Here’s Why John Wayne Turned Down a Role in ‘High Noon’

by Suzanne Halliburton
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John Wayne didn’t like High Noon. He called the western classic “un-American.” And he despised its screenwriter, Carl Foreman.

So Duke had no issues turning down the lead role of Marshal Will Cain. Like John Wayne, some of the biggest names in Hollywood also passed, including Gregory Peck, Charlton Heston, Montgomery Cliff and Marlon Brando. Gary Cooper said yes to Will Cain and won an Academy Award for Best Actor. Read on for how Wayne was an integral part of that Oscar scene.

But first, why did John Wayne hate the 1952 movie, High Noon? It was about the dialogue and plot. He couldn’t believe anyone in the United States, especially back in the 1800s, would behave this way. Duke explained his reasoning in a January 1974 interview with a British journalist.

Michael Parkinson, the journalist, asked John Wayne about the movie: “You said it was un-American. I saw that film, and I guess a lot of people here in this audience will have seen that film. And I, for the life of me, can’t see what’s un-American about it.”

Duke explained his reasoning. “Well… a whole city of people that have come across the plains and suffered all kinds of hardships are suddenly afraid to help out a sheriff because three men are coming into the town that are tough. Now, he goes to them and pleads (with) them, and he goes into the church.

“And for some reason, the women are all sitting on one side of the church and the men are sitting all on the other side of the church, and he pleads his case. … And the men say, ‘No, no, no,’ and the women get up and say, ‘You’re yellow, you’re cowards!’

Then, Duke finished his critique: “I don’t think that ever happens in the United States. Then at the end of the picture, he took the United States Marshal badge, threw it down, stepped on it and walked off. I think those things are just a little bit un-American.”

John Wayne turned down High Noon, which eventually starred Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly (LMPC via Getty Images)

The movie definitely didn’t have that well-constructed John Wayne swagger vibe. Duke usually played some sort of hero in every movie he made. Yet he never could see himself throwing a badge to the ground and stepping on it.

But while John Wayne hated the movie, he didn’t hate the cast. He and Gary Cooper were long-time friends. In fact, when Cooper couldn’t make it to the 1953 Academy Awards, he asked Duke to accept his award if he was fortunate enough to win an Oscar. And Cooper did win, beating acting greats Marlon Brando, Kirk Douglas, Jose Ferrer and Alec Guinness.

Wayne stepped to the stage and talked about his friend. “Ladies and gentlemen, I’m glad to see they’re giving this to a man who’s not only most deserving, but has conducted himself throughout his years in our business in a matter that we can all be proud of him.

“Cooper and I have been friends – hunting and fishing – for more years than I like to remember,” Wayne added. “He’s one of the nicest fellows I know. I don’t know anybody any nicer. And our kinship goes further than that friendship, because we both fell off our horses in the pictures together.”

Then John Wayne made a joke about finding his business manager to “find out why I didn’t get High Noon instead of Cooper!” And we all know why.

High Noon didn’t win Best Picture. That Oscar went to The Greatest Show on Earth, which was produced by the legendary Cecil B. DeMille. And then five years later, Duke made Rio Bravo, his answer as to what High Noon should have been.

John Wayne starred in Rio Bravo, his answer to High Noon (LMPC via Getty Images)
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