A remembrance of the The American West

by Bruce Bisenz

I hope you’ll believe me when I say this story’s so good that I didn’t have to embellish—even a little bit.

Seven years into my freelance career, I began to get occasional documentary work with my friends at Wolper Productions and became a regular with Group One Productions.

Those were heady times; newly available portable equipment like the 16mm self-blimped Éclair NPR, George Quellet’s Stellavox SP 7 (Sync/Stereo before the Nagra 4S) and VHF wireless from Vega made it possible for two or three to do the work of a whole crew. And Group One had assembled a skilled group of technicians who could use these new tools to best advantage. Bob Collins, their regular Director of Photography, and Editor Keith Olson had already won Emmys for Peggy Fleming at Sun Valley.

David Vowell, a documentary writer recruited for the project, had to interview a bedridden old man to construct a script. He asked for my help with equipment but jealously controlled access to his invalid, the famous film director, John Ford.

The idea was to film this amazing wreck of a man (still nobody’s fool—scant months from his passing) and combine it with footage from his legendary Westerns and interviews with actors closely identified with him to make a TV special. The American West of John Ford was to be his last project.

 I soon found myself at the “Four Corners” juncture of Arizona, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico. It is now home to Navajo, Hopi, Ute and Zuni reservations; it is also the location of Monument Valley and the Canyon de Chelly National Monument, the background for virtually all of the John Ford Westerns.

For “Pappy’s” last visit, there was no difficulty getting accommodations or enticing iconic actors like John Wayne, Henry Fonda or Jimmy Stewart to be available. Dennis Sanders, the Director/Editor and Bob Collins, the DP, set up their first shot, an image of “The Duke” (I called him Mr. Wayne) against the desert west that had played such an important part in his own mythic career. Wayne didn’t seem to take to me (after all, I was a “Long Hair”) so I was relieved when a minor incident focused his attention elsewhere. Duke Wayne had his big hat set to shade his eyes from the blazing desert sun when Dennis asked him to tip his hat back a bit for the camera. We all heard him rumble, “the hat stays right where it is!”

I knew that after a hard day of exteriors in the sun, there wouldn’t be any fun in town. We were deep in the Navajo reservation and hours from any town so I brought a deck of cards. I sashayed (this was the Old West) into the lodge’s dayroom and attracted a few players.

After a while, a 240-lb, 6-foot 4-in icon, moved by his unique gait, stood over our table and said to nobody in particular, “Is this a private game or can anybody play?” And a hush came over the room …

Even I knew the response to this straight line. I took a moment to catch his eye, way up there from my chair, and then, remembering to give him a thin smile, I said, “Your money’s as good as anyone’s.” And the Duke sat down!

John Wayne in his element Now, for some reason, everyone in the room wanted to play poker at my table. Soon I found myself with five cronies in Duke’s “Home Game,” all of them millionaires except me. But I had a wad of $100 bills in my jeans and $3,000 was a lot of money back then.

“What’ll we play, Duke?”
“Oh, dealer’s choice” (5/7 card stud and 5-card NOTHING wild).
“What about the stakes, Duke?”
“Um, table stakes?”
“Sure, sure Duke.”

Whatever “table stakes” meant; I was green in this game in more ways than one.

High-stakes poker with John Wayne; it was cutthroat. His cronies kept on “Oh goshing” the Duke as he pulled on the neck of the bottle at his right hand.

“Ah, I can’t drink the way I used to.”

But I noticed the level go steadily down past half.

I started out lucky. I grinned, bet and won with some pots running $500– $700. That was three or four days’ pay. Finally, I had the best “up cards” for seven-card stud. But, for once, my first-to-bet upcards weren’t getting any better. I was surely behind but I kept up my silly grin and the betting as, one by one, the others dropped out.

 Head-to-head with John Wayne! I reckoned he was holding two solid pairs. I was drawing to a “Two Outer” and “Dead to Trips” (I learned this lingo in a later century). The last down card was a “Brick” so I “Value Bet” $50 (and kept the dumb grin too).

His cronies kept calling out: “He’s bluffing, call ’em, Duke, call ’em, You gotta call ’em.” That’s when I realized: if they caught me bluffing, they wouldn’t kill me, but I might wish I was dead!

Well, Wayne thought for quite some time before he said, “Nah, he’s been getting some good cards lately” and threw in his hand. Desperately grateful this was the kind of a game no one would think to upend my down cards, I said to myself, remember this one—you just “Bought One From the Duke!”

Editor’s note: A variation of this story was originally published in The Coffey Files.

Photos courtesy of Bruce Bisenz