Nate Barrager went to work for RKO Pictures and became a top production manager on such hits as The Greatest Story Ever Told and, of course, John Wayne films like Hondo, The Fighting Seabees and The Sands of Iwo Jima. He also worked closely with Bob Hope on television specials.
Barrager was part of a long tradition of ties between USC, their football team, and Hollywood. As big a reason as any for this, aside from the geographical proximity, is the fact that John Wayne played football for Howard Jones.
"He had all the football ability in the world," said Leo Calland. "He had savvy, a great build and the equipment."
"Duke was a good guard," said Normel C. Hayhurst, his coach at Glendale High School. "He played a big part in our winning the Central League and the Southern California championship. He was one of seven players selected for a football scholarship at USC. Our 1924 team was a good one."
Others, however, said that Wayne was not as dedicated to football as Howard Jones required them to be. Photos of Wayne at USC reveal a big, good-looking guy with black, curly hair and a great built who "had to fight the girls off."
The Wayne visage is one of a rough 'n' tough military man or cowboy, more ruggedly macho than handsome, but many film fans are only familiar with movies he made in his 40s and beyond. In his 20s, the man was nothing less than an Adonis.
Wayne's teammate at USC was Ward Bond, who would go on to a long film career. His typical roles were of Irish priests or sidekicks, fighting with and against Wayne, usually winding up sharing a shot of whisky as a conciliatory gesture. Bond had great desire but lacked Wayne's physical abilities. Observers of the two said that if Wayne's talent and Bond's desire could be morphed, the result would have been an All-American.
Gene Clarke, a lineman who played for Jones, claims to have had a hand in making Wayne a picture star. By accident. Wayne was looking forward to being the starting right tackle in his sophomore year.
"Duke and I used to go down to Balboa Beach and ride those big waves," said Clarke. Balboa Beach is in Newport, and those "big waves" are part of the notorious "Wedge," which has produced injured surfers for decades. It is not uncommon to observe wistful men in wheelchairs staring at the ocean wearing t-shirts that read,"Victim of the Wedge."
"One day we're all on the sand with pretty coeds all around. You know how everyone likes to show off, particularly Duke and me.
"These big waves started to come in. We called them, 'butt-busters.' I mean, they were BIG! They were washing the bottom of the pier. Duke says, 'Come on, let's go and ride them.' I said, 'You gotta be nuts, they'll kill us.' He said, 'Come on, you've got no guts!' And I said, 'Dammit, if you're crazy enough, I'll go.' "
15 minutes later, Clarke and Wayne were out past the breakers.
"I warned Duke that the breakers cup hard," said Clarke, but Duke was caught in one. The last he saw was Duke going down.
"He hit the sand," said Clarke, "and if he hadn't pulled his head to one side he probably would have busted his neck. As it was it dislocated his shoulder."
The body surfing adventure had occurred three weeks prior to the beginning of fall football practice.
"He was playing right tackle in the old Howard Jones power plays," said Clarke, "and in this system you used your right shoulder blocking all the time."
Wayne was injured and unable effectuate the blocking patterns
""The old man would give him hell for it," said Clarke. "With Jones you slept, ate, and drank football 365 days a year. He wouldn't understand anyone getting hurt in a foolish accident like that. Well, what happened was the old man thought Wayne didn't have any guts. He didn't know about the shoulder injury, of course. So he put him down on the fourth or fifth team. Took Wayne off the training table, and he had to scrounge for his own meals. He owed the fraternity house so much dough that they had to ask him to move out until he could pay. He dropped out of school and went to Fox Studios."
Born Marion Michael Morrison on May 26, 1907 in Winterset, Iowa, the son of a druggist and a mother of attractive Irish pioneer stock, young Marion moved to the California desert with his family when he was six. "Doc" Morrison had lung problems and improved in the warm climate.
In that environment, Morrison often fantasized that he was a cowboy on a dangerous mission. He rode a horse every day just to get groceries and run errands. He would scare himself into believing he was chasing or being chased by outlaws.
When Doc Morrison's health improved he moved the family to the Los Angeles area. Glendale in those days was still open country, and Marion lived a perfect boys life, fishing and swimming. Morrison got the nickname "Duke" from a local fireman because his dog's name was Duke and the fireman did not know Marion's real name. At first he was "Little Duke," but when he grew to 6-4 it was just Duke. At Glendale High, Duke did not only star in football, but he performed Shakespearean dramas. He was an honor student, president of the Letterman Society, senior class president, and a top debater. He loved to dance and girls went for him.
Despite his football scholarship at USC, he needed to earn extra money and became a top scalper. His scalping took him to the Hollywood Athletic Club, and he also did work for the phone company on movie lots. It was Howard Jones, however, who got him started in Hollywood, so to speak, when he arranged for Morrison and Don Williams to "train" actor Tom Mix for a cowboy movie called The Great K And A Train Robbery. They conditioned Mix and moved sets for $35 a week.
Morrison met famed director John Ford, who made him a prop man and liked his rugged film presence enough to cast him in 1928's Hangman's House.
Ford later made a football movie about the Naval Academy, Salute, and wanted USC players for it. He needed them full-time before the end of the semester, and made Morrison his go-between. Morrison overcame major administrative hurdles in granting permission from school officials, which impressed Ford. He led a delegation that trained east in May, 1929, amid much fanfare. The players included Clark Galloway, Russ Saunders, Jack Butler, Tony Steponovich, Jess Shaw, Frank Anthony, Al Schaub, Marshall Duffield, and Nate Barrager. The trip did cause some concern that the work constituted professionalism, since the players benefited financially by virtue of the fact that they played football at USC.
Director Raoul Walsh gave Morrison the name John Wayne when he starred in a $2 million spectacular called Big Trail in 1929. In 1939 he broke through with John Ford's Stagecoach. He was nominated for an Oscar as Sergeant Stryker in The Sands of Iwo Jima, and by 1949 was the top box office attraction in the world. His visual appearance, however, was significantly different by then than it had been in the 1920s, when he was more pretty and handsome than rugged. Wayne liked to pull a cork in real life just as his screen characters did, which may explain this.
Other classic Wayne films include The Quiet Man and The Longest Day. In 1969 he finally earned a Best Actor Academy Award for his role as Rooster Cogburn in True Grit.
Even though he left school early without making a mark on Howard Jones's football team, and never graduated (although he was awarded an honorary doctorate), Wayne is inexplicably tied to the school and its football tradition. Through Wayne, Jones arranged for USC players to work as extras on movies. Aside from Salute, extravagant Hollywood productions of the era often featured Trojan players in the roles of Roman Legionnaires, Napoleon's Grand Armee, or Biblical flocks. This was prior to the NCAA, and while there was grousing about "professionalism," there never were repercussions.
The Hollywood connection was an enormous recruiting advantage that Jones made use of. Not only did the players make much-needed extra money, but they were introduced to the beautiful actresses. As any recruiting coordinator could tell you, no inducement is greater than pretty girls.
One story that made the rounds and was written about in a late 1990s issue of Los Angeles magazine concerned Clara Bow, the "it girl" of the silent film era. A gorgeous brunette, Bow apparently had an insatiable sexual appetite, and allegedly used Duke Wayne to arrange wild orgies at her Hollywood Hills mansion. This was the kind of extracurricular activity that schools such as Iowa or Duke, where Jones had toiled previously, could not offer.
Wayne maintained a strong association with USC until his death in 1979. When he visited his friend Gene Clarke at the Sigma Chi fraternity house, he noticed a derby that had been given Clarke as a member of Southern Cal's 1931 team.
"Don't you wear it?" asked Wayne.
Clarke thought it was silly, but Wayne was so taken with the memento from SC's stirring victory over the Irish that he "wore that derby for the longest time, hardly ever took it off."
Nick Pappas developed a very close relationship with Wayne, and used Duke many times in his role as director of Trojans' Athletic Support Groups.
"He's a fraternity brother of mine, and the night before a big game with Texas in 1966 we were having cocktails together," Pappas said in Ken Rappoport's book The Trojans: A Story of Southern California Football Football. The interview took place prior to Wayne's 1979 passing.
"This is in Austin, see, and he had come in just for the game," said Pappas. "We drank until about four in the morning - Wayne's drinking scotch and soda all this time. All the guys at the party had gone to dinner and come back and then gone to bed, and we're still in there drinking.
"In the course of our conversation, he says, 'Pap, I want to talk to the kids at breakfast tomorrow.'
"I told him, 'You're in, Duke,' without thinking. I hadn't asked anyone whether it would be all right for Wayne to talk to our football team on the morning of the game. It was a big one, a season opener with Texas ranked number one and us number two.
"But I remembered that Coach John McKay loved John Wayne movies. He used to talk about his big evening - sitting home with a peanut butter sandwich and a glass of chocolate milk and watching a John Wayne movie. And he never met him. I also remembered that McKay would awaken early on the day of games, he was always up by six o'clock, and read the papers. Have breakfast, and go over his diagrams. He was constantly working on football.
"So I call McKay and tell him I had a problem. 'Look, John,' I said. 'I was with John Wayne last night. He asked me if he could talk to the kids, and I said, yeah.' And before I could finish, McKay says, 'Geez, great…bring him down.'
"The kids are all assembled in the locker room at 10 in the morning, and in walks Wayne. Damn, he was fantastic. He walks in with this white 20,000-gallon cowboy hat and black suit - he looked just beautiful. The kids look up, and their eyeballs pop. Here's the REAL John Wayne. And Wayne walks over to the coach and gives him a big hello and squeezes him - you'd think he and McKay were long lost buddies. They had never met before.
"It was beautiful. A former player and all, Wayne gives one of the greatest fight talks you've ever heard - and the kids got all fired up. We win the ballgame 10-6, and back in the locker room after the game, McKay says, 'Hey, guys, how about it? Let's give the game ball to John Wayne.'
"For a moment Wayne stands there - nonplussed. It was probably the first time in his life that he couldn't think of anything to say. Then he looks at the ball for a minute and pumps it like a quarterback. Then he puts the ball under his arm, and the kids break into a cheer, 'Hooray, Hooray.' All the guys joined in. He's still a Trojan."
Mike Walden was the USC play-by-play announcer, and recalls that 1966 Texas game, and Wayne's unique role in the events of that weekend.
"My first game in 1966 was on the road vs. Texas," said Walden. "There'd be a press gathering in Austin, what they called 'smokers' down there, where everybody got together. Well, Wayne was down there making War Wagon in nearby Mexico, and he shows up with Bruce Cabot.
" 'I'm gonna have some whisky,' Wayne says to the bartender, who pours it, and Wayne just looks at it, shoved it back, and said, 'I said WHISKY!'
"Texas had a quarterback they called 'Super Bill' Bradley who was supposed to be outstanding, but SC just controlled the ball and won, 10-6. Afterwards, <assistant coach Marv> Goux came in and said wasn't it great, we 'didn't get anybody 'chipped off.' Well, Wayne and Cabot were somewhere, and someone got in an argument the next morning and their make-up artist was dead of a heart attack. It was confusing, I don't know for sure what all happened. Wayne and all of 'em were out drinking all night and came in at seven in the morning, maybe it was too much for this guy, but this make-up artist died.
" 'Well,' Cabot said, 'We got somebody 'chipped off,' after Goux said 'we didn't get anybody 'chipped off.' "
Wayne was an absolute Republican and a superpatriot, traits that were fairly common in Hollywood when he was in his prime, but towards the end of his career he found himself increasingly isolated from his fellow actors. In 1968, Alabama's segregationist Governor, George Wallace, ran for President as an independent. He asked Wayne to be his Vice-Presidential running mate. Wayne agreed with Wallace when it came to states' rights and fighting Communism, but could not stomach racism. He declined.
Tired of the liberal media spin of the Vietnam War, he made a highly jingoistic film, The Green Berets. It was propagandistic in nature and lacked gritty realism, but viewing it today, the film does emphasize military heroism that cannot be denied. It was a huge box office success. That and three 1970 war films, Patton, Tora! Tora! Tora!, and Midway, all succeeded artistically and financially, showing that the American public was not as widely anti-war as the popular misconceptions of the era.
Wayne's conservatism earned him plenty of critics, but even in 1969, when he won the Oscar for True Grit, Hollywood opened its hearts to him without reservation. Others found him to be a celluloid hero who had not served in wars while real war heroes like Ted Williams were thought to be "the real John Wayne."
Jeff Prugh, the L.A. Times beat writer for USC football in the 1960s and '70s, recalls a story from that 1966 weekend in Austin.
"Well, there was this one L.A. sportswriter writer whose name shall remain anonymous," said Prugh. "Everyone is gathered at the bar, and John Wayne's holding court. This old writer is off in the corner getting drunker and drunker. He's liberal and Wayne's an outspoken conservative Republican. Finally, this old writer has had enough, and he approaches Wayne, interrupts him in mid-sentence with all Wayne's pals staring at him."
" So… …" the old drunk writer says, "they tell me, uh… … they call ya… The Duke!"
"'Yeah, what of it?" says Wayne.
"This writer just gathers himself," continued Prugh.
"Waaal…Duke… … You ain' s--t!"
"Well, it was almost a full brawl right then and there but his pals held Wayne back," said Prugh.
Craig Fertig was a star quarterback at USC and a graduate assistant in 1966.
"One time, the players wanted to go see Easy Rider," Fertig recalled, referring to a "hippie" movie of the 1960s. "Duke Wayne says, 'Don't let the kids see that crap!' So he arranged for 'em to see War Wagon instead.
"I'm low man on the totem pole in '66, so I gotta chaperone the team and do bed checks. Now McKay's hosting a party for Wayne."
(This contrasts with Nick Pappas' assertion that Wayne and McKay had not met prior to the morning of the next day's game, but considering that alcohol, old alums and memories were involved, the discrepancy is a minor one.)
"I finally put the kids to bed, so I make it up to this party, see," continued Fertig. "I see John Wayne and introduce myself to him, and he's like, 'Oh, I saw you beat Notre Dame,' and he's just like my best friend.
"Well, he has Bruce Cabot with him, and this make-up artist, too. This make-up artist's mixing drinks - vodka one time, Bourbon, scotch, right? He's gettin' hammered.
"The next day, I'm assigned to Duke Wayne, 'cause he's gonna speak to the team. Wayne's mad as hell, 'cause his make-up guys' not there.
" 'Son of a bitch's never around when you need 'im,' he says. It turns out the man's died during the night, maybe 'cause he mixed drinks and it was too much for his heart. Anyway, I gotta get Duke ready, the job this dead make-up guy usually does."
Apparently, Wayne had not yet learned of the make-up artist's demise.
" 'Whadda I wear?' asks Duke. I tell him, 'Everybody knows you as a cowboy, so dress like that.' 10-gallon hat, cowboy boots, brass belt buckle; I got him lookin' good.
"We're scared sh-----s, Texas is number one in the country. So at the stadium he fires up our team. Then he's introduced to the crowd. He comes out and he's in this cart with my dad."
Fertig's father, "Chief" Henry Fertig, was the longtime head of the Huntington Park, California police department in L.A. County, and a tremendous USC booster.
"He's being driven around the stadium in this cart, and the whole time my dad's pouring whisky into a cup and Duke's drinkin' out of it," continued Fertig. "Now, the Texas fans, they see The Duke, and he's wearin' this cowboy hat, and most of 'em don't know he's a USC football player. Duke's givin' 'em the hook 'em horns sign with his fingers, and the Longhorn fans are cheering.
" 'Duke's a Texas fan,' their sayin'.
"All the time, Duke's sayin' to my old man, 'F--k the 'horns.' "
All things considered, Duke Wayne cut a swath across the entertainment industry like very few others. In terms of longevity and impact, perhaps only Clint Eastwood has played a greater all-around role in show biz.
USC continues to be integral to the film industry to this day. The USC marching band actually bills itself "Hollywood's band." They have appeared in numerous movies and even helped cut a gold record, Fleetwood Mac's "Tusk". USC athletes have made a disproportionately large number of careers in the media.
"Going to school in L.A. is a big advantage," explained former USC football coach John Robinson. "It's a big difference being interviewed by major media there than it is to say, 'yes, sir,' or 'no, sir' to a local sportscaster in Alabama."
Many major movers and shakers in Tinseltown are part of the "Trojan Family." John Wayne would be proud.
Causes Steven Travers Supports
Conservative, Christian, USC, American patriotism