If you want to argue about who is the best actor or actress, that is entirely subjective. In the 1930s, Sir John Gielgud and Sir Laurence Olivier had a rivalry as to who was the best Hamlet. However, who is the all-time most popular movie star? That is an entirely different manner. It is objective and entirely quantifiable. Who sold the most tickets or who spent the most years ranked among the ten most popular actors in Hollywood. Any guess as to who that might be?
Who rated in Hollywood’s top ten most popular actors for the greatest number of years? The winner is John Wayne. No one else is even close. Clint Eastwood is a very distant second.
Nowadays, people tend to underestimate Wayne as an actor. (Granted, he found a winning formula and largely stuck to it.) He is also regarded by many liberals as a boogeyman. (His attitudes were consistent with someone born in 1907.) I went through a John Wayne stage in my early-to-middle teens. Upon reviewing some of those films, I found a number of surprises. The country changed a great deal during John Wayne’s career and so did John Wayne himself. For example, in 1970, John Wayne made a film called Chisum, which was approximately the101st retelling of the Lincoln County War in New Mexico. Billy the Kid, Pat Garrett and all of that. The Duke played cattle baron John Chisum. Part of the backstory of Wayne’s character was that he fought with a Comache chief named White Buffalo over the same piece of land. Of course, Chisum had come out on top. However, as he mentions at one point to his young niece, he and White Buffalo had grown closer than Chisum and his brother. Any two men who can fight over the same piece of land and develop a respect for each other knows nothing about Field Marshals Rommel and Montgomery. Or, for that matter, Woody Hayes and Bo Schembechler.
There’s a scene almost midway through Chisum in which the title character is meeting with the cavalry officer responsible for the territory. White Buffalo and a number of other Comanche are present. John Wayne was sixty-three at that point. The actor who played White Buffalo was quite a bit older. In that scene, Chisum has to tell the colonel that because of an attempted cattle rustling, he can’t deliver the beef contract on time. White Buffalo starts to speak: “Chisum’s word is good.” The colonel cuts him off, saying, “Your opinion of Chisum and his word are of no concern to me.” Moments later, as the meeting breaks up, White Buffalo finds Chisum and says, “This changes nothing between us.” When an overly efficient cavalry sergeant grabs White Buffalo and tells him to get in the wagon. Chisum steps up and says to the younger man: “Sergeant, don’t you know who that man is?” The Sergeant says, “Looks like an Injun to me.” Chisum says, “That is the chief of the Comanche nation.” The Sergeant replies, “I don’t care if he’s the crown prince of Montenegro, he’s getting on that wagon.”
At this point, the screenwriters came up with a neat twist. Chisum reaches into his pocket and pulls out a massive cigar and offers it to the Sergeant, who accepts. He then offers another to White Buffalo and takes one for himself. All three light up. After puffing away for a few seconds, Chisum says to the Sergeant, “If you ever lay hands on White Buffalo again, I will kill you.” The sergeant is goggle-eyed. I thought that if a man John Wayne's size said said that to me, I would take notice. And if a man who *any* size who was wearing a pistol on his hip said that.... White Buffalo takes another long drag on his cigar and says cheerfully, “Sergeant,.... we go now.” It’s just a little bit, but I found myself liking Chisum’s character quite a bit for standing up for his old rival.
In 1969, Wayne made a film called The Undefeated, which takes place in the immediate aftermath of the American Civil War. His character is named John Henry Thomas (one of my oldest friends is a gentleman named Jonathan Thomas, so I got to tease him about that movie). Colonel John Henry Thomas was a Union Cavalry officer (dear God, that poor horse) who is getting back to the business of capturing wild horses and selling them to the federal government…until he gets a better offer from the French government of Emperor Maximilian in Mexico.
Rock Hudson plays a Confederate colonel who is such a bitter ender that he would rather burn his home and relocate to Mexico than live in a defeated South. Adventures ensue. The biggest casting surprise in The Undefeated was the role of "Blue Boy", Colonel Thomas’s adopted son. Who did they get to play Blue Boy? Roman Gabriel in his only film role. Roman Gabriel was six foot four and weighted 220 and built like he could play quarterback for the Rams. (Which is what he did). He was of Irish-Filipino ancestory- so he was swarthy enough to play a Native American. I was simply astounded that after making a career out of playing Indian fighters, John Wayne played a character who had adopted an Indian son. I would have liked to have been in on the script development meeting before filming started. Roman Gabriel was plenty big enough to play one of The Duke’s kids.