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Exclusive Interview with Lana Wood, Child Star of The Searchers, with John Wayne

Lana Wood: Who The Searchers Were Searching For

By Henry C. Parke

If there is any one role actress Lana Wood is best known for, it’s as a Bond Girl, the gorgeous and hilariously pushy Plenty O’Toole, in Diamonds Are Forever. She was thrilled to be in it, “Even though,” the Ian Fleming devotee admits, “it’s not my favorite Bond film by any stretch of the imagination.” But what does she consider the best film she was in? The first. “I think The Searchers is a classic. I’m so delighted; it means so much to me to have been a part of that film. It’s a spectacular movie.”

Older sister Natalie Wood had been a busy working actress for a decade—and a certified movie star since the previous year’s Rebel Without a Cause—when she was cast as John Wayne’s missing teenage niece, Debbie Edwards, in The Searchers. Who could play young Debbie, the child whose kidnapping sets the story in motion? “I didn’t audition,” Lana recalls. “I was eight. I was taken to an office by my mom and met with John Wayne and John Ford, and they talked amongst themselves. And John Wayne lifted me up, because evidently, he had back trouble, and he wanted to make sure that he could lift me with no problem. He said, ‘She’s fine.’ And that was it.”

Lana and Wayne bonded over hard candies. “He was lovely. John Wayne would come in in the morning, pat me on the head, offer me one of his black currant pastilles that he always kept with him, so he was okay, in my book.” But her favorite adults on the set? “Ken Curtis would carve these beautiful little things out of nothing and then give them to me, which I thought was just incredibly special. And Jeffrey Hunter just absolutely stole my heart because he’s the only person who had conversations with me on the set. Nobody else did. But he literally crouched down to be on my level and didn’t ask me about scenes; he asked, so how are you feeling today? Is everything good? Are you having schooling on the set? Where do you go when you’re at home? He was asking me about me. And that was so impressive and so endearing to me that I never forgot it.”

John Ford wasn’t quite so warm. “He didn’t like children. I just thought he was a grouchy guy. ‘Stand here, say your lines, jump over here.’ You just do as you’re told. Actually, he was only really unpleasant for one scene.” But what a scene; when the Indians attack the house, and she’s told to hide in the cemetery with her dog. “He told me to bend over and tell the dog to go back, then said, ‘What’s the matter? Can’t you bend over?’ Oh boy; yes, I can do that,” she says with a laugh.

Lana was very busy at the end of the 1950s and well into the 1960s, in both features and guest roles on TV. Then she was a regular on The Long Hot Summer and Peyton Place. No longer a child star, she was a startlingly beautiful 21 when she returned to Westerns with an episode of Bonanza, “The Gentle Ones.” She plays the spoiled daughter of a cavalry officer who’s buying remounts from Lorne Greene, and she’s particularly hard on a young cowboy, Robert Walker Jr., whom she considers a coward, like her late husband.

But her favorite TV Westerns were her two episodes of The Wild Wild West, where she played the rich spoiled daughters of a senator and a governor. “Oh, they were wonderful fun to do because they were lighthearted, and I could be funny. Even though I played someone spoiled, at least I wasn’t stealing funds or killing anyone or taking away a husband, which is how I was normally cast.

“Bob Conrad was a family friend, so it was terrific being with him. Although Bob is a chance-taker and drove me crazy when I had to be behind him on the horse, going downhill. He had to go full speed. I’m like, I’m gonna kill you when we get off the horse! The last show that I did for them, I had gone to my trailer when I got a knock on the door, and it was the first assistant director. Could I please come out to the set for a minute? I went, and the entire crew was gathered, and I was told by the assistant director that I was their favorite guest star on the entire series. I was so thrilled; I didn’t know what on earth to do. It was really lovely.” Lana Wood

 

In her next Western, Lana had the distinction of being one of the few cast members born in the 20th century. The Over-The-Hill Gang Rides Again starred Walter Brennan, “who I’d worked with on The Real McCoys, a lovely guy,” Edgar Buchanan, Chill Wills, Andy Devine, and, in a very different role from his usual—the screen’s greatest dancer. “I was so thrilled to be in the same area with Fred Astaire. My first day, they introduced us, and he dragged a chair halfway across the set for me. We sat and talked about how late one night I was watching The Gay Divorcee, and they had cut out one of his numbers, and how upsetting it was. We became friends, and I had a fabulous time on that set. I then was going on to do a film back east, and [composer] Leslie Bricusse, who I was seeing at the time, was giving me a going-away party. Leslie said, who did I want to invite? So, I started giving him a list. I said Fred Astaire, and he said no, Fred is very shy, and he won’t come. And I said, okay, but I want him invited. So, Leslie sent out the invitations, and the first one to arrive was Fred Astaire.”

Her next film, Grayeagle, from gifted independent filmmaker Charles B. Pierce, had undeniable echoes of The Searchers. She plays the daughter of widowed frontiersman Ben Johnson, who’s kidnapped by Greyeagle (Alex Cord). “I adored Ben Johnson. They had a very nice cast. Jack Elam, Iron Eyes Cody, who had a special ceremony, made me an honorary Indian. Which was very sweet, especially [since he wasn’t an Indian, but] an Italian guy.”

In the mid-eighties, Lana switched to the producing side of the business. “I was associate producer,” on among other things, Murder Me, Murder You, the first of the Stacy Keach, Mike Hammer films. “I was Director of Development at Universal Studios for movies for TV. I had completely left [acting] and was really loving the production part. And [in 2009], this company called me to do a Christian film called the Book of Ruth. They finally convinced me that I had to come and do it,” and she’s been acting ever since.

She’s recently done a couple of small Westerns, Wild Faith, and The Marshal, working with contemporaries like Johnny Crawford, Robert Carradine and Darby Hinton. “I got Darby that part. I’d done like four films for the same company, and they said, if you could please come back to Michigan—it’s gonna be really cold, and we apologize—we’ll give you your choice of anybody you want to play your husband. And I said, Darby Hinton. We have been friends for a long time, him and [Grizzly Adams] Dan Haggerty.”

Her Western career came full circle when she returned to Monument Valley of The Searchers fame, to make the just-completed Dog Boy, although, she explains, “It’s not actually a Western. It’s about an older woman who was a fairly big star. This Indian boy helps her out when she was having trouble at the airport, and he’s really good with her dog, who is not a friendly dog.” She offers him a job, and the story is about their friendship. “It’s a really terrific script, and I was thrilled to do it.”


About Henry C. Parke

Brooklyn-born, L.A.-based screenwriter and wanna-be cowboy Henry C. Parke has been Film Editor for True West since 2015 and has written Henry’s “Western Round-up,” the online report on Western film production, since 2010. His screenwriting credits include Speedtrap (1977) and Double Cross (1994). He’s the first writer welcomed into the Western Writers of America for his work in electronic media. He’s done audio commentary on a fistful of Spaghetti and domestic Westerns, and he’s got a saddle-bag full of Western scripts.

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