Without a doubt, it can be a bit intimidating interviewing one of the most ruthless screen adversaries to ever cross paths with the iconic John Wayne. It becomes perfectly evident right off the bat that Gregg Palmer is a gentle, cuddly bear, albeit one with a booming radio announcer’s rich intonation.
A fresh-faced, handsome young actor quickly signed to Universal Studios’ famed acting stable in the early ’50s, Palmer appeared onscreen for over 30 years in numerous Westerns, dramas, crime potboilers, and romantic escapades.
As he grew older, the actor seamlessly transformed his persona into the consummate bad guy, exemplified by an unkempt, unruly beard and matched by a towering build. Unfortunately, a painful knee injury on the set of the Civil War miniseries The Blue and the Gray precipitated his early retirement in 1982.
His most notable credits include Magnificent Obsession with Rock Hudson, Audie Murphy’s To Hell and Back (Universal’s top grosser until Jaws arrived 20 years later) an astonishing 21 episodes of Gunsmoke, and of course – six films with Wayne – all Westerns.
Palmer first met Duke while on a date with Oscar-nominated actress Ann Blyth [Mildred Pierce, starring Joan Crawford], but the duo would not work together until nearly a decade later in The Comancheros.
By far, Big Jake contains the actor’s best work with Wayne. In it, the 6’4″, 300-pound Palmer memorably plays a vicious machete-brandishing villain who kills Big Jake’s dog and threatens his grandson’s life with near deadly results. For this writer, witnessing Palmer’s performance as an eight-year-old kid was downright scary. The Shootist, the Duke’s final film incidentally directed by Clint Eastwood’s mentor Don Siegel, found Palmer setting the elderly gunfighter’s last hurrah in motion via a bold highway robbery that quickly went south in the opening frame.
Without further adieu, sit back and enjoy Palmer’s heartfelt recollections of working with Wayne, an actor whose staggering popularity continues to confound his detractors while remaining the quintessential genuine article to his legions of fans.
Moments you don’t want to miss include “Grizzly” (Wayne’s nickname for his buddy) playing chess in Durango with a cheating Duke, why he nearly passed on making The Shootist, teaching Duke’s youngest son, Ethan, how to spit watermelon seeds, Duke’s vastly underrated production skills, and the day Palmer had trouble pronouncing a seemingly straightforward word on the set of Chisum.
- The Gregg Palmer Interview, Part One
When did you first meet John Wayne?
I was on a date with Ann Blyth at the Beverly Hills Hotel. I made one of my earliest pictures with her for Universal called Sally and Saint Anne . It was some awards presentation – possibly the Golden Globes. We went into the hotel, and Duke was there.
She asked me, “Have you met Duke?” I replied, “No, but I can recall seeing him when I was a kid in the ‘30s. He was the hero on the white horse in all those Monogram and early Republic B-westerns.” Ann brought me over and said, “Duke, I’d like you to meet Gregg.” That was when I first met him.
We didn’t appear in a film together until nearly a decade later on The Comancheros . However, I should mention that I didn’t have any scenes with Duke. I was only featured in the opening duel scene involving Stu [Stuart] Whitman. He blows me away, and from then on, the law is hot on his trail. I knew Stu from when we were under contract at Universal.
The Comancheros was directed by Academy Award winner Michael Curtiz, and he passed away several months later. Curtiz had originally wanted me for a Warner Bros. picture called Jim Thorpe – All-American  with Burt Lancaster, but I couldn’t break my contract with Universal.
Later I made a science fiction picture at Churubusco Studios outside Mexico City with Debra Paget called Most Dangerous Man Alive [Note: Finished in 1958, the film sat on the shelf for three years after its original studio, RKO, went defunct due to Howard Hughes’ excessive mismanagement]. I had a reunion of sorts with that film’s unit production manager when I began filming The Comancheros.
Over the years, I did six films with Duke, all Westerns: The Comancheros, The Undefeated [directed by Andrew V. McLaglen, 1969], Chisum [McLaglen, 1970], Rio Lobo [Howard Hawks’ final film, 1970], Big Jake [George Sherman and an uncredited John Wayne, 1971], and The Shootist [Don Siegel, 1976].
I’ve done many films for Andy McLaglen. It’s possible he could have recommended me to Duke for The Undefeated, as it had been eight years since The Comancheros. Then too, it got to a point where Wayne took a liking to my work. To this day, Andy is retired and lives in Seattle, Washington. He always asks, “How’s Gregg?” Or I always inquire, “How’s Andy?”
[Author’s Note: In Herb Fagen’s excellent 1996 book, Duke: We’re Glad We Knew You: John Wayne’s Friends and Colleagues Remember His Remarkable Life, John Mitchum, the composer of Wayne’s only spoken word album, America, Why I Love Her, and younger brother of another acting legend, Robert Mitchum, relayed a funny anecdote involving Palmer and Wayne that happened on the set of Chisum, directed by McLaglen: “Gregg played cattle rustler Karl Riker. He’s sitting in jail and Wayne is talking to him. Gregg says, ‘I wasn’t wrestling,’ pronouncing it like the sport rather than ‘rustling,’ the term associated with stealing cattle. Andy yells, ‘Cut!’ Gregg asks, ‘What’s the matter?’ Andy tells him, ‘You don’t wrestle steers, you rustle steers.’ They did it four times and for some reason Gregg couldn’t get it right. Wayne had finally had enough: ‘Grizzly, if you say I wasn’t wrestling one more time, I’m gonna knock you on your ass. You were rustling, not wrestling!’ Action: ‘I wasn’t rustling,’ Gregg says clear as can be. He got the message”].
You really scared me when I first saw you wielding that machete in Big Jake .
I still get comments when I go to functions. I’ll be signing a picture and I’ll hear a voice say, “That’s the man that killed John Wayne’s dog, son.” Of course, forty-plus years ago I was 6’4’’ and nearly 300 pounds, so hopefully I’m not as intimidating today [laughs].
It’s me with the machete getting that dog or Richard Widmark pushing that lady in the wheelchair down the stairs in Kiss of Death . Folks tend to remember those things [laughs].
I portrayed a vicious outlaw named “John Goodfellow”. At the film’s climax, Dick [Richard] Boone yelled, “Get the kid!” Duke’s eight-year-old son in real life, Ethan, was playing Big Jake’s grandson. Anyway, I went after him, and he was hiding in a haystack.
Big Jake’s dog, perhaps in a nod to Duke’s dry humor, had the no-frills name of “Dog.” He protected the kid and chewed me up real bad until I got him with my machete. Big Jake comes to the rescue, and I try to kill him, too. He runs out of bullets, so he grabs a handy pitchfork when I lunge at him. I get it in the gut.
George Sherman directed Big Jake. He had directed me in three features for Universal in the early ‘50s [The Battle at Apache Pass with Jeff Chandler, Back at the Front, and The Veils of Bagdad with Victor Mature], so I knew him pretty well.
Sherman had worked in the late ‘30s with Duke, before he became a bona fide star, on several of the popular Three Mesquiteers quickie B-movies for Republic. Wayne was a generous man who never forgot a favor, and he personally selected Sherman, nearing the end of his decades-long career, to helm Big Jake. The director wasn’t always in the best of health, so Duke took over much of the action/outdoor scenes. However, he refused to be credited as co-director.
After completing Big Jake, it appeared your working relationship with the Duke was over. However, he had one final ace up his sleeve.
I understand that Duke asked me to appear in The Shootist. It was the only time I hesitated before accepting a part with Duke. To be honest, the producers, M.J. Frankovich and William Self, wanted to hurry. You know, ‘Maybe we can get you out early on a flight. When you finish up we can get you back to the hotel.’ Come on. I paid my dues. I didn’t wanna be rushed, so I decided, “Aw, I’ll just pass on this.”
This is where Luster Bayless enters the picture. Luster worked with Duke for 10 years as his special costumer, beginning with True Grit. Anytime you saw Wayne, his costume was done by Luster. He costumed me and everyone else, too. He was a Picasso in the industry. I’ve known Luster since he first landed in Hollywood over 50 years ago.
Anyway, Luster told Duke, “Well, you’re not getting Gregg.” But Duke insisted that he wanted me. So they called me back up, and I finally agreed to take the part. My character didn’t have a name. I was simply referred to as the “burly man.”
However, my character more or less set the stage to demonstrate The Shootist’s [named John Bernard Books] strength and character. On his way to Carson City, Nevada, I play a highwayman who tries to steal Duke’s wallet. He surprises me with a hidden derringer and shoots me in the belly. As he rides off, he pushes me into some icy water. He didn’t even have to get off his horse [laughs].
When Duke did that, director Don Siegel yelled, “Cut! Print! Next set-up. Let’s move.” And the crew began moving their equipment. But Luster spoke up: “That’s no way to treat a star like Mr. Palmer. Push him into the water and just walk off.” So they went into the kitty box and pulled out a few hundred and said, “Give this to Gregg. Tell him to have dinner on us.”
Everything worked out fine. I’m glad I was in the film. It was Duke’s last movie, one of the last major films that Jimmy Stewart and Dick [Richard] Boone made, and the last time I saw my friend.
I never fraternized with Duke after the movie was finished or visited his home in Newport Beach. Shortly before he passed away, a couple bought his beloved sail boat, the Wild Goose. They hosted a dinner party years later, and I had a wonderful experience.
What are some of your special memories about being on set with the Duke?
First of all, I did many appearances in Gunsmoke – 21 episodes in all between 1958 and the show’s cancellation in 1975. Shug Fisher had the most with 27 combined appearances, Morgan Woodward is third with 19 guest spots, and Victor French did an astounding 18. Jim [James] Arness was huge at 6’7”, so I got a lot of calls for Gunsmoke. It was a similar scenario with Duke. With my stature and size, I made a good match for him onscreen.
If Duke liked you, you became one of the troops. I’d have conversations with him. As a matter of fact, he gave me a nickname – “Grizzly.” He would tell folks, “Get me Grizzly.” We used to play a lot of chess on the set, especially during the morning. Duke could play you a good game, although he liked to cheat [laughs].
But he always kept a sharp eye on every aspect of the production, never interfering with the director but always concerned. For example, Duke would inquire, “Are you gonna move in for a close-up? How are you gonna cover the scene?” Or he might ask the cinematographer what lens he intended to use for a certain scene.
You have to understand, Wayne started his career as an assistant prop man and made over 150 films with some of the best directors – Andy McLaglen, John Ford, Henry Hathaway, Howard Hawks – so he usually knew what worked best.
Quite a few of my collaborations with Duke were filmed in Durango, Mexico [The Undefeated, Chisum, and Big Jake]. It’s an old town, probably about 300 years old. A group of us, including Duke, went out a couple of times to a club. It got to a point where people thought I was a visiting American checking on his property [laughs]. It was fun to work there.
After we had finished the day’s scheduled shooting, Duke would say [Palmer’s Wayne imitation is remarkably accurate], “Well Grizzly, get in the car.” So I would jump in. We would be the first one down the dirt road. That way the dust wouldn’t be kicking up and going into his car.
Duke had an aura about him. He could walk up behind you and you could just feel it. One day I asked Ethan, Duke’s son, and Josh, Andy McLaglen’s son, “Have you guys ever spit watermelon seeds?” “No. What do you mean, Gregg?” So I went over to the truck and pulled off a watermelon. I cut it open and I told them, “This is the way you do it.”
All of a sudden, I could see Ethan’s eyes widen, and I realized his dad was walking up. “Whatcha doing?” “Oh, Gregg’s showing us how to spit watermelon seeds.” I kinda looked at Duke, and he looked at me. “He is, is he?” A little smile appeared through his eyes as if he remembered as a kid when he used to do it. And Duke walked off.
He had great presence, that man. It’s tough to fathom that Duke has been gone since 1979, but I have a lot of happy memories from our time together. I miss him.
- DON’T GO ANYWHERE YET! Gregg Palmer regrettably passed away a little over two years after granting this interview on Oct. 31, 2015, in Encino, California, at age 88. Nevertheless, stick around for Part Two of the conversation entitled “You’ll Work If You Come Prepared and Do Your Best…”. His distinguished World War II service, favorite roles (you’ll definitely be surprised), secret to getting steady work in the entertainment business, traveling to Rome for a pair of Spaghetti Westerns, and whether the Western genre can mount a comeback are all covered in fine fashion. And don’t forget to investigate the 12-image slideshow located at the top of this article. All of Palmer’s onscreen appearances with Duke are relived in vivid detail, except “Rio Lobo” (those photos are still elusive). Exclusive snapshots from Palmer’s recent stint at the Memphis Film Festival, including such jewels as the actor brandishing the original machete he used to terrorize unsuspecting customers in “Big Jake”, and a reunion with Wayne’s longtime personal costumer, Luster Bayless, are just a click away.
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Exclusive Interview: Gregg Palmer and James Drury acted together in an astonishing 10 episodes of “The Virginian”, the third-longest running and first 90-minute western in prime time television. In a just-released interview, Drury spoke at length about his unexpected encounter with the iconic John Wayne as well as his appreciation for his fans, the Memphis Film Festival, whether he had a role model for his characterization of “The Virginian”, and the 50th anniversary of the show. Click on either installment link above to begin the myth-shattering odyssey.
Exclusive Interview No. 2: Like Gregg Palmer, actor Jack Kelly began his career as a Universal contract player. They co-starred in five films together, including Audie Murphy’s Column South and To Hell and Back. Kelly later became a household name when he appeared with James Garner on the seminal comedy western series, Maverick. To read an informative interview with his biographer [“A Proud Father, a Nice Guy and a Darn Fine Actor…”], simply click on the link. In it, author Linda Alexander discusses one of Kelly’s favorite roles. Coincidentally, it was Sally and Saint Anne, a 1952 Universal drama also featuring Ann Blyth and Palmer. Later Alexander analyzes the crucial choice that Kelly had to make after Maverick ended its five-year run in 1962 and why he largely ignored the early symptoms of a congenital brain defect.
Exclusive Interview No. 3: Oscar winner Lee Marvin made many a cowboy hero quiver in their dusty boots. Did you know…Gregg Palmer and Marvin both had short roles with their buddy John Wayne in “The Comancheros”. Previously, the duo had acted together in a “Wagon Train” episode entitled “The Jose Morales Story.” In a just-released interview entitled “Battle Scars and Violent Interludes: Point Blank with Lee Marvin’s Biographer”, author Dwayne Epstein focuses on Marvin’s World War II experiences, revealing why he believes Marvin suffered from undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). He also presents the chilling tale of a Silver Star recipient and future Marvin co-star who briefly wound up in a California mental hospital, and much more.
- Exclusive Interview No. 4: Imposing, intelligent, battle-scarred hombre Richard Boone is best remembered by classic cinema fans for his iconic starring role in the Have Gun—Will Travel CBS Western series. Boone was a multifaceted individual who experienced frightening Kamikaze attacks and hand-to-hand combat during World War II. The gruff cowboy was capable of gregarious carousing one evening while attending opera or art gallery openings the next. Biographer David Rothel took it upon himself to shine a light upon the thespian’s varied life and career. Fortunately, yours truly convinced Rothel to undertake his first Boone-centric interview (“A Knight Without Armor in a Savage Land: Saluting Erudite Tough Guy Richard Boone”) in well over a decade.
Further Reading: To learn more about Audie Murphy, a genuine tough guy who happened to be an American hero, simply click on the blue link. The exclusive feature details the actor’s most popular film, “To Hell and Back”, a runaway 1955 blockbuster documenting the most decorated soldier of World War II’s war experiences. Incidentally, Murphy’s costars were Gregg Palmer and Jack Kelly. Fighting three years in the European campaign, the silent hero won 33 awards and decorations for valor on the battlefield, including the Congressional Medal of Honor.
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