We'll listen back to a 1989 interview with actor Harry Carey Jr., who died Dec. 27. Carey co-starred with John Wayne in the classic Westerns She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, The Searchers and 3 Godfathers. He talked to Fresh Air about filming epic cavalry-versus-Indian scenes — and his most challenging stunts.
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:
The actor Harry Carey Jr., who's best known for appearing in Westerns, died last Thursday at the age of 91. We're going to listen back to a 1989 interview with him. His father, Harry Carey Sr., was one of Hollywood's first Western movie stars, best known for his roles in John Ford films. Carey Sr. died in 1947 but his son continued the family tradition.
Harry Carey Jr. became a regular character in Ford's stock company appearing in nine Ford films including "Rio Grande," "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon," and "Wagonmaster." Cary's first Ford Film was "The Three Godfathers" with John Wayne. I asked if he felt his future with Ford was secure from then on.
I grew up watching Westerns all the time, both movie Westerns and television Westerns.
HARRY CAREY JR.: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: And I could tell you, it was my ambition in life when I was young to be a cowboy. You grew up the son of a cowboy star. You know, a star of Westerns.
GROSS: Did you want to be a cowboy when you grew up? Did you ever have those kinds of fantasies?
JR.: Yeah. Well, when I was in my teens I wanted to be a racehorse trainer. And my idol, equine idol, was Sea Biscuit, who was a very famous racehorse. And much to my dad's chagrin, I mean, he wanted me to be a, you know, to start roping and he said you don't wear your boots enough. You don't wear your cowboy hat. You're always running around in your tennis shoes and stuff.
And finally when I was about 19 I met a great cowboy. He was a world champion. His name was Andy Juaregui. He was a Spanish Basque. And he became my hero and he taught me to rope. And then I got cowboy nuts and my father was very proud of that.
GROSS: What was one of the most challenging action scenes that you were in?
JR.: Well, that was in the picture called "Rio Grande." There's some what they call Roman teams. That's two horses linked together and you leap on one and then when they start to run you get up, stand on top of them, and ride the two horses. It's called Roman riding.
GROSS: This is one leg on each horse?
JR.: One foot on each horse. You're standing up. It's like water skiing on horses.
JR.: And so anyway, that was the most challenging because we had to learn that before the picture started. You just don't do that. The main reason is even though we were in our twenties your legs just give out. And your first instinct when you get on the horses who are broken to do that is to bend your knees and be in a squatted position all the time.
Because you feel safer that way. But actually, when you get better at it you begin to straighten up more. So your legs just give out when you first start doing it. So we did it for three weeks before the picture started and I think that was the most challenging physical thing that we had to do, horseback-wise.
GROSS: Can you give a sense of what it's like to be in the middle of one of those epic scenes with the cavalry versus the Indians and a lot of, you know, horses charging?
JR.: Yeah. Well, we loved it. It's sort of like I imagine a good athlete feels the same feeling before a baseball or a football game. It's a challenge and the unexpected is always the best. Ford was very lucky that way. I think he got the best action of any director I've ever worked for.
GROSS: Were you ever hurt?
JR.: But there was a wonderful feeling before a scene like that because in those days they didn't have the walkie-talkie things, you know, like they have in all the war pictures now. And the ADs, the assistant directors, carried these, you know, on their belts. And they can talk - even if they're two miles away from the camera they can talk to the director.
In those days you rode out to wherever you were before the stampede or before the big cavalry charge and you'd be like a half a mile or a quarter of a mile away from the director. And then you'd just have to wait until you heard a gunshot and then when the director shot the gun off then you started charging. It was a great feeling. It was very exhilarating.
GROSS: Well, how were these things choreographed? Like, how much would you rehearse it and how well would it actually work on the final shoot? Because it seems like it would so easily become chaos in one of the big battle scenes.
JR.: Well, Ford didn't rehearse those things. You can't when you've got that many horses and Indians and cavalry and everything involved. But he had a tremendous talent and gift for communicating with large groups of people. And even though he could be tough personally, one on one with actors - I mean, he picked on John Wayne a lot - he was marvelous with the extras and with the Indians and with the Navajos and all of the extra guys that they hired out on locations.
Like up in Moab or Monument Valley, wherever. And they all got to know him. Like, he'd make them feel like they were playing a very important role in the picture. And so he had them so keyed up, like a really great football coach with a football team. He'd have them so organized and told everybody exactly what he wanted. It was all clear in all of our minds. And then you just couldn't wait to do it. And when you heard that gunshot, all hell broke loose, you know. He'd always have like six cameras or five cameras on a scene like that. You know, he just didn't rely on one camera. You know, he'd have them stuck all around on top of hills and everything so that he could get intercut with different things.
GROSS: Say it was one of these big chaotic battle scenes, did you know who you were supposed to be shooting?
GROSS: Or who was supposed to be shooting you?
JR.: And one of the things that happened, like when you - Western actors finally got the, you know, you use blanks of course, as I'm sure you know, and then - but when you get on location you're using local kids or local guys, and they get these blank pistols and you can get hurt with powder burns, you know, and this big wad comes out and hits you right in the eye or in the forehead. And I've seen guys look right at you and then shoot you, you know.
JR.: And Wayne would always make a big speech. He'd say shoot at an empty space because on the camera it doesn't look like - you know, it looks like you're aiming at somebody. But he said don't point your guns at another person. Shoot at the empty spaces. But they never heard, you know, and you had to be careful because somebody would shoot you right in the face.
GROSS: You've been doing spaghetti Westerns in Italy.
JR.: I did a couple of them. Yeah.
GROSS: Was that fun? They must think of you as, like, really authentic because you were in classic American Westerns.
JR.: They treated me terrific over there. You know, I wasn't a lead like, you know, Clint was or anything. It was just I played - they had a big star there called Terrence Hill and I played his dad in a couple of shows. And then I did another one with Franco Nero called "The Return of White Fang."
JR.: It was a lot of fun. We made it in Austria.
GROSS: Harry Carey Jr., recorded in 1989. He died last Thursday at the age of 91. You can download podcasts of our chow on our website freshair.npr.org. I'm Terry Gross.
We'll close with music by dobro player Mike Auldridge, who died Saturday at the age of 73. He was best know for his work with the band Seldom Scene. Just a few months ago, he won a National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage fellowship. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.