I am taking John Wayne's death very badly. I intend to take it very badly. This was no time to lose one of our few remaining symbols of heroism, and learning of the loss from television may be no way to learn it. For most of us, however, it's the major way.
There is something particularly upsetting about receiving catastrophic or heartbreaking information from the primped-up pups of TV news. During the really big breakdowns, we want the reassurance of a Cronkite or a Brinkley. Hearing if from Barbara Walters is somehow just not the same. It is inadequate to the moment.
And yet there she was, the indomitable Barbara, lacquered into immobility by her indomitable hairspray, telling us the sad news Monday night on ABC and also pointing out that the Duke had given her his last interview before dying. Was this a piece of information worth knowing at the time? No. But we have learned never to be surprised when ABC News, the Barnum & Bailey show of broadcast journalism, stoops to self-promotion in the middle of a crisis. This crew will be taking bows on the opening day of World War III and advising us to stay tuned for more details.
ABC News executives had discerned at 10:45 p.m., Eastern time, when the UCLA Medical Center announced there would be a "significant" statement on Wayne at 11:30, that he had died. And so wheels were set in motion to air not just the standard and basically dignified program-interrupting bulletin, but to throw together a 5 1/2-minute ABC News production on the actor's life, with Barbara Walters as guest star.
Another five minutes aired at 12:45, again including a plug for the following day's edition of ABC's tacky "God Morning, America" show, which, viewers were promised, would include more news on the death of the star. For some strange reason, correspondent Lynn Sherr anchored the 11:41 report with a nervous smirk on her face as if she were going to break into giggles at any moments. This provided little comfort.
CBS News reported Wayne's death with a simple bulletin by a staff announcer at 11:47. NBC News had a short bulletin interrupting "The Tonight Show" at 11:48-marred by repeated technical fluffs-and a nine-minute obituary at 1 a.m., delaying the start of the "Tomorrow" show.
Meanwhile, "Today" show producer Steve Friedman and some of his staff were just arriving at NBC studios, 6 hours earlier than usual, to completely remake the program so that more than half of it would be devoted to the Wayne Story and world reaction to his death.
Of all thr tributes to Wayne that followed on the three networks, there was probably not a more succinct or affecting remembrance than the seven-minute montage of film clips and scenes of Wayne's public appearances assembled for NBC by Los Angeles correspondent Jim Brown, unfortunately and irreverently know as "the gravedigger" for his expertise at celebrity obits. Brown began working on the film about a month ago, and it was shown at the beginning and the end of Tuesday's "Today" show.
The opening narration was of the overly strident old-style newsreel school, but it relented gracefully, and the clips were allowed to speak for themselves.The montage ended with a freeze frame of Wayne in "She Wore A Yellow Ribbon" looking into the distance as a wagon train faded into the horizon. This was a beautiful appropriate and blessedly visual summation and epitaph.
ABC and NBC both scheduled half-hour specials on John Wayne's life for the customary 11:30 p.m. time slot, but CBS broadcast its program, hosted by Charles Kuralt, in prime time, at 8 o'clock Tuesday night. "The Duke, 1907-1979," began badly, with Kuralt in his usual fully unfurled avuncular fervor. "Good evening," he said. "You know how life is."
But the program improved steadily. It included a fresh observation from actor Lee Marvin, who said he though Wayne's wartime movies gave millions of parents and families on the home front a more tangible and manageable idea of what their boys were doing overseas. And for all his flights of bombast, which have grown almost tolerable over the years, Kuralt ended the program with a welcome touch of pastel eloquence, saying of John Wayne, "Life can't be lived without at least a dream of daring and high spirit. That's what he gave us."
Meanwhile, ABC, the one network news department that appears to operate as an arm of the promotion department, rather than the other way around, was dreaming up enterprising ways to exploit the events. The tireless and probably well-meaning Walters had already graced "World News Tonight" with her remembrance of how Wayne had sent her a telegram when she was under attack from the press. How nice of him.
Then, later, ABC presented its own 11:30 show, "Homage for the Duke," in which Walters at least twice more referred to the fact that Wayne had given her his last interview: "after I interviewed John Wayne this winter," and so on. And in a misplaced of competitive zeal, ABC produced "the last man to be shot and killed on the screen by John Wayne," a weary looking and justifiably mystified Hugh O'Brian. Roonie's Raiders want the reputation of trying harder. They still have the reputation of carnival journalism, and they proved again that they deserve it.
Many of the same film clips turned up over and over on the three network reports, but it was always heartening to see Wayne in his "True Grit" get-up again saying to Kim Darby, "Well, come see a fat old man sometime,"one of the most unforgettable exist in movie history. CBS managed a brilliant stroke by concluding its report with the finale from "The High and the Mighty," in which Regis Toomey salutes the heroic pilot played by Wayne with a farewell along the lines of "Goodbye, you crazy, ancient pelican.
These dramatic punctuations were entirely in keeping with the life and career of a man who starred in movies long before they became smaller than larger than life.
Viewers who watched all three networks saw three different versions of one "True Grit" scene, the wild face-off between Rooster Cogburn, as played by Wayne, and a trio of bad guys on the other side of a field. Wayne takes the reins of his horse in his teeth after shouting, "Fill your hands, you son of a bitch!" and begins his charge.
Only CBS News, still the last word in class among network news operations, had the simple sane decency to leave the line and its harmless expletive intact. On ABC, traditionally the network of the most slipshod and insensitive censorhsip, the expletive was removed with a jerky cut. On NBC, the expletive was replaced with an insipid bleep. What kind of national up-roar would have resulted were the scene to be left alone? Walters even referred to Wayne's habit of using "salty language" immediately following the clipped clip.
Public television's "MacNeil-Lehrer Report" devoted one half-hour program to Wayne but dragged in a pair of cookie-cutter critics, Richard Schickel of the Time Empire and the quixotic Molly Haskell of the Village Voice, for alleged "expert" testimony on Wayne's impact. Haskell spoke in terms of "antithesis" and "persona" and declared "The Searchers," a John Ford Western, to be "the greates American movie ever made." She was talking through her hat."
NBC was much closer to the heart of the matter when it interviewed a Phoenix, Arix., fireman who lowered the American flag to half-mast because John Wayne, he said, "was just a part of our lives."
To some all the coverage of Wayne may have seemed excessive, but even in its excess it helped provide a catharsis and touchstone for an entirely understandable sense of communal grief and loss. What was never said but had to be perceived is that far more than a man had died. The kind of herosim Wayne represented on the screen is gone as well; instead one finds movies that trash the notion of heroism ("Dirty Harry"), make it a silly joke ("Butsch and Sundance, The Early Days") or turn it into a bathetic ego trip ("Rocky II").
And television, now the national entertainer the movies once were, has failed to fill this vacuum with heroes of its own, except for cartoonish superheros like "The $6 Million Man" and "The Incredible Hulk," and others light years away from the kind of values men like John Wayne represented.
Surely little boys still need great big footsteps to follow in. And little girls do, too. Politics appears now bankrupt as a source of heroism, and so it is especially lamentable that popular culture transmitted by television has also run dry. Television has scaled everything down, including our greatest expectations. It was never able to scale down John Wayne, not even in reporting on his death, but that "dream of daring and high spirt" he gave us is something we almost never get from TV. Perhaps we only get it when a great man dies. CAPTION: Picture, Barbara Walters interviewing John Wayne, AP; Chart 1, Stardard Radio; Chart 2, FM Radio