John Wayne Wasn’t ‘The Cowboys’ Director’s First Choice to Star in the Classic


If the director of The Cowboys caved to his initial whims, John Wayne never would’ve play Wil Anderson.

So you could’ve deleted The Cowboys from the popular trivia question — name the movies in which John Wayne dies on screen. With The Cowboys, there were nine.

Mark Rydell, who directed the movie, said he wanted George C Scott as Wil Anderson, the desperate rancher who used a group of boys on a cattle drive.

So why didn’t Rydell want the Duke as his lead? Nearly a half-century after the movie was released, it doesn’t seem possible that anyone but Wayne would’ve played the role. Scott was two years removed from Patton when The Cowboys was released. Would he have been believable as a rancher?

Rydell said his initial gut feeling about John Wayne had nothing to do with his acting, but his political views.

Check out some of Rydell’s interview about The Cowboys. It starts about four minutes into the video.

Rydell Said He Disagreed with John Wayne On Politics

Rydell said of John Wayne: “The reason I didn’t want him (is) I knew him to be right-wing. We were antithetical human beings, polar opposites in every possible way. But I must tell you he seduced me in a way that was remarkable.”

Rydell said he flew to Mexico to talk to Wayne, who was working on another movie. (Big Jake) That’s when he changed his mind.

“He really wanted to do The Cowboys,” Rydell said. “He treated me with the most respect. I was like this (cringing) waiting for him to say something anti semitic or anti-Indian or anti-anything. I was ready to jump. But he taught me a lesson.

“I know a lot of people with whom I agree politically and otherwise who are jerks,” Rydell said. “And then you take someone like him who I disagreed with in almost every area, except art. And he was a terrific person. The first guy on the set, the last person to leave. The picture was full of kids. They climbed up on him like the monkey bars on a playground. He was available to everybody. We went out to dinner he would sign autographs for everybody. He never was unfair or unpleasant. It was a big lesson to me not to pre-judge.”


Roscoe Lee Browne, who portrayed cook Mr. Nightlinger, also told reporters that friends warned him about working with John Wayne because of his political views. Browne said he decided against bringing up politics. Instead, the two shared their love of poetry and would quote verses to each other.

And get this, the movie was full of other warnings. John Wayne told Bruce Dern, who played the movie’s villain, that people may not forgive him for killing him. (They didn’t).

Dern said his agent pitched him the role exactly because he was going to kill America’s favorite cowboy.

“My first starring role,” Dern told True West. “My agent called me: ‘You’ve got to have two days off next week because I have a role you must do. No one can know this. They’re doing a movie where John Wayne’s going to be killed, and you’re going to be the guy that does it!’”

We ask, would it have been as significant if Dern shot Patton?


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