Few films are as steeped in Hollywood history as Western crown jewel ‘High Noon,’ and that’s exactly why John Wayne found himself refusing the lead role.
“I’m going back and finding my business manager and agent… And finding out why I didn’t get ‘High Noon’ instead of Cooper…”
Though a fantastic quote, don’t let it fool you. Hollywood royalty John Wayne knew exactly why he wouldn’t touch ‘High Noon’ with a hundred-foot pole.
Synonymous with the Western genre, Wayne was all but born to walk in Will Kane’s legendary boots. Yet despite Stanley Kramer productions handing him the lead in what would become one of the most prolific and important films in history, Wayne would have no part of it.
For Wayne, the heart of the controversy was in Carl Foreman’s script and past. In a well-documented refusal, the icon turned down the role of town Marshal Will Kane over feeling Foreman’s story was as obvious an allegory against Hollywood blacklisting as he’d ever seen. And as all Wayne & Hollywood buffs know: John Wayne was as staunch a blacklisting supporter as there ever was.
Yet the history at play here is far deeper than a single script.
John Wayne vs Carl Foreman: The Hollywood Blacklist
In simplest terms, the Hollywood blacklist would encompass the entertainment industry’s war against Communism, Communists, and Communist sympathizers. As the Cold War raged on post-WWII, Hollywood elites put this systematic banning in effect in order to prevent any and all Communist-associated parties out of work. And whether each condemned individual was guilty or not – it worked – with hundreds finding themselves ousted from Hollywood permanently.
Despite serving for the U.S. Military in WWII, Carl Foreman would become a member of the Communist Party in 1938. He would later leave in 1942, citing his own “disillusion” with their ideals. The party, however, would haunt him for the rest of his life.
At first, Foreman was a force to be reckoned with in Hollywood. He even provided the story for John Wayne‘s own 1945 Western hit ‘Dakota.’ Yet by the time 1952’s ‘High Noon’ came around, the Hollywood Blacklist was in full swing. During production, Foreman was summoned to appear before the House Un-America Activities Committee (HUAC). Here, he would testify his membership in the American Communist Party over a decade prior. Foreman, however, would refuse to give up other “names of association” to HUAC. As a result, Foreman found himself labeled an “uncooperative witness” right in the middle of the Hollywood blacklist.
It was this association, alongside ‘High Noon’s rumored “ideals” that cost it John Wayne.
Wayne would solidify his stance on passing nearly two decades later. In a 1971 interview with Playboy, the icon stated point-blank that he would “never regret having helped run Foreman out of the country”.
From Marlon Brando to Gary Cooper: Second to Sixth in Line
After refusing the role of Will Kane, prolific producer Stanley Kramer would offer the role to Gregory Peck. Peck, however, would also decline. Afterward, fellow icons Montgomery Clift, Charlton Heston, and even Marlon Brando would turn down Kane.
In the end, the role would famously go to Gary Cooper, a longtime friend of Wayne’s despite ending up on different sides of Hollywood blacklisting history. Regardless, Cooper would win the Academy Award for his portrayal of Kane, alongside the slew of awards ‘High Noon’ raked in.
Despite it all and with a true twist of fate, John Wayne would accept this Oscar on Cooper’s behalf. Cooper was in Europe filming another feature at the time in 1953, and asked Wayne to receive the award for him personally. Wayne put his personal and highly-public contempt for ‘High Noon’ aside – and did just that.
“I’m glad to see they’re giving this to a man who is not only most deserving but has conducted himself throughout the years in our business in a manner that we can all be proud of,” Wayne said of Cooper in his acceptance speech.
“Now that I’m through being such a good sport… I’m going back and finding my business manager and agent… And finding out why I didn’t get High Noon instead of Cooper,” the legend smiles.