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