John Wayne: How Old Was He When Playing ‘Rooster Cogburn’ in ‘True Grit’?

by Suzanne Halliburton
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John Wayne defined Rooster Cogburn. Almost literally.

You remember Rooster Cogburn, the aging marshal from True Grit. But did you know that in the earliest versions of True Grit, Cogburn was supposed to be 40 years old and young and nimble enough to help Mattie Ross kill Tom Chaney. Most historians believe the Rooster Cogburn part was loosely based on Heck Thomas, who died when he was 62.

Instead, John Wayne gained weight for the role. allowed his hair to go gray and donned an eye patch to play this particularly ornery, one-eyed character. He played Cogburn as a rascal, who was a belligerent, wise-cracking drunk.

John Wayne Said Rooster Cogburn Role Was His Most Authentic in 20 Years

“It’s sure as hell my first decent role in 20 years,” Wayne told the late film credit Roger Ebert. “And my first chance to play a character role instead of John Wayne. Ordinarily they just stand me there and run everybody up against me.”

Plus, the Rooster Cogburn needed enough life experience to say the line “Courage is being scared to death, but saddling up anyway.” And be believable.

John Wayne won his first and only Academy Award for Best Actor at the 1970 Oscars. Barbra Streisand presented him with the award. Other nominees included Peter O’Toole, Dustin Hoffman, Jon Voigt and Richard Burton.

When he accepted the Oscar, John Wayne said: “If I’d known that I’d put that patch on 35 years ago.”

He’d told Roger Ebert: “Well, whether or not I win an Oscar, I’m proud of the performance. I’d be pleased to win one, of course, although I imagine these things mean more to the public than to us. There are a lot of old standbys who don’t have one. That comedian…what the hell is his name? Gary Grant. He never won one, and he’s been a mainstay of this business.

“Well, maybe this time they’ll review the picture instead of me and the war. That little clique back there in the East has taken great personal satisfaction in reviewing my politics instead of my pictures. And they’ve drawn up a caricature of me. Which doesn’t bother me; their opinions don’t matter to the people who go to movies.”

Check out this John Wayne Academy Award moment:

Jeff Bridges’ Cogburn Was Even Shaggier Version of Character Portrayed by Wayne

Almost four decades later, True Grit got a remake via the eccentric Coen brothers.

Jeff Bridges played Rooster Cogburn. He also was in his early 60s when he accepted the role. And he made Cogburn even more of a rascal than John Wayne did.

Bridges’ hair was shaggier. He added an eye patch, too, but wore it on his right eye. John Wayne covered his left eye.

Political bloggers tried to see meaning in the eye patches. But the eye patch didn’t help Bridges when an Oscar. He was nominated for best actor, but Collin Firth won for The King’s Speech.

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