Harry Carey Jr. talks Wagon Master, John Wayne, Ben Johnson and John Ford

Harry Carey Jr. is a name that you may not recognize, but if you’re a western or John Ford fan you’ll certainly recognize his face.  You may also recognize the name in that he’s the son of the famous western star Harry Carey. 

Long known as a member of John Ford’s stock company, along with the likes of John Wayne, Ward Bond and Jack Pennick, he was given the opportunity to headline Wagon Master with Ben Johnson. 

Wagon Master finally sees a release onto DVD and it even includes a commentary with the gregarious Carey and Peter Bogdanovich. 

M&C had a wonderful opportunity to call in and interview the delightful gentlemen as well. 

M&C: Hello, Mr. Carey.

Carey: What can I do for ya?  You said something about Wagon Master?

M&C: Yes sir, I’m with a website called Monsters and Critics.  We review DVDs and we know Wagon Master’s coming out in September and I have a contact with Joseph McBride and he suggested I could talk to you and talk about Wagon Master.

Carey: Joe’s a nice guy.  He’s my friend.

M&C: He’s been a good friend to me as well and I’m just tickled pink to talk to you, frankly.  

Carey: It’s nice to hear from you too. 

M&C: I’ve read your book, Company of Heroes: My Life as an Actor in the John Ford Stock Company.  About your career, your dad (Harry Carey, Sr.) was very famous in the business.

Carey: Oh yeah, he sure was.  

M&C: And worked quite a lot with Ford until they had sort of a falling out.  Was your father supportive of you getting into acting or was it “why don’t you be a dentist – they make more money?”

Carey: My dad was very supportive.  My mother wasn’t.  

M&C: [laughs] She was an actress as well wasn’t she?  

Carey: Yeah she was, but she didn’t want any part of my being an actor.  My dad that was his thing and she just didn’t want me to do it.  I don’t know it was just one of those things that was tough.  The funny thing was that John Wayne had the same problem.  His mother didn’t want him to be an actor.  That was something that kinda bugged me a little bit all those years because of mom. 

We worked together but I tried to explain to her and whatever contact I had with the public I accept myself as a supporting player and not as a star.  Stars had a certain quality that made them stars and I didn’t have that.  I knew I could perform and play roles and I could be a successful actor as a character actor so it didn’t bother me not being a leading man or star

M&C: Well sometimes the character actors have the more interesting parts.

Carey: They sure do, so anyway that was the story there, but my mother never wanted me to be in pictures. 

M&C: Now you technically didn’t get your acting start with Ford.  You started off with Howard Hawks.

Carey: Yes and even before that with Bill (William) Berke who used to make little low budget films with people like Russell Hayden and B actors.  The first job I had was called Rolling Home and it was one scene in that little B movie.  Then I got that part at Warner Brothers.

M&C: I think in your book you tell that you were welcomed to the business by none other than Fredric March at a party of your dad’s.  

Carey: Yeah, that was so nice.  

M&C: That must’ve been something. 

Carey: I loved him in pictures and I was in awe of him because I saw him in all his great movies.  Especially one called the Sign of the Cross for (Cecil B.) DeMille when I was a kid.  I was thrilled to meet Fredric March.  

M&C: I would imagine with your parentage and actually marrying into the Fix family (Carey’s wife Marilyn is the daughter of western star Paul Fix) that if you didn’t go into Westerns that somehow you would’ve gotten into them some way.  The way everything lined up.

Carey: I was sort’ve molded for more or less Westerns because I’m a good horsemen and been around livestock all my life and I’ve got kind’ve a country boy look about me.  It worked out pretty good.  I had some lean years but we always recovered.  

M&C: You’ve had quite a diverse career and I know that two of the films you made with Hawks were more comedy than they were Westerns.  

Carey: Well that was just because I needed a job real bad and I was going by his office and he said you want to do a little thing for me and I said sure.  I’d be thrilled.  One with Cary Grant I think.

M&C: Bringing up Baby?

Carey: Yeah and I think the other was called Kiss them for Me (directed by Stanley Donen, who might rather not have his name mentioned with it).  It was a big bomb.  It was the only bomb that Cary Grant made I believe.

M&C: I’m sorry; it was Monkey Business (not Bringing up Baby).  

Carey: Did you ever hear of it (Kiss them for Me)?

M&C: I haven’t heard of that one.

Carey: It was taken from a play called Shore Leave which was a Broadway play and it was with Cary Grant, Suzie Parker, Ray Walston, Larry somebody, and Richard Deakins and it wasn’t a very good movie.  I played a drunken naval flyer.  I had one scene where I come in drunk and Cary Grant was very supportive. It was quite a thrill.  Anyway, it was called Kiss them for Me.

M&C: Sounds like a hell of a cast though.

Carey: I know, marvelous cast.  It never went anywhere.  Oh, Jayne Mansfield was in it.  

M&C: Well, that sounds like a darn fine movie.  [laughs] [Turns out I’ve seen the movie, didn’t remember it during the interview, and it is terrible for a Cary Grant movie.]

Carey: Yeah, Jayne Mansfield was in it.  In fact I had a scene with her down at the beach.  In fact that same year I worked with Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield.

M&C: In Gentlemen prefer Blondes.  

Carey: The one I’m talking about was called Niagara.  I played a cab driver.  She came in and wanted to get over the Canada and I had a little scene with her.  It was a nice little scene.  

M&C: How Hawks asked you to be in the picture, isn’t that the way that Ford just called you up and asked if you wanted to do a role in 3 Godfathers?

Carey: Well, Ford was an Irish Catholic, very superstitious, and had a big guilt complex too as well as a huge ego.  So I think he was thinking he should’ve done something when my father passed away for him and wanted to remake 3 Godfathers.  The whole premise was wrong as far as I was concerned, to assuage his guilt from breaking up with my dad and he never used him at all after that and could’ve used him hundreds of times. 

He could’ve used him in Stagecoach.  He would’ve been great for that part that George Bancroft played.  He decided to do this remake and put me in it.  It was tough because he was very tough on me in that.  

M&C: I think he was tough on a lot of people [laughs].

Carey: He was, but especially on 3 Godfathers.  He just rode me something awful.  I kept wanting to go home.  [both laugh]  He kept saying “I wish I had Audie Murphy.”  So finally one day I say why don’t you get Audie Murphy.  He just said stop and play the scene.  

M&C: It seems his favorite comeback was “do you want to direct the picture?”  He said that quite a bit.  

Carey: It turns out that was the beginning and I did a lot of other movies with him after that.  I was surprised that he had me hang around that long.  

M&C: Well, even for a picture made out of guilt for your father it’s just an excellent film.  

Carey: He had to buy the story back from Metro (MGM) and it was a big, big thing to get the property to do it.  To legally be able to do it, because Metro had the story.  So he had to get that and it was a big hassle.  Then Metro said if you do that we want Robert Walker to play the part.  

M&C: and Ford wanted John Wayne.

Carey: No, Robert Walker to play my part.  He said no I want to use that young Carey and they said that Robert Walker’s got a name.  So that was a hassle too, but he still got his way.  

M&C: He seemed to warn you because he kept telling you beforehand that “you’ll hate me by the time this picture is over.”  

Carey: He said you’re going to hate me but you’re going to give a good performance.  I didn’t hate him before it was over – I hated him after the first day [both laugh].  

M&C: but you kept coming back for more.  

Carey: Yeah, I had too.  I didn’t have anything else to do.  

M&C: You also did She Wore a Yellow Ribbon.  A wonderful film.

Carey: That was a joy after that [3 Godfathers].  The initiation was 3 Godfathers, but the rest of ‘em… I couldn’t say that they were a walk in the park but they were a joy.  Real fun.

M&C: Was that the first time [She Wore a Yellow Ribbon] you worked with Ben Johnson?

Carey: Let’s see.  Seems like we knew each other (before the picture), we were such good friends. 

M&C: He started out as a stuntman or a horse wrangler.

Carey: Oh yeah, he was an all around great cowboy.  One of the best I ever saw and I grew up with cowboys.  Ben was the best all around cowboy I ever saw.  He also was a wonderful actor.  I don’t think that Ben thought he was that good but my wife Marilyn says that he did.  Marilyn says that he knew that he was good.  What the turning point in his acting career was because of Ford. 

When he made Mighty Joe Young and those films before he made Yellow Ribbon he was very wooden, stiff, and talked like an amateur.  When Ford got him in front of the camera in Yellow Ribbon I saw how he relaxed him and got him loosened up.  He made him be Ben Johnson through the character that was in the picture.  It was marvelous to watch this transformation. 

You saw Ben just fall into that and become natural, un-stiff.  He won the Academy Award later on.  So Ford actually made Ben Johnson’s career.

M&C: I guess he got sent through the meat grinder and tenderized by Mr. Ford.  

Carey: Yeah, they had a falling out too because he (Ford) insulted him and that was a very sad moment.  It was a dinnertime and we were making Rio Grande and Ben was across the table from me and said “a lot of shooting when on today but not too many Indians bit the dust.”  Ford overhead it and he went “what?” 

Ben says “I was talking to Dobe (Carey’s nickname due to his hair being the color of an adobe brick), Mr. Ford.”  He said “I know, what did you say?”  He said “I was just talking to Dobe” and he wouldn’t repeat it.  Then Ford said “hey stupid, I asked you a question.”  And that was the end of that.  It was all over.  

M&C: Johnson still went on to work with Ford in Wagon Master.  

Carey: Oh wait a minute, oh this was after that (their falling out).  Otherwise it wouldn’t have been a pleasant thing.  Wagon Master was the most fun I had making a film. 

M&C: It’s just a wonderful movie.  I have to admit that I had not seen it before.  

Carey: It didn’t get a lot of publicity.  

M&C: I had to go track it down and watch it on VHS because we’re still some time away from it coming to DVD (this interview was done in June, long before the DVD’s release date).  It’s just a wonderful little film.  

Carey: It is wonderful.  You know it cost about half a million dollars.  

M&C: He also shot it rather quickly, didn’t he?  It was a short shoot time.  

Carey: It was and it was just fun to do it.  It was like a vacation for Ford.  We were in Moab (Utah) which was the first time that anybody had made a movie there.  It was a joy working on that film.

M&C: Did he tell you anything about your part or was it just the phone call, we’re making a movie, come on out?  

Carey: I was out at the Field Photo Farm, Ford’s farm for the guy’s that were in his unit.  I was out there with my horse, grooming my horse to take a ride, and Ford came out and said “that your horse?”  I said “yes sir.”  “You wanna ride him in a movie?”  and I said “that’ll be fun.” 

I’m gonna make a movie with you and Ben.  He just told me right then, and you can ride him in the movie.  He says “it’s a nice little story” and that was all I heard.  The next thing you know we were over at the studio.   

M&C: Did he tell you that you and Ben Johnson were going to be the stars of the film?

Carey: Yeah, I said “with Duke?” and he said “you can’t make a movie without Duke?”  I said “No, I just thought the movie had to have a star.”  He said you and Ben are the stars.  Isn’t that something?

M&C: If I remember correctly it’s Ben Johnson, Joanne Dru, and yourself as the top credited stars.  

Carey: and Ward Bond.

M&C: It’s just a fun film and when Bond tells Jane Darwell to blow her horn and you think she’s going to make some wonderful noise and it blats out like Ward Bond stepped on a goat.  

Carey: That was a cute little film.  It was great fun working on it.  

M&C: It sounds like it was almost a family film.  Behind the scenes everyone was part of one big family.

Carey: Exactly, we were up there at the high school and did a show.  John Ireland was there because of Joanne, they were married at the time.  He came up just to be with her and he got restless and wanted to do something.  So he decided to put on a western melodrama, the Shooting of Dan McGrew. 

Real corny, with the actors.  It was all a big hammy thing.  The people up there took it seriously.  They thought it was a dramatic role.  It was very funny.  We had the best time doing that.  It was a riot.  We rehearsed in the evening and put this show on.  

M&C: Wagon Master has one of my new favorite film lines where you’re speaking with one of the Mormon people on the wagon train and you say “hell” and he says stop cursing and you say that “hell isn’t cursing – its geography.”  

Carey: Yeah, it’s the name of a place, its geography [laughs].  That was all made up.  Ford made all that stuff up.  It was never in the script.  

M&C: Eventually it would become the television show Wagon Train.  What Wagon Train was based on.  

Carey: That was exactly right.  That’s what put it over.  

M&C: You would guest star on that show several times.  In fact, in your career you were on television Westerns quite a lot.  

Carey: Quite a few different ones.  

M&C: Eventually even on Gunsmoke with James Arness who plays one of the villains in Wagon Master.  

Carey: Yeah, Big Jim was one of the bad guy’s in that one.

M&C: I don’t think he has a line in the film.  He just sort of “menaces.”  

Carey: Nope and he pushes me out of a scene.  It’s funny he was a big strong guy and he was very gentle.  He was just gently shoving me and Ford says “No I want you to shove him into the next state.”  

M&C: That sounds like something Ford would do.  

Carey: Oh absolutely.  He shoved me far enough to where I almost had to hitchhike back.  It was fun. 

M&C: I believe that, it being a family affair, that it was co-written by Ford’s son Patrick.

Carey: Patrick and Frank Nugent I think.  Patrick was a good writer and everything.  It was too bad that he was Ford’s son.  He was a talented guy.  

M&C: It was produced by Merian C. Cooper who is famous for King Kong.  Did he ever appear on the set?  I know Ford wasn’t fond of producers appearing on the set.  

Carey: No, he never appeared on the set.  He was too smart to do that.  When a producer does a Ford film when the filming starts they should go to their office and stay there.  He didn’t want them on the set.  At the time he started shooting their job was over with.  

M&C: I can’t remember if it’s in your book or in another book, but when a producer would dare to come down to the set he’d make their life pretty hard by stopping work till they left.

Carey: Yeah, on the Long Gray Line.  Robert Arthur was the producer I think.  He stopped everything. He didn’t like producers on the set.  One time at the beginning of his career I worked for Robert Altman and the producer came onto his set and Altman ran him off. 

I thought oh boy he’s got it.  He’s gonna be one and he was.  They felt that producers had already done their job and didn’t belong on the set after they started filming.  

M&C: With your experience with Ford making you “number one shit” on 3 Godfathers as he was apt to pick someone out to be his whipping boy.  Did you ever consider when he called to not answering the call and not making the picture?  

Carey: After I started working on it I wished I had done that, but by that time it was too late.  Now in retrospect I’m glad that I didn’t because I was in some of his best movies.  It was quite a trip.  I did consider quitting the whole thing and having him get someone else because I couldn’t stand it any longer.  

M&C: Luckily you rode it out, kept going, and did appear in some of Ford’s best work. I know 3 Godfathers is a personal favorite, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon is excellent, but you mention in your book that John Wayne may have won the Oscar for True Grit but they were really giving it to him for She Wore a Yellow Ribbon.

Carey: Yeah, that was the one he was most proud of.  Yeah and Ford, when we started She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, said “I want you to go with Arthur Shields and work on your role.”  In the evenings we’d go and talk about the part of Parnell and that’s where Shields said to me that there’s no use trying to be another leading man in this because you don’t get the girl or anything like that. 

He said to make a character out of this guy Parnell.  He’s a West Point snob and a rich kid, comes from a very wealthy family, and he thinks he’s slumming in the Calvary.  He gave me the whole idea on the way to play the part so that I was a conceited ass.  He was a great help to me.  It made the part not as attractive, he was friendly, but it was a tremendous help for me.


M&C: And also the Searchers, he (Wayne) was being awarded for that picture as well.  

Carey: I thought he was magnificent.  

M&C: That’s a fantastic film and probably one of Ford’s best.  

Carey: Yes, indeed.  

M&C: In some ways it wasn’t an obvious tribute to your father but your mother appeared in it.  In 3 Godfathers, he (Ford) had a coda at the beginning with a dedication to Harry Carey, Sr.  In the Searchers it wasn’t as obvious as that.  

Carey: It’s all history now, but I was very pleased to be part of it.  

M&C: You appeared in quite a lot of Ford’s films.  Was there one you would’ve liked to have appeared in but didn’t get to?  

Carey: I enjoyed working on all of them even though he was nasty sometimes.  There was one, the Horse Soldiers, that I wanted to be in but he was mad at me at that time.  

M&C: With your red hair I wouldn’t wonder that you weren’t supposed to be in the Quiet Man.  [laughs]

Carey: The Quiet Man too, I don’t know why I wasn’t in the Quiet Man since he wasn’t mad at me during the time.  I could’ve played the young priest.  

M&C: I argue with myself which is may favorite Ford film, the Quiet Man or The Searchers.  It’s like trying to pick out your favorite child.  

Carey: I think at the time, I was only in my early thirties and looked about twenty-five; I would’ve loved to play the young priest in that.

M&C: I think that role was played by Maureen O’Hara’s brother and I don’t know that herself would’ve let you take the part away from him.  

Carey: [laughs] probably not.  Jimmy Fitzsimons.  He and I were good friends; we played golf a lot together.  He was a sweet guy.  I miss him.  

M&C: I’m also fascinated that during Cheyenne Autumn that Peter Bogdanovich was able to just walk onto the set.  These days you don’t see that happening.  

Carey: He and his wife Polly were walking out in the desert and the assistant director started to run them off and Ford said leave them alone and let them come in.  They came in and he made the guy that tried to chase them off go get them chairs to give them a place to sit down and watch the filming.  That was how they finally got together.  

M&C: Bogdanovich’s documentary that he’s redone, Directed by John Ford, is coming out the same day as Wagon Master (September 15).  

Carey: Oh really?  Coming out the same day?  No kidding.  

M&C: I saw a version of it on Turner Classic Movies and it’s hilarious to see Bogdanovich asking serious questions and Ford gnawing his cigar and not answering them.  

Carey:  like when he asks “how’d you shoot that” and Ford responds “with a camera.”  [both laugh].

M&C: It’s just interesting to me that in those days, the stars and the sets seemed more accessible and approachable.  These days we have secrecy and security.  

Carey: I don’t know why that is.  I guess that’s true.  

M&C: There are some crazy people out there though.  

Carey: Yeah, there are.  I don’t know what it’s like anymore since it’s been so long since I’ve worked on a film.  Tombstone was the last big one I worked on. 


M&C: Ford seemed to play games.  He had these little games he would play with picking the “shit of the movie” and make it tough for them.  The way I see Ford even when he wasn’t directing, he was directing.  I remember a story from your book with Richard Widmark and Mike Mazurki and he was repeatedly making Mazurki hold up a bottle of whiskey. 

He was the shit for the day and Ford kept making him do it over and over again.  Widmark got mad and went over and took the bottle and broke it.  As I was reading this I was thinking it would make a great scene in a film called The Life of John Ford, because Ford then looked at where the camera would be and said “Doesn’t he have a temper.”  The irony being that Ford’s temper was the worst.

Carey: Ford had a terrible temper.  He sneaked up behind Widmark and tickled his chin.  Widmark was really mad.  That was very funny.

M&C: It was always like even when there wasn’t a camera there he was still playing the scene to it.  

Carey: For example, when we were making Mister Roberts that drove him crazy because the producer, Leland Heyward, was always on the set.  And rightly so on that picture.  Well, it’s too long a story.  He told the publicity guy, well a Life photographer called Slim Aarons on the set.  And he said are you going to be taking pictures?  And Slim Aarons said yes sir I certainly hope so and he said don’t take a picture of me until you tell me ahead of time.  Unless you ask me first. 

By golly, he had his handkerchief.  He had a habit of chewing on his handkerchief.  And he had his handkerchief hanging out of his mouth and he looked very grotesque and strange looking and Slim Aarons shot a picture.  He heard the click and said I told you not to do that and threw the camera overboard.  That was the end of that.

M&C: My, what a terrible temper.  [laughs]

Carey: Slim Aarons went oh my god, but too late it was a nice Roloflex but over it went.  Very expensive, but it’s off the island of Midway at the bottom of the ocean.  You could probably dive down and get it, it’s very shallow there.  

M&C: I’m looking at my list of questions and to get off of Ford for a bit, You happen to have worked with one of my favorite actors Vincent Price in the Whales of August.  

Carey: Yeah, but that was sad though because he was mad at me.  Vincent Price and Lindsay Anderson (who directed Whales of August) didn’t get along.  Lindsay Anderson and I were very close friends and I knew Vincent Price years before I knew Lindsay Anderson. 

We did a show together one time, a comedy thing directed by Norman Lloyd.  We got along famously and had a great time doing that.  Lindsay and I were good friends and Vincent was very cold to me on that and it ruined our entire relationship.

M&C: I’m sorry to hear that.

Carey: Yeah, because he and Lindsay didn’t get along at all.  What it was is that Lindsay wanted John Gielgud for that part.

M&C: Ahh, so you know that you’re the second man.

Carey: Vincent knew that he was the second choice.  So it was a bad situation all the way around.  

M&C: But you were also working with legends Lillian Gish, who was in her nineties, and Bette Davis, who was close to that.

Carey: Oh yes, it was a hell of an experience.

M&C: Well, I think that it’s a wonderful picture even if there were conflicts off the set.  

Carey: It didn’t ever come out to the front, it wasn’t that obvious.  But it was sad because of Vinnie and Lindsay.  It was a joy working on that mainly because of Bette Davis.  Oh my lord what a character.  

M&C: I sort’ve kid Joseph McBride about wanting him to write the definitive book on Jack Pennick because I want to read it.  He was another of Ford’s stock company and I believe Ford told him to play a joke on you.

Carey: Absolutely.  It wasn’t a joke he told him to make a man out of me.  I’ve been through boot camp twice, been in the regular navy two years, and he tells Pennick to make a man out of me.  It was awful and Pennick starts riding my fanny like crazy. 

Finally after about a month of it I see him in the camera shop and he asks how long have you been in it (the U.S. Navy) and I say a couple of years.  He says that the old man told me you were a recruit.  It was terrible.  

M&C: Another Ford game.  So where you good friends with Pennick after that?

Carey: Oh yeah, for years after that.  Pennick was a great guy.  

M&C: Do you have any upcoming projects.  You have a film called Comanche Stallion?  

Carey:  Oh yeah, that’s sort’ve fallen by the wayside.  We’ve decided just to forget about it.  You can’t get any financing.  We gave up on that finally but it was a nice dream.  We’re not into producing anymore at all.  I wrote an article about my dad’s film Trader Horn and I have my mother’s memoirs for reference.  It’s an interesting article.  

M&C: It was a pleasure talking to you.  I would much rather talk to someone who has had your experience than some of the up and coming crop of actors today.

Carey: Thank you very much.  I’m sure if you have to talk to some of the youngsters that it’s tough. [laughs]

M&C: They don’t have all the good stories.

Carey: No they haven’t been around long enough.  But anyway it’s been nice talking with you.

Please visit http://harrycareyjr.com/ to read more on Harry Carey Jr.  I know I had a wonderful time chatting with him.  

Wagon Master is now available at Amazon. As of yet, there is not a release date for the UK. Visit the DVD database for more information.

Note the date on this article may be incorrect due to importing it from our old system.