John Wayne and the Six Security Men
On the night of March 27, 1973, Liv Ullmann and Roger Moore stepped onstage at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles to present the Academy Award for Best Actor of 1972. The name that Ullmann read was Marlon Brando, for The Godfather. A young woman clad in a beaded Native American dress walked up to the podium and gracefully brushed back Moore’s hand as he tried to hand her the statuette. Her name was Sacheen Littlefeather, and up until that moment, no one save her and Brando (wherever he was) knew what she was going to say; she had refused to be specific with the producers before she took her seat. To the sound of some applause, and a smattering of boos, foot-stamps, and catcalls, she explained that she was refusing the Oscar at Brando’s behest, due to “the treatment of American Indians today by the film industry…and on television in movie reruns, and also with recent happenings at Wounded Knee.”1 After her brief speech, Littlefeather left the stage. The time elapsed from when Brando’s name was read, to Littlefeather’s exit, was about one minute forty seconds. Throughout the night, Littlefeather was dignified and tranquil, which can’t be said for everyone in the Oscar audience. She remained calm, by all accounts, when she reached the press room.
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On March 27, 2022, 49 years later to the day, Will Smith stepped onstage at the Dolby Theater in Los Angeles and slapped comedian Chris Rock, who was there to present the award for Best Documentary. I’m not going to describe it any further than that, as I think the full clip has been seen by everyone not presently making their home at the bottom of the sea.
Here’s what we’ll be concerned with. Just after the incident at this year’s Oscars, variations on a certain assertion began appearing all over my Twitter feed.
The accusation rapidly spread to online tabloid-type venues—I’m not linking, but they’re easy to find. Here’s an array of more tweets that come up in a search.
Now, the Academy has issued an official apology to Sacheen Littlefeather, which may be read here (and has no reference to any incident involving John Wayne). She is scheduled to give a talk at the Academy Museum in Los Angeles on Sept. 17. Once more we’re flooded with the tale of John Wayne and the Six Security Men, the lousy variety act many people believe played the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion back in 1973.
On such occasions, it becomes necessary to defrost the keyboard. And dive through archives, and pester historians, and email unsuspecting biographers. Somebody had to—Snopes half-assed it. From the moment I saw these mushrooming accusations of how Wayne was barely prevented from beating up a tiny indigenous activist, I was, to put it mildly, in a dubious frame of mind.
For this allegedly violent night at the Oscars in 1973, the order of the last three award presentations had been Best Actor, which is what we’re investigating; Best Actress (presented by Gene Hackman and Raquel Welch); and Best Picture, presented by Clint Eastwood—a planned presenter of the award, but he had already had a jittery evening as a last-minute substitute for Charlton Heston, whose car had broken down on the freeway. [see endnote] Finally, John Wayne came out to say a few words, gather the remaining stars and dancers, and lead off a rousing final chorus of “You Ought to Be in Pictures.”
Here is John Wayne coming out for the finale of the 1973 Oscars. He’s a little slow getting down the steps and over to the podium. His gait isn’t exactly athletic. But that’s not surprising. John Wayne, then 65 years old, had undergone lung-cancer surgery in 1964. The surgeons made a 28-inch incision, removing two ribs and the entire upper lobe of his left lung. The operation saved his life, but left Wayne with daily breathing problems that he worked mightily to conceal, despite requiring a supplemental oxygen tank on the sets of some subsequent movies.
Wayne looks pretty calm for a man who caused backstage mayhem moments ago. Dapper, too. I do appreciate that the Oscar security men were careful not to rumple his tux.
Note here that there was an interesting set design that year for the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Minimalist, you might call it, since you can see the flies, the back wall, and (so it appears) much of the wings.
Other years tended toward elaborate sets. Here’s 1974 for a bit of contrast.
And here’s a glimpse of the 1974 wings. That’s Jack Lemmon walking offstage after winning, lower left.
To see why I am bringing this up, let’s go to Sacheen Littlefeather’s description of the night in the 2021 documentary short Sacheen: Breaking the Silence, which includes a short clip of the Oscar moment. (It’s up at Youtube for a fee.)
While Littlefeather describes John Wayne “in the wings,” the clip seems to indicate, as Liv Ullmann, Roger Moore and Sacheen Littlefeather exit the stage, that there are no wings to speak of, and no John Wayne. Where was he, and where were the six security men, a six-man-scrum-plus-movie-star presumably being rather difficult to hide? And if this was taking place in a wing-like area further backstage or in the green room, what made Wayne think he could huff and puff all the way to the stage before the orchestra played Littlefeather off? Going back to the original Oscar clip, you’ll see he had just 45 seconds to realize what she was saying, get mad, begin to charge, and be held back by the gathering of the security clan. Littlefeather was always clear that no one knew the contents of her speech until she gave it. She could have been getting up there just to take the award and say thank-you.
For that matter, I wonder when the armed guards who escorted Littlefeather herself offstage showed up. They aren’t in the clip. The photo still in the documentary shows a balding middle-aged man who is wearing one of those ghastly 1970s ruffledy tuxedos. He is holding her hand, and certainly doesn’t look like anybody I’d hire as security, though maybe he was incognito.
After the aforementioned armed guards escorted Littlefeather offstage, did they take a break? Because like the Oscar winners, she was photographed with the giant Oscar statue
and went to the press room, which was on the fourth floor, where she read the lengthy statement she’d brought.
Having examined the clips from the 1973 Oscars in more detail than anyone should examine anything short of the Zapruder film, I repaired to newspapers-dot-com. You would think, would you not, that if John Wayne had been either in the wings or backstage, with six security men tussling with him in some kind of goal-line stand, as Wayne hollered that he was gonna drag Sacheen Littlefeather right off the ding-dang stage, that this would have been noticed and remarked upon somewhere in the many, many, many stories and columns published in the days and weeks right after this particular Oscar ceremony—not least by Littlefeather herself.
You would be wrong. I have failed utterly to find anybody referencing any such incident in the immediate aftermath of the show. And by “immediate aftermath,” I mean from Monday, March 28, 1973, until about February 1974. In addition to what could be found on the internet, Professor Thomas Doherty of Brandeis University graciously offered to access the relevant issues of The Hollywood Reporter, which are not online. Nothing about Wayne. THR, then staunchly right-wing, ran an editorial by Tichi Wilkerson Miles, scolding Brando. There was also a roundup of quotations from various figures. In the approving camp was Alfred Ruddy, Godfather producer; opting for the diplomatic route of “well, you know, artists” was the legendary Robert Evans of Paramount; disapproving, not of Littlefeather but Brando, were Academy president Daniel Taradesh, Michael Caine, and Charlton Heston. And at the end of the THR roundup, a brief interview with Littlefeather herself, with a truly lovely vignette: “She noted that ‘a very nice man,’ Eddie Albert, and his son Edward Albert, congratulated her on her remarks and said they supported what she did.”
No word from John Wayne. His response to the whole affair didn’t come until Dec. 30, 1973, in an interview in the New York Times:
What about that other big kid —Marlon Brando? Does Duke—an Academy Award winner for “True Grit”—look upon Brando's nixing of his Oscar for “The Godfather” as a mature action, or mere kid stuff?
“You're going to take this out of context, aren't you?” Duke squints, and then breaks into a who-gives-a-damn grin. “I think it was sad that Brando did what he did. If he had something to say, he should have appeared that night and stated his views instead of taking some little unknown girl and dressing her up in an Indian outfit.”
When does the Wayne story start showing up? Leaping ahead a bit, there is a 1988 interview with Marty Pasetta, the director of the Oscar show from 1972 to 1988, a stretch of time that in retrospect looks like the Oscar show’s Golden Age. Of that night in 1973, Pasetta told Ivor Davis:
“We had a fight is what we had,” recalls the silver-haired Oscar veteran… “John Wayne wanted to go out there and physically yank her off the stage. It took six men to hold him back.”
Well, hold the phone. There are significant problems with accepting Pasetta’s 1988 recollection at face value (and that is why I am calling Snopes sloppy).
The “six security men” preventing John Wayne from physically assaulting Littlefeather do not appear in a much earlier interview with Pasetta, by Don Freeman of Copley News Service, which dates to Feb. 23, 1974, when the incident should have been freshest in Pasetta’s mind. Asked about his worst “calamity” (“I don’t compare them. I just endure them,” is Pasetta’s amusing response), the show director tells a different story.
How do you predict that some ‘Indian princess’ is going to go on for Brando and make a speech? And there’s John Wayne backstage and he’s in an uproar and I had to calm him down. I said, ‘don’t go out there, Duke, that’ll only make it worse.’ Everybody was in an uproar.
A later version of that interview, republished in 1975,2 adds a kicker from Pasetta about Wayne: “He hollered, but he stayed.”
Moving on to 1984; in that year, Pasetta told UPI’s Hollywood reporter, Vernon Scott, that “John Wayne was in the wings and was so angry he wanted to go and pull her offstage.” A little more alarming, but not the same story. No actual physical attempt to charge the stage. No security men.
Finally, in the 1988 Pasetta interview, we get the six security guards. I don’t think it’s insignificant that the security sextet appeared only after John Wayne died in 1979. The first reference I can find, which adheres to later tradition by being unattributed, is in a 1981 article by Joan Sadler: “Backstage the late John Wayne, ever game for a scrap with the Indians, wanted to bound on stage to personally eject Littlefeather before she could speak. It took six men to hold him back.”
In addition to being gratingly written, this is weird in its own right. “Before she could speak”? Once more: Nobody knew what Littlefeather’s typewritten speech was about or what she was going to say. Littlefeather said later that she hadn’t even told the Oscar-show producer Howard W. Koch, whom she spoke to before taking her seat. So John Wayne just sees a Native American and automatically flips out? Give me a break, Joan Sadler.
Littlefeather’s own account of John Wayne, once she started giving it, has drifted only slightly over the years. In a 2016 Q&A, she told Canada’s Globe and Mail,
I was given 60 seconds by the producer to make that speech or I would be arrested.3 John Wayne was waiting backstage to take me off. He had to be restrained by six security men.
John Wayne was going to physically remove you?
Correct. I did not put up my fist in protest; I did not use profanity. I used politeness; eloquence and quiet strength were my tools of delivering a message about the rights of native American people to be employed in an industry where a stereotype was being put forth that was not healthy for us.
In Sacheen, she says, “I was escorted off of that stage by some armed guards.” As I said, I don’t understand what she means by this, since the only people I see escorting her offstage are Liv Ullmann and Roger Moore. She continues, “And luckily so, because John Wayne was waiting in the wings ready to go on to pull me off the stage, and he had to be held back by six security men because he was so outraged about what I had said.”
In 2021, Littlefeather told the Guardian, “During my presentation, [emphasis mine] he [John Wayne] was coming towards me to forcibly take me off the stage, and he had to be restrained by six security men to prevent him from doing so.” I reiterate that John Wayne had about 45 seconds in which to realize that the Oscar was being rejected, get mad, and make a dash toward the stage alarming enough to cause six security men to pounce. I don’t believe he flew into a rage at the mere sight of Littlefeather. Until she opened her mouth, for all Wayne knew, she was Brando’s friend accepting on his behalf.
On Aug. 16 of this year, NPR quoted Littlefeather saying, on the Academy’s official podcast this summer: “He attempted to assault me onstage. He had to be restrained by six security men in order to prevent him from doing exactly that.”
Finally, subsequent to the Academy’s apology to Littlefeather, this was published in Variety on Aug. 18:
Littlefeather said that when she left the stage she spotted John Wayne, who was furious about her speech and approached her in such a way that she thought he would assault her.
“[John Wayne] did not like what I was saying up at the podium,” Littlefeather said. “So, he came forth in a rage to physically assault and take me off the stage. And he had to be restrained by six security men in order for that not to happen.”
“She spotted John Wayne”: This isn’t a direct quote, but it constitutes the first time I have encountered anything where Littlefeather possibly states outright that she witnessed John Wayne and the security guards. They were back there, they were over there, they were in the wings, they were coming toward her even as she spoke. Yet up until this latest story, she never says that she herself saw them. Nor does Littlefeather name someone who told her they saw the incident.
If she did spot John Wayne, then we have to square that with this story from famed PR man Dick Guttman, who told of how he and Roger Moore made a slick move to get Littlefeather on the elevator to the press room. According to Guttman, this occurred directly after Littlefeather left the stage, and “Roger considerately had a reassuring hand at her elbow.” You will agree, I hope, that Roger Moore was not a security guard. “As Ms. Littlefeather caught her breath,” writes Guttman, “Roger and I discussed the alternatives and decided that there was no function for him in the press rooms.” They were about to bid her adieu.
Then—at last! We have the appearance of a security man. This “six-foot-six” guard intervened, grabbing Guttman by the arm, apparently convinced that he and Moore were, along with Littlefeather, going to screw up the evening even more than it already had been. Events proceeded from there. Guttman:
So, getting back to the stage right wings of the Dorothy Chandler, suddenly there’s this not-so-friendly-or-jolly tuxedoed giant challenging our plan to get Brando’s surrogate to and through the high-energy press rooms which lay immediately ahead. “She’s gotta stay here,” this fellow commands. His reason for the gotta is that it is planned that all of the winners will gather on stage at the finale to sing “God Bless America” in a tribute to John Ford. Roger and I explain to him that while it’s true that John Ford is very possibly the greatest director (and arguably most humane) who ever held a megaphone, it is also true that in his films he has probably killed more Native Americans than George Custer. This is not computing for this guy, who is trying to herd us back to the stage.
One thing the gods of the stage have is good timing. Suddenly a flat (a piece of scenery) is knocked over somewhere, and our security guy turns to see what the problem is, possibly also needing his alert devotion to duty. Roger gives me a nod, and Ms. Littlefeather and I take off for the elevator. The security guy turns and immediately espies this act of civil disobedience. He makes a move toward the elevator, but Roger... obviously trying to get out of his way... manages to stumble into it. From the elevator, so slow to close, we watch Roger and this guy doing what looks like a samba on the cable-crossed floor. Finally, the guy breaks free and runs toward us yelling, I swear to God, “Where you taking that Indian?” Behind him, as the doors slide slowly shut, we see Roger smiling and giving us a gentle wave of bon voyage.
None of this charming story (I do love Roger Moore) is consistent with John Wayne being anywhere in the vicinity, much less being held back by other security guards. (Let’s clarify also, from the prior clip link, that the final number was “You Ought to Be in Pictures,” not “God Bless America,” and John Ford played no evident part in the night’s finale. He was, at that moment, dying of cancer in Palm Desert, but can you imagine anyone trying to force Jack Ford to sing “You Ought to Be in Pictures”? I believe Guttman may have confused the Oscar finale with the AFI tribute to John Ford, recorded a few days later on March 31.)
What struck me first, no pun intended, about this supposed incident, other than the array of zippy telepathic revelations concerning what John Wayne was thinking, was the “six security men.” Such a specific number. My immediate question was, how did that work, in terms of spatial distribution? One scenario appears in an Edward Sorel cartoon from a 1994 New Yorker article, in which John Lahr makes the six-security-men assertion with (stop me if you’ve heard this one) a breezy lack of attribution.
In real life, sad to say, there’s no such thing as Fun Size security men. My own mental picture was more like this, only with less padding.
Young Marion Morrison, later John Wayne, played offensive tackle at the University of Southern California, but my fantasy football obviously wasn’t the case either, so let’s try to sketch out some realistic blocking (in the theatrical sense) for this scene.
One security man restraining each of John Wayne’s arms, that’s obvious. One in front to push back on Wayne’s chest. I sure hope he’s doing that gently, because a chest missing two ribs and most of a lung sounds fragile to me. But six security men, that’s what we’re working with, so let’s make that two men in front of Wayne, one gingerly pushing on the left-side surgical scars, and the other on the right side that still had all its ribs.
That leaves us with two more men. Are they clutching the back of John Wayne’s tuxedo jacket? or his waistband? are they on the ground wrapping their arms around his calves? Are they pushing the men who are pushing on Wayne’s chest? Again, that is not a good idea with a lung-cancer survivor. If we are using a relatively loose definition of “restrain” (and with an elderly one-and-a-half-lunged actor, what the hell else can we do) let’s arrange our final two heavies standing near, but not actually laying hands on, John Wayne. Maybe in front of the stage entrance, with their hands up in a warning position to say “Don’t go out there, Duke!”
I have spent quite some printer ink in an effort to paint a complete picture of Six Security Men Restraining John Wayne (soon to be on view in the American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum). Maybe an eyewitness will yet appear to explain just what was going on backstage during the 1973 Oscars, because what else could possibly be occupying their time. But on the evidence I’ve amassed, I’ve put together another story arc.
Sacheen Littlefeather went up to the stage to refuse Marlon Brando’s Oscar for The Godfather on his behalf, spoke briefly, and walked off, a process that took less than two minutes in its entirety. The political nature of what she was saying didn’t become obvious until just over a minute into the award. Less than 45 seconds consisted of her remarks about the treatment of Native Americans in the movies (Howard W. Koch said later he was timing her with a stopwatch). John Wayne was, perhaps, in the backstage area, able to see what was happening, and quite possibly making a stink about it. Whatever “making a stink” meant in this context, it seems unlikely Wayne could have been close enough to pose an imminent threat of interrupting this very short speech, especially not with his post-cancer gait.
Also, given his physical state in 1973, it probably wouldn’t have taken six men to keep him from getting there. Sadly, it might barely have taken one.
Littlefeather left the stage and posed holding Brando’s speech in front of the oversize backstage Oscar statue. Possibly with the aid of Dick Guttman and Roger Moore (that’s a story I hope is true), she went to the press area, which was on the fourth floor and well away from whatever John Wayne was or was not doing at that point. She passed out copies of the Brando opus (and by the way, there’s no way in hell Brando believed they’d let her read all that on TV). Littlefeather answered some press questions, and left. While this is going on, so are the Oscars. Wayne goes out and introduces the silly finale without a word about Brando, Littlefeather, Wounded Knee, or anything else.
In 1974, evidently the first time he was interviewed about that night, Marty Pasetta said John Wayne was “in an uproar,” which to the vast majority of English-speaking people would mean “John Wayne was vocally angry,” and Pasetta added, “everybody [my emphasis] was in an uproar.” In 1981, the unattributed “six security men” appear in Joan Sadler’s Oscar article. By 1988, Pasetta himself is talking about six security men and threats of dragging Littlefeather offstage. By the 2000s, the story is also a staple of Littlefeather’s interviews. And it is widely repeated, because John Wayne. He had a decades-long reputation as Hollywood’s most notable reactionary, and it must be said he had done a great deal to earn it.
If that’s too long, here’s the condensed version: John Wayne angry and yelling, yes, I imagine so. Six security guards holding him back lest he race onstage and attack like he’s King Kong: Until one steps forward, I’m going with “never happened.” After a great deal of research, my conclusion is that this began as an exaggerated tale Marty Pasetta told to interviewers—he wasn’t the first Hollywood personality with a story that got more exciting each time it was told, and he won’t be the last—and has become a persistent urban legend.
And another thing. There is a lot of highway between “John Wayne was angry backstage about Sacheen Littlefeather’s Oscar speech,” and what it’s morphed into, “John Wayne had to be physically prevented from dragging her offstage” or, and this is simply a lie, “John Wayne tried to assault” the activist. A leap across a chasm of logic is being made by people who plainly have never read much, if anything, about John Wayne the actual person, versus John Wayne, player of manly roles, far-right conservative, and giver of racist interviews. But the off-screen and off-duty John Wayne wasn’t a brawler, especially not with women. (One USC classmate remarked that the hulking Marion Morrison “could have been a great football player, but he never wanted to hurt anybody.”) Especially as he got older, Wayne drank too much, and when he did, he often said too much, and he did stupid things like punching refrigerators. He didn’t run around punching activists.
This, too, I’m prepared to back up. One of the first things I did when my Twitter feed began filling up with what a woman-assaulting maniac John Wayne was, or had tried to be, or at any rate wanted to be, was to consult my copy of Scott Eyman’s biography, John Wayne: The Life and Legend. The Academy Awards ceremony of 1973 isn’t anywhere in its 650-some-odd pages.
That seemed odd in itself. So, because I’m stubborn, I emailed Scott. Here is his reply, in its entirety, which I am quoting with his permission.
There are dozens of urban legends about Wayne both pro and con, because his fans and detractors are equally adamant, invariably for the obvious political/cultural reasons.
Nobody I talked to who knew Wayne ever referred to or, apparently, believed that story. For one thing, Wayne was not physically aggressive. Not with men, certainly not with women. For another thing, he was a well brought up Edwardian man. Politeness was his basic social position unless confronted by overt rudeness.
I don’t doubt he would have been pissed off by Brando’s rejection of an award Wayne and his generation had considerable respect for, but the idea of him trying to storm the stage like Lawrence Tierney on a bender is ludicrous.
Note: Correction 8/19/22; I said Eastwood was subbing as BP presenter for Heston, but Clint was indeed slated to present Best Picture. His stand-in bit had come earlier in the evening, reading a script meant for Chuck “Moses” Heston; subsequent interviews showed Eastwood had not enjoyed the experience.
At the time, there were about 200 American Indian Movement activists under siege by armed authorities in Wounded Knee, South Dakota, the site of a massacre by the U.S. Army in 1890.
One unexpected thing I had to deal with was some newspapers’ disconcerting habit of re-running Oscar features with no indication that’s what they were doing. The 1988 Pasetta interview ran in papers all the way up to 1991.
Producer Howard W. Koch said, in an L.A. Times interview with Jack Matthews in 1980, “I told her that she could have 45 seconds to say whatever she had to say. And if she went over, we would go to commercial, darken the stage, and have guards haul her off…I didn’t want the Academy accused of suppressing someone’s rights. But I didn’t want her ruining the night for everyone else, either.”