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Another round for the Duke

By STEVE PERSALL, Times Film Critic
Published September 29, 2007


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RIDGWAY, Colo. - "John Wayne never bought me a beer," Mr. Bill says, sounding prouder than a thirsty man should.

The Duke rode tall in these parts nearly 40 years ago, when he was here filming his Academy Award winning role in True Grit.

When the day's shooting ended, Mr. Bill says, Wayne enjoyed two pastimes: unwinding alone on horseback in the southwest Rockies, then bellying up to bars with drinking pardners.

Mr. Bill gladly helped him with both.

* * *

Mr. Bill, still fit at 77, has been a wrangler and miner here since 1949. He and I are hunched over the bar at the True Grit Cafe, talking movies and watching beer bottles sweat. Like most decades-old stories told on bar stools, Mr. Bill's are easy to believe and hard to check out, though folks here don't doubt them.

"Nobody in Ridgway would be telling tall stories about John Wayne," says Bob DiJulio, 75, who painted building facades for the True Grit shoot.

Our bartender Joni is surprised to overhear that her regular customer's last name is Calhoon. Usually she just types "Mr. Bill" into the cash register, like every other server from here to the White Horse Saloon.

This bar didn't exist in 1968 when Wayne filmed its namesake. The cafe was built adjacent to a general store whose brick wall is familiar from the movie. The True Grit is a lively shrine to Wayne, still the biggest thing to happen in Ouray County since railroads were built.

A few days after we meet, the cafe will host True Grit Days, a weekend honoring Wayne's 100th birthday last spring. There will be beer and barbecue, cowboy poetry and Western music, and an appearance by Wayne's co-star Kim Darby. The movie will be shown in the park, near tennis courts where director Henry Hathaway once built a hangman's gallows for a scene.

Back then, Mr. Bill owned a downtown lot with a livery stable originally built for stagecoaches. He boarded horses there while working for a local rancher. A production assistant for True Grit asked Mr. Bill if any mounts were available for Wayne's use during down time. The answer came easily.

"You don't say no to John Wayne," Mr. Bill says, sipping his brew.

After his rides, the Duke always called the shots, and they were always whiskey.

"Nobody else ever paid for a drink, but you had to drink what he was drinking," Mr. Bill says. "That's why he never bought me a beer."

* * *

True Grit isn't Ouray County's only sagebrush with celebrity. Mr. Bill can show you where Debbie Reynolds filmed scenes with John Ford for How the West Was Won and James Cagney starred in Tribute to a Bad Man.

Mr. Bill made a little money on Tribute. In 1956 his buckskin mare got lost on Baldy Mountain and ended up running with the wild elk for weeks before somebody found her. A stunt actor recognized the wild spirit in the horse and made an offer on it.

"He gave me $800," Mr. Bill says, shaking his head. "Hell, a good horse was only worth about $100 in those days."

Those movie folks. Mr. Bill still scoffs at fake boulders that Hathaway added to the foothills for effect: "All the rocks we've got around here, and they felt like they had to bring in more."

Don't get him started on the True Grit sequence when Darby's character tumbles into a rattlesnake pit.

"There's no snakes in the valley," Mr. Bill says, "at least no rattlesnakes. That's just movies and they ain't always real."

The Duke was as authentic as they come. Mr. Bill says what moviegoers saw on screen was the real man: larger than life, deeply principled, someone to stay on the good side of.

"He always stuck to his guns," Mr. Bill says, unaware of the pun. "He was the biggest man I ever met. There'll never be another one like him."

We chat a while longer, and I notice Mr. Bill's Budweiser running low. Hey, Joni, can you give him another, please?

"Oh, you don't have to do that," Mr. Bill says.

I pat his flannel shirt sleeve, look him in the eyes and say: "I want to do something in my life that John Wayne never did."

Mr. Bill smiles. Mr. Bill understands.

Steve Persall can be reached at 727 893-8365 or persall@sptimes.com Read his blog at blogs.tampabay.com/movies.

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Encounters is dedicated to small but meaningful stories. Sometimes they will play out far from the tumult of the daily news; sometimes they may be part of the news. To comment or suggest an idea for a story, contact editor Mike Wilson at mike@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2924.

[Last modified September 29, 2007, 01:06:38]


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