John Wayne Gave His Co-Star This Iconic Nickname

by Suzanne Halliburton
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Bruce Dern got all sorts of hell for being the guy who killed John Wayne in The Cowboys. Now, imagine the blowback for the actor who slew the Duke’s dog. And he did it with a machete.

That actor was Gregg Palmer. He was friends with John Wayne and worked with him on six films. Palmer always seemed to be cast as the bad guy. And he was perfect for these sorts of roles. At 6-foot-4 and 300 pounds, he was built like a present-day pro football player. Plus, his beard was long and unkempt. You see this guy, run very fast in the other way.

In fact, Palmer garnered the nickname Grizzly for his size. It was the Duke himself that gave Palmer his iconic name.

“If Duke liked you, you became one of the troops,” Palmer said during a 2016 interview with Jeremy Roberts. “I’d have conversations with him. As a matter of fact, he gave me a nickname — “Grizzly.” He would tell folks, “Get me Grizzly.” We used to play a lot of chess on the set, especially during the morning. Duke could play you a good game, although he liked to cheat.”

The Duke First Met Palmer While At Lunch

The actress Ann Blyth introduced Palmer to John Wayne. She was on a lunch date with Palmer at the Beverly Hills Hotel. The two saw Wayne sitting across the dining room. Blyth, who knew Wayne, brought Palmer to Wayne’s table and introduced him to her date.

Palmer and Wayne were in a film together a decade later. Although in The Comancheros, the two didn’t share screen time together.

Palmer did five more movies with John Wayne. They were The Undefeated in 1969, Chisum in 1970, Rio Lobo that same year, Big Jake in 1971, and The Shootist in 1976.

Palmer Got Most Attention for His Work with John Wayne on ‘Big Jake’

But Palmer, throughout his life, got comments about the movie Big Jake. It’s difficult to live down killing the fictitious dog of a movie star. He talked about the John Wayne movies during the 2016 interview.

“I still get comments when I go to functions,” Palmer said. “I’ll be signing a picture and I’ll hear a voice say, “That’s the man that killed John Wayne’s dog, son.” Of course, forty-plus years ago I was 6’4’’ and nearly 300 pounds, so hopefully, I’m not as intimidating today.”

Killing the dog is one of those iconic bad guy moves from that era of movies.

“It’s me with the machete getting that dog or Richard Widmark pushing that lady in the wheelchair down the stairs in Kiss of Death,” Palmer said. “Folks tend to remember those things.” 

Big Jake, US lobbycard, Richard Boone, John Wayne, 1971. (Photo by LMPC via Getty Images)

Palmer Worked On The Shootist. Wayne Got Him Back For the Dog

But John Wayne got him back.

Palmer said: “Big Jake’s dog, perhaps in a nod to Duke’s dry humor, had the no-frills name of “Dog.” He protected the kid and chewed me up real bad until I got him with my machete. Big Jake comes to the rescue, and I try to kill him, too. He runs out of bullets, so he grabs a handy pitchfork when I lunge at him. I get it in the gut.”

John Wayne requested Palmer be in The Shootist, which turned out to be Wayne’s final movie. John Wayne won his scene with Palmer.

“I play a highwayman who tries to steal Duke’s wallet,” Palmer said. “He surprises me with a hidden derringer and shoots me in the belly. As he rides off, he pushes me into some icy water. He didn’t even have to get off his horse.”

So about that nickname. John Wayne called Palmer “Grizzly.” That’s because Palmer was built like a bear. It was why he got so much work in Gunsmoke. Star James Arness was 6-foot-7. Palmer could stand next to him and Arness wouldn’t dwarf him with his size. Palmer made 21 appearances on the classic western TV show.

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