Stagecoach: John Wayne Got Cast by John Ford Against All Odds

Initially, acclaimed director John Ford declined to cast John Wayne in any of his projects during the 1930s, despite their close friendship.  He told Wayne to wait until he was “ready” as an actor.

In 1938, Ford gave Wayne a copy of the script for Stagecoach by Dudley Nichols with a request to recommend an actor to play the Ringo Kid.

After reading it, Wayne suggested Lloyd Nolan for the part, but Ford was non-committal to the idea.

The next day, Ford, impressed by Wayne’s honesty, announced that he wanted him to play the role.

The offer left Wayne feeling as if he had been “hit in the belly with a baseball bat” … and continuing to fear that Ford would change his mind and hire Nolan instead.

Before production began shooting, John Ford shopped the project around to several Hollywood studios, all of which turned him down because big budget Westerns were out of vogue, and because Ford insisted on using Wayne in a key role in the film.

Wayne had previously appeared in only one big-budget western, The Big Trail (1930, directed by Raoul Walsh), which was a huge box office flop.

Between 1930–1939, by Wayne’s own estimate, he appeared in about eighty “Poverty Row” westerns. Independent producer David O. Selznick finally agreed to produce the film, but was frustrated by Ford’s indecision about when shooting would begin, and his own doubts over the casting. Ford withdrew the film from Selznick’s company and approached independent producer Walter Wanger about the project. Wanger had the same reservations about producing an “A” western and even more about one starring John Wayne.

Ford had not directed a western since the silent days, the most notable of which had been The Iron Horse (1924). Wanger said he would not risk his money unless Ford replaced John Wayne with the more established star Gary Cooper and brought in Marlene Dietrich to play Dallas. (The two had scored in 1930 in Morocco).

Ford refused to budge, claiming it would be Wayne or no one. Eventually, they compromised, with Wanger putting up $250,000, a little more than half of what Ford had been seeking.  This was contingent on the fact that Ford would give top billing to Claire Trevor, a more well-known name than Wayne in 1939.

Following the film’s release on March 2, 1939, Ford’s faith in John Wayne was rewarded as the film met with immediate critical and trade paper success.

Louise Platt, who appeared in the film, recounted in a letter the experience of the film’s production, quoted Ford on saying of Wayne’s future in film: “He’ll be the biggest star ever because he is the perfect ‘everyman’.”