John Wayne and the Alabama Hills

Back in 1980’s, the heyday of the Savings & Loan companies, before the scandals and lack of government oversight brought them down, when they were still flying high and competing with regular banks, one of the southern California standouts was Great Western Savings. At this particular time they had created a brilliant advertising campaign by hiring John Wayne as their spokesman.

By now “the Duke’s” career had slowed down and he needed the kind of money that TV commercials could offer him. While he had also suffered some severe health problems as well, as soon as he was in front of the camera, the John Wayne of old always managed to return.

That’s when I had the rare opportunity to work with him. I’d been working with the production company owned by two renowned Hollywood cameramen, Conrad Hall and Haskell Wexler. Haskell had directed the first group, a year or so earlier. Then the ad agency for GWS selected Conrad to direct and shoot a new package and I was going to produce them.

It was an ambitious package of spots with locations that would take us to the central and northern California coast, with stops in Jenner and the mouth of the Russian River, plus Philo and Hendy Woods State Park.

But it was on the first leg of our adventure that generated this story.

While it also began in central California, it was on the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada range, in the Owens Valley, in the storied Alabama Hills. The Alabama Hills are a spectacular collection of rock formations and scenic hills and one of the great monuments to the motion picture business. Its historical significance is monumental because it was the location for hundreds of movies dating back to the 1920’s. Films like GUNGA DIN, BAD DAY at BLACK ROCK, and TREMORS, were all shot in the Alabama Hills, along with an untold number Westerns. This is where we were to stage the first two commercials in this ambitious package, all starring John Wayne, the Duke himself.

For anyone who’s driven Highway 395 to reach the ski slopes at Mammoth Mountain, or the seasonal fishing at June Lake, are undoubtedly familiar with the little town of Lone Pine, where you probably slowed down to avoid the speed trap, but didn’t stop; deciding to continue on and get a bite to eat in Independence, Big Pine, or even Bishop, which meant you undoubtedly missed the Alabama Hills.

Connie Hall taking a break.

However, at the Duke’s behest, before we left southern California, the project began with a creative meeting at Wayne’s spectacular home in Newport Beach, located at the water’s edge on the very exclusive Lido Isle. The meeting required a number of us to make the long trek down to Newport to attend. The group included the agency creative director, Cliff Einstein*, the copywriter, the account exec, plus Conrad and myself. Something that we wouldn’t normally do except this was John Wayne and it was at his insistence.

As anticipated, the meeting was essentially a one-man table reading of the scripts on Wayne’s behalf. This due to his unhappiness with his previous performance in the earlier series of GWS spots, blaming the scripts which he felt he should have revised prior to the shoot. As a result, he would read through each script, and when he’d come to a passage that he didn’t like, he’d say, “…well the Duke wouldn’t say it that way” and then dictate to the agency copywriter just how the Duke would say it.

The following week Conrad and I were slated to drive up to Lone Pine and meet Cliff Einstein. Then the three of us were going to drive out to the Alabama Hills and pick the spots where we wanted to shoot. Wayne was scheduled to come up the following day to meet us, and look over our selection of location sights. Then we would go over the final details prior to filming two days later.

The morning we left for Lone Pine Conrad picked me up at my house in Studio City, in his vintage Cadillac convertible. Our plan was to meet Cliff at the Dow Villa, the one decent hotel in town; where he and Wayne would be staying. We had planned to say there too, but a scientific convention was also in town, which forced Connie and me to bunk at the Best Western, way back down the road at the entrance to town.

After checking into the Best Western we drove into town to meet Cliff. But we had barely arrived when he greeted us breathlessly, and told us that the Duke had already arrived the day before. Wayne had decided to come up early, unbeknownst to anyone at the ad agency. He had persuaded his friend, Roy Disney, for a favor to have he and his entourage flown up to the tiny airport in Lone Pine in one of Disney’s planes; his entourage consisting of his secretary, Pat, and the ad manager from Great Western.

The Duke had chosen to come early because he decided he wanted to select his own locations, while at the same time showing his two guests some of the historical sites were he had filmed so many of his movies throughout his career.

A section of Movie Road that became the Khyber Pass for Gunga Din.

After shooting so many films in the Alabama Hills, Wayne knew very well that to get out to those rocky hills and trails, he needed a vehicle, preferably a truck with four-wheel drive. Since he was always treated as a returning hero whenever he returned to Lone Pine, it was easy for him to go a long time acquaintance, the owner of the local Chevy dealership, who loaned him one that would allow the three of them to go off-roading and see whatever they wanted in that rugged terrain.

No one knows how many sites they looked at. But at the last one the fates prevailed. When Wayne and his guests were ready to leave, and got back in the truck, they couldn’t back out! No matter how hard Wayne tried, they were stuck in the sand. So no matter what they did, they couldn’t get out!!!

It turns out that Wayne’s friend, the Chevy dealer had, inadvertently played a dirty trick on the three of them. Even though the pickup had four-wheel drive, Wayne didn’t understand that this was an older model and didn’t have a button to push to put it in four-wheel drive. Instead you had to get out of the truck and turn the front wheel hubs to complete the change from two-wheel drive to four.

So, there they were, John Wayne and his guests stuck in the sand… and now it was getting dark.

Left with no other choice, the three of them proceeded to make the long hike out of the Alabama Hills on foot, on “Movie Road”, the dirt trail that connects most of the scenic sights to Whitney Portal, the main highway that leads from Lone Pine to the foot of Mt. Whitney.

Where Whitney Portal and Movie Road Meet

But there were no cell phones back then to call for help. So, once they reached the highway, the only choice they had was to continue on foot back to Lone Pine…or else hitchhike. After all that walking they of course chose to hitchhike. We don’t know how long it took them to get a ride, but we do know that they were finally picked up by a driver for Sears & Roebuck, who somehow got the three of them into his delivery van.

And here we can only speculate what that Sears driver must have told his wife that night, once he got back home, about the identity of one of the three hitchhikers he had picked up, and delivered to town!

*Cliff Einstein came from comedy oriented family. The eldest of three brothers, and the least funny. His younger brother, Bob Einstein, did comedy shots on many well-known TV shows over the years including Larry David’s, “Curb Your Enthusiasm”. Albert Brooks is the third brother, with huge list of credits as a standup comedian, actor (on-camera and voice over), plus director and writer. I suggest you do a Google search or IMDB to learn more about Albert and Bob.

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Pete Vanlaw - T’enks!

Pete Vanlaw - Hi Joyce, so nice to hear from you again as well. Yes we’re doing our best to stay out of trouble, I’m really glad to see that you’re doing well on your Twitter page, keeping the focus where it belongs.

Earl Gandel - Another good one!

Joyce M. Jeffries - Shared on my FB page. Thank you Pete for this entertaining and interesting story! Hope you and your family are keeping safe. Nice to hear from you again.

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