My Day With John Wayne and Perry Como

By John Gilstrap

For those of you who came here today to learn a little more about blowing stuff up–which I promised to discuss–you’re likely to be a little disappointed.  Fact is, there’s breaking news that takes precedence.  On December 19, at 3:00 pm (and probably again, later) getTV will rebroadcast Perry Como’s Early American Christmas, which first aired on December 12, 1978.  It features the College of William and Mary Choir, of which I was a part.  Here’s a screen shot of my 21-year-old self in the company of my dear friend, Jim Shaffran (who is now part of the permanent company of the Washington National Opera).


That was taken while shooting a tavern scene, the entirety of which can be seen here.  It’s worth noting that shooting started somewhere around 5:00 a.m., encompassed many takes, and that the tankards all contained real beer.  More on that later.

We had known from the beginning of the school year that the Perry Como Christmas Special would be shot in Williamsburg, and that the choir would be involved.  We also knew that the Men of the Choir (as we called ourselves) would have a featured part, but as I recall, we didn’t know until very late in the game that it would be a costumed performance.  That meant visits to the Colonial Williamsburg costume shop, fittings, and, well, responsibility.  By the time I was a senior, I had designed my entire existence around as little responsibility as possible.  But I stepped up and, I have to say, rocked the outfit.

Was I concerned that the shooting schedule fell squarely in the middle of midterm exams?  Well, maybe.  But I was going to get to meet John Wayne.  No, really.  John Friggin Wayne.  I could repeat my senior year if I had to, but, come on . . . John Wayne!

First a little bit about Mr. Wayne.  For me, being a male of a certain age, the Duke exhibited pretty much everything that defined being a man’s man.  In person, he was huge.  When he shook my hand, he engulfed pretty much the whole thing, up to the wrist.  He spoke in real life in that same halting syntax that you hear in the movies.  And he was cranky.  (We didn’t know it at the time, but this Christmas special would be one of his last performances before passing away.)

If you’ve ever done any kind of video, you know how long and boring the setup for any shot can be.  While the crews did their thing, Perry worked the crowd.  We were at least one–maybe two–flagons of ale into the morning before the director said, “action” for the first time.  If you listen carefully to Perry, I think you’ll hear that he was a bit lolly-tongued when it came time for “I Saw Three Ships.”  And he kept blowing takes.  Full disclosure: As a practical matter, it was impossible for us to blow takes because the singing you hear was all prerecorded.  It’s all our voices, but done in a studio.  In the video, we’re singing along with the playback.

As the morning–and the takes–ground on, John Wayne’s fuse grew shorter and shorter.

And the flagons flowed.  I was pretty much an Olympic class beer drinker when I was 21, and I remember realizing that I was ripshit well before noon.  Not shown in the video clip is the climax of the tavern scene where Perry and the Duke toast us with, “Merry Christmas!” and we respond in kind, upending the mugs of beer and their contents.  And then a new mug would appear.  And of course, the scene had to be shot from every angle.

By the time it ended, the Duke was, well, pissed off.  Made things a little awkward on the set, but Perry seemed to be having the time of his life.

I had a blast that day.  At the end of the shooting, around 1:30, as I recall, the director said they needed extras for other scenes they’d be shooting that day and night and asked if any of us would like to stick around.  What the hell?  No one looks at senior year grades anyway.  If you watch the entire special and look closely, you’ll see me walking in and around a number of other scenes.  You’ll also see a couple of stunning performances by the entire choir.

For as long as I can remember, my mother had a serious crush on Perry Como, the the news of my involvement in the Christmas special was particularly well-received in Springfield, Virginia.  To hear her tell the story, the show was really about Perry and me.  Moms are like that.  In one especially amusing anecdote, I called home to relay the events of the shooting day.  While telling the story of the endless flagons of ale and Perry’s progressing inebriation, I mentioned in passing that during one of the breaks, Perry and I chatted while peeing at adjacent urinals.  My mother’s question: “Did you peek?”  Me: “Mom!”

When the very long day was over, and crews were breaking things down, I found myself face-to-face with John Wayne with no others pulling at his attention.  I told him that I was a huge fan of his work, and what an honor it was to have spent the day with him, and if I could please have an autograph.  He said, and I quote, “No.”  Then he walked away.  I figure he wasn’t feeling well.

But I got to meet him.  And I shook his hand.

We folks at The Killzone will be taking our Holiday Hiatus before my next posting time comes around, so let me take this opportunity to wish all of you a wonderful time with family and friends, good food and lots of laughter.  I’ll see you on the flip, in 2017, and I promise we’ll start by blowing stuff up again.


Will One Bad Book Ruin Your Career?


I’ve never quite believed that one chance is all I get. – Anne Tyler
Back in the early days of sound movies, a handsome but unknown actor caught a huge break. He was cast as the lead in a sprawling Western epic under the helm of a well-known director. The studio began grooming the kid for stardom.
But The Big Trail tanked at the box office. So the studio cut the young actor loose. He was, as they say, “damaged goods.”
The only place he could go after that was “Poverty Row.” These were low-rent studios churning out B and C grade pictures, most of them real stinkers. Here the actor labored for years. In 1937 this actor made yet another B Western, Born to the West. I watched the film recently. It is, without doubt, one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen.
And the actor? A bit stiff and prone to goofy smiles. So add another floperoo to this guy’s resume. No way the actor, Marion Morrison, was ever going to be a star. Perhaps you know him better by his professional name, John Wayne.
But did these bad films ruin his career? Not when the right role and director came along. The role was the Ringo Kid in Stagecoach directed by the great John Ford in 1939. John Wayne knocked it out of the park.

I bring up the Duke as an object lesson for writers. If you go to a writing or publishing conference these days you’re likely to hear an industry insider say something like: “Self-publishing is not always the right move for a writer. Be very wary about doing it. One bad book can ruin your career.”
Indeed, this sentiment was expressed by an agent/panelist at the recent PubSmart conference. The omni-present Porter Anderson was, of course, covering it, and notes:
And in the course of the panel’s comments on self-publishing and how it can play into an author’s career, [agent Brandi] Bowles offered the opinion that if one self-publishes a book and it doesn’t do well in terms of sales, then some publishers might look askance at that disappointment if asked to consider publishing that author.
Bowles is joined by others in the more traditional corridors of the industry! the industry! in suggesting that if there’s a chance that self-publishing could make an author appear to be “damaged goods” to a publisher, then self-publication is, at least, a very serious option, a route not to be taken lightly.
This sparked outrage from at least one self-publishing attendee, who turned a mealtime with Porter into a persistent pronouncement of publishing pique.
So let’s step back and analyze.
In the “old days” (i.e., before 2007), a book’s success or failure had only one metric: physical copies sold (a rare exception would be made if there was massive critical approval in the right places). If a book tanked, those low sales numbers became a scarlet letter sewed onto the author’s jacket. Indeed, many potential long-term careers got nipped in the bud because a large advance was shelled out and dismal sales made recoupment impossible. That’s when an author could get slapped with the label “damaged goods.”
In those same old days, the only option after such failure was to go to publishing’s Poverty Row, smaller companies with fewer dollars and less distribution. Or the writer could give up the dream entirely. Getting another shot a the “big time” was usually out of the question.
I believe this is the context in which the agent made the above statement. But that context has now been significantly altered.  
First of all, the term career no longer applies only to getting published by a big, traditional company. Purely self-publishing careers are being established on an ever-increasing basis.
But let’s assume your dream is getting signed by one of the Big 5. If you self-publish a book, and it doesn’t sell a lot, you are still making readers. If the book gets good reviews, you are making a reputation. That’s all to the good.
If, on the other hand, your book gets hammered, you can always take it down. You can come back and try again. And again. Just like John Wayne.
Then, should you come up with a killer concept and you have continued to work on your writing chops, your self-publishing credits will not be a deal-breaker. Traditional publishers know (at least the ones who will survive know) that their distribution and marketing systems are different and can be exploited anew for the author who has learned his trade in the trenches.

Have you ever found yourself holding back because of fear of failure? Then listen to what the Duke might have told you: “You think you’ll have a career without taking some risks? That’ll be the day. Keep writing, Pilgrim, and give it your best shot every time out.”



John Ramsey Miller

On my mind.
Films this week.

I have eagerly anticipated the Cohen Brothers’ remake of TRUE GRIT. Maybe I’ll see it this weekend in the majamboplex, but more likely when it comes out from Netflix. I’m sure I’ll like it better than the John Wayne version. I sustained brain damage from being exposed to Glenn Campbell’s acting in the original. I think Matt Damon will do some better in Glenn’s role. And there was the fact that Kim Darby played a girl half her age. I know the Cohen Brothers’ version will be in all ways superior, because (face it) John Wayne played pretty much John Wayne in every single movie he ever made. In every Western the Duke even wore the same Colt single action Army with the yellowed ivory grips, the same hat and vest and probably the same boots and socks. Don’t get me wrong, I liked everything about John Wayne and I’ve seen every movie he ever made.

John Wayne was an icon in an age when men were actually men and the only feelings they admitted to were horny, hunger and thirst. He was not an actor with a great deal of range. Can you see him playing the femiguy doing the John Wayne walk in Le Cage Aux folles? But I digress. Charles Portis wrote TRUE GRIT and it appears to be in and out of print. Great book by the way. I suspect whoever has the rights to publish it now will run off a few copies for those who didn’t read it originally––like 99.9 percent of American readers. I see they released it on Kindle in November of 2010. Duke won an Academy Award and a Golden Globe for playing Rooster Cogburn. Had it not been for the new film, I doubt they would have rereleased it. Portis has written other books including NORWOOD and GRINGO. The latter is a slurish title that is blatantly offensive to WASPS may have to be re-released under a softer title, like THE WHITE ANGLO-SAXON PROBABLY PROTESTANT FROM NORTH OF THE US BORDER WITH MEXICO.

Back to the point. Here’s the thing. Duke purists hate the fact that anybody would dare remake TRUE GRIT since HE was in it and got that Academy Award for it. That is actually more because they were to a man afraid that Glenn Campbell might return to reprise his role.

Normally I hate film remakes because I think that, while it is not often the remake is better than the original, remakes are already a property the studio doesn’t have to pay for, there’s already a script to go by, and the film was almost certainly successful. Remakes of foreign films into American films are another pet peeve of mine, although I would rather see a film without subtitles or a good dubbing. I think Hollywood takes the easy (and most profitable) path when they can. Imagination is so draining and threatening to the non-imagining types who think they are. And a new film has no track record.

Last week John Gilstrap blogged about the Huck Finn edition that loses the “N” word in. I thought about that one a great deal, and I can see clearly the Twain teacher guy’s point and John’s as well. What I wondered was if the scholar guy gets royalties from the cleansed version, since he’s taken a work that clearly in the public domain and altered it using find and replace on his computer. I seem to recall that Faulkner’s family actually published some of Bill’s books in their original/ original form (before editing at Random House) so the family could start the clock over again. But again, I digress…

I have been spending a lot of time with my four-year-old grandson (we’re best pals because we have a common enemy) and he insists we watch all three Jurassic Park movies every time he is here and not necessarily in the proper order. After I realized I could go line for line with the actors (including the grunts and squeals of the Velosciaptors). I ordered all three Toy Story DVDs and they came on a slow ship from Hong Kong. I got those today, and I’m going to buy a variety of childrens films else I will sour on Buzz Lightyear and Woody.

Last week, Rushie and I watched Ron Howard’s “How The Grinch stole Christmas” Forget changing two words in Huck Finn. Ron Howard expanded the book well beyond anything Dr. Seuss imagined. I understand the author’s wife liked the movie script. I’m sure she didn’t mind the money either. Howard invented subplots, added characters and dialog. What would Theodore Seuss Geisel have thought about the final films? I thought the movie sucked lemons through a bird’s nostril. I discovered that Grinch was voted Worst Christmas Movie Of All Time and was also a financial flop. Jim Carey and one child actor almost saved the film from being totally embarrassing. All I saw of Cary were his yellow and red eyes––all of Mr. Carey to be seen that was not latex and green.

Is it so wrong to remake a classic? If it works and exposes a new generation to movies they wouldn’t normally see, especially old films in black and white. How about we remake “To Kill A Mockingbird, with either George Clooney or Tom Hanks as Atticus Finch, Denzel Washington as Tom Robinson, Billy Bob Thornton as Boo Radley. How about Scout, Jim, Dill? Give me some child actor’s names.

Who would you cast in a remake of Casablanca, Jaws, Lawrence Of Arabia, The Ten Commandments?” Pick your favorite film that shalt not be touched and give me the cast.

Growing as a Writer

If you’re going to be a writer, I mean really take this writing thing seriously, you’ve got to continue to grow. Purposely. Planned out. Find ways to get better. Read books (not just for pleasure, but to see what other writers do), comb through writing books and Writer’s Digest, try stuff, take risks. The alternative is to stagnate, and who wants that? In any endeavor?
I thought about this recently as I watched some of John Wayne’s early movies via inexpensive (translation: cheapie) DVDs. John Wayne was not John Wayne when he started out. (Actually, his real name was Marion Morrison. How long would he have lasted with that moniker?)
After working as an extra for a couple of years, this former USC football player was, at age 22, plucked from obscurity  by director Raoul Walsh for a big budget Western, The Big Trail (1930). The movie flopped, and Wayne spent the next nine years making low budget westerns for studios on what was called “Poverty Row” in Hollywood.
The poorest of these studios was an outfit called Lone Star. Here is where we see John Wayne trying to find himself as an actor. It was a hard search, especially when he was stuck in such poorly written, clunkily acted, one hour oaters. Pictures like Riders of Destiny  (1933), where he was billed as Singin’ Sandy. (That’s right. John Wayne as a singing cowboy! Only his singing was dubbed – badly – as Wayne pretended to play the guitar – badly.)
Wayne’s acting here was wooden and uncertain. The only direction he seemed to get was to smile a lot, and that got a tad creepy. This was one forgettable actor.
But by 1936 he had moved one notch up, to Republic Pictures. In Winds of the Wasteland, for example, he seems like a different actor. Here is the real John Wayne. His acting is understated and sure. He’s even started walking that famous walk.
What happened? Wayne made a decision to grow, to get better. A lot of credit for that apparently goes to the legendary stuntman, Yakima Canutt, a real “man’s man” back in the day when that was an okay thing to be. Wayne copied Canutt’s low, confident way of speaking, and his walk. And he stopped smiling all the time.
Wayne was also befriended by an old character actor named Paul Fix, who gave Wayne acting tips, including the admonition not to furrow that famous brow so much.
The results were promising. Wayne learned. He grew.
Still, Wayne would probably have remained a B actor all his life (maybe he would have had a TV show like Hopalong Cassidy in the 1950s) had it not been for his friendship with John Ford. When the famous director wanted to make a Western in 1939 called Stagecoach, he got resistance (Westerns weren’t in vogue). When he insisted that Wayne play the Ringo Kid, he got turned down flat. But Ford wouldn’t budge, and eventually put a deal together with an indie producer. His going to bat for Wayne was what made him a star.
            Wayne as the Ringo Kid in Stagecoach

But Wayne didn’t stop there. Though he never would be mistaken for Brando or Olivier, he did reach down for extra in movies like Red River (1948), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), Sands of Iwo Jima (1949, Academy Award nomination), The Searchers (1956), True Grit (1969, Academy Award for Best Actor) and The Shootist (1976), his very last film.
And of course, John Wayne became an icon, still ranking as a favorite movie star worldwide.
So, if you want to make a mark as a writer, you grow. Consciously. That doesn’t bring any guarantees. John Wayne himself needed a couple of lucky breaks to get to the heights he enjoyed. But he made himself ready, as you should.
So, do you have a plan in place to improve your writing? For the rest of your writing life? If you don’t, why not start now? (If you need some nudging in that area, I have some suggestions for you in my book, The Art of War for Writers.)
What’s your plan?