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Show Business: Duke and Sister Kate Too

5 minute read

The sequel to True Grit was recently finished on location in Oregon’s rough high desert with two overage Hollywood monuments as its stars—Katharine Hepburn and John Wayne. Though they have been around the movie business for nearly half a century, the stars had never acted together before joining the cast of Rooster Cogburn. TIME Correspondent Leo Janos was on hand to watch Duke and Kate. His report:

At 65, Actress Katharine Hepburn is still the Brahmin beauty edged with bitchiness who gets her way. During her career she has matched her free-spirited will against the strongest male personalities in show business. John Barrymore, Spencer Tracy, Humphrey Bogart, Sir Laurence Olivier and Paul Scofield are among those who failed to upstage her. One star she had always wanted to work with was Wayne, and when she was offered the chance she snapped it up. “I decided to grab him before it was too late — for me or for him.”

Rugged Terrain. That famous high-cheekboned face with its imperial, sloping mouth seems to defy much of the tragedy in her life. She played the other woman in a 20-year affair with the late Spencer Tracy, who remained married. Only nine months ago, Hepburn underwent hip surgery. “I don’t believe in advertising aches and pains,” she said. Instead, she invaded Wayne’s rugged terrain, riding and shooting her way across Oregon for six weeks, despite not having been on a horse in 30 years.

It is the kind of bravado that Duke Wayne loves. At 67 he is a powerful but tamed presence. Since losing a lung to cancer, Wayne has been forced to cut corners to save strength. In recent westerns he has used an apple crate to mount his horse while his veteran double, Chuck Robeson, worked overtime on camera riding for him.

But not in Rooster Cogburn. Kate’s acceptance of the hardships of making a brawling western seemed to reinvigorate Duke. Playing the same hard-drinking, one-eyed marshal who won him an Academy Award in True Grit, Wayne predictably chases an outlaw gang through the steep trails and canyons of the high desert. Joining in the good old pursuit is Kate as Spinster Eula Goodnight, out to avenge her murdered clergyman father. If the plot does not sound stirringly original, it at least gave the two aging stars a good workout.

From the beginning, Hepburn refused to allow her young double to do any of the hazardous sequences. “I haven’t waited all these years to do a cowboy picture with Wayne to give up a single moment of it now,” she said. The only concession she made to her age was to skip the daily rushes “because I’m too aware of my lines and wrinkles.” Between takes, her makeup man handed her a special enlargement mirror. “That way,” she said, “I don’t have to look at my face when I do my lips.”

Throughout the picture Wayne conspicuously neglected both the apple crate and his double. “Christ, she wants to do everything—she can’t ride worth a damn and I gotta keep reining my horse in so she can keep up. But I’d hate to think of what this goddamned picture would be without her.”

In one scene Wayne clapped Kate’s shoulder and shoved her so forcefully to the ground that she scraped her knee against a stone. In a moment a Band-Aid was applied, her hair rearranged, and she uncomplainingly reshot the scene. Wayne developed a cough from the dust. Between camera takes he hacked fitfully and drank endless glasses of water. He was also a bit woozy from having been knocked cold by his seven-year-old daughter, who had accidentally clobbered him on his right temple with a nine iron a few days before.

Before the film began, Kate warned Director Stuart Millar, “I have a mean streak a yard and a half wide.” Millar, directing only his second film (his first in 1972 was called When the Legends Die), soon knew she meant it. Several workdays began with Kate royally telling him how she and Duke thought a scene should be shot. Moaned Millar: “A hell of a way to start the day.” Kate countered: “A sharp knife cuts the quickest and hurts the least.” The open secret on the set was that Duke and Kate pretty well directed themselves. More than once, Wayne stormed at Millar for overshooting scenes. “Goddammit,” Duke boomed, “we can say these lines just so many times before they stop making sense.” When the flustered director tried to proceed, there was a momentary lull and confusion. “Hey,” Wayne shouted, “Mister Director, you’re supposed to say ‘action,’ aren’t you?”

Icy Water. After working long morning hours under a high desert sun Wayne would retire to his mobile-home dressing room for a siesta. Kate dunked herself in the icy water of a nearby mountain stream. “Spencer Tracy and John Ford also took lunchtime naps,” she said. “My God, it must be exhausting being a strong man.” Apparently it is not exhausting being Kate Hepburn. The grips, sound men and other technicians on the set have been doing Wayne pictures for years and are devoted to their man. Most of them display bumper stickers on their cars reading: GOD BLESS JOHN WAYNE. On a VW minibus belonging to one of Wayne’s propmen, a penciled notation was added; it read: “And Sister Kate Too.”

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