Dean Smith, an Olympic gold medalist, needed several connections to get a meeting with John Wayne. He can thank the contacts he made in sports for the introduction.
Smith was one of the fastest men in the world back in 1952. He lost the 100-meter sprint at the Helsinki Olympics in a photo finish, with only .12 seconds separating first from sixth. Still, he won a gold medal running the leadoff leg of the U.S. men’s 400-meter sprint relay.
When Smith arrived back in the United States, he wanted to break into acting, but as a stuntman. He knew Bob Mathias, the two-time Olympic gold medalist in the decathlon. Mathias was under contract with Batjac Studios, which John Wayne co-owned and used to produce his movies. And Smith also knew James Garner (then James Bumgarner). And that all led to an introduction to the Duke.
Smith’s first movie he did with John Wayne was The Alamo. Since Smith is a Texan, being a part of The Alamo probably was like a religious experience. After all, it’s part of state lore and although the Texians lost in San Antonio in 1836, their battle for independence was won a few months later.
Wayne portrayed Davy Crockett, the Tennessee icon known as the “King of the Wild Frontier.” Richard Widmark played Jim Bowie. Laurence Harvey was William B. Travis. You can’t go to a Texas town in 2022 without seeing a building named for Travis, Bowie or Crockett. Other cast members included singer Frankie Avalon, Chill Wills and Ken Curtis of Gunsmoke fame. Wayne’s daughter Aissa also was in the movie.
Remember The Alamo. It Was a First for John Wayne
Here’s a fun fact. John Wayne was supposed to portray Sam Houston, the first president of the Texas Republic. The part wasn’t big. So that way Wayne could pay more attention to directing the movie. But investors wanted Wayne to play a lead in the movie.
The Alamo also was a first for John Wayne. It marked his first movie as a director. He put $1.5 million of his own money in the movie, then turned to other investors, including Texas oilman Clint Murchison and two of his sons, Clint Jr and Dabney. The elder Murchison spent summers in La Jolla, Calif. That’s where he met Wayne. And as the movie was being made, Clint Jr was buying the Dallas Cowboys.
“Every last damn dime I have in the world, I tied up in this thing,” John Wayne told Limelight in 1960.
John Wayne and his cast of all-stars filmed The Alamo in Bracketville, Texas. And that group included Dean Smith, who was eight years removed from his Olympic run.
“He can jump over a horse faster than you can say Jack Robinson,” marveled John Wayne.
Smith moved back to Texas in 1992. He’s still one of the top track athletes ever produced by the Lone Star State. He was a three-time All-American while competing for the University of Texas, while earning the school its first gold medal in track. In 1980, UT inducted Smith into its Longhorn Hall of Honor.