John Wayne was one of Hollywood’s most famous and most successful actors, appearing in more than 175 movies. He was nominated three times for the Academy Award, winning the Oscar for Best Actor in 1969 for True Grit. And his powerful performance in The Searchers has been singled out by filmmakers and actors alike as the greatest performance by an actor on film, ever. But Wayne was more than that. He was a symbol of America itself. He epitomized the Western, which epitomized America. He was larger than life.
In his 2015 biography of Wayne, Scott Eyman shares some touching stories about the “Duke” that stood out to me. One of Wayne’s employees remembered that one day he was walking through LA with Wayne when they saw the actor Alan Ladd standing on a street corner, surrounded by a group of fans. Alan Ladd was only 5 foot 6, while John Wayne was 6 foot 4. When John Wayne saw this much shorter actor half a block ahead of him, he quickly ducked into a store. He hid to avoid embarrassing Alan Ladd in front of his fans; he would have made him look like a dwarf!
Another touching story occurred in 1972, when Wayne walked into the Beverly Hills Hotel where Cesar Romero, an older actor, was signing autographs for a group of women. When the fans realized that John Wayne had walked into the room they completely forgot about Romero. Romero, deprived of his audience, said without enthusiasm: “Hi Duke.” But then John Wayne spent the next 15 minutes telling his fans stories about his old friend Cesar Romero, making sure all the ladies knew that Romero was still a big star.
Summing up the life of John Wayne, Eyman writes that “John Wayne was an American icon and an all-time great actor, who also happened to be a very nice guy.” Personally, I think he completely missed the point.
Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzinski, one of the greatest European rabbis of the early 20th century, once bumped into Rabbi Meir Yechiel Halevi Halstock, another great rabbi of the generation. After exchanging pleasantries, Rabbi Chaim Ozer said to Rabbi Meir, “Tell me a Torah (Bible) teaching!” Rabbi Meir responded with a smile: “no, no – you should tell me a Torah teaching!” Rabbi Chaim Ozer responded, in humble fashion, “But you’re a ‘Gavra Rabba,’ ‘a great man’ – so you go first.” Rabbi Meir paused for a moment and said: “Fine, I will share a Torah teaching with you because you clearly don’t know what a Gavra Rabba, ‘a great man,’ truly is!”
Rabbi Meir then quoted a verse from the Bible portion that will be read by Jews all over the world this week: “You may give the sinner forty lashes, but no more. Because if you give him more than forty lashes, your brother will be dishonored in your eyes” (Deuteronomy 25:3).
The sages explain that even though the Bible itself commands the judges of Israel to administer 40 lashes for certain offenses, the rabbis reduced that number to only 39. The Talmud then states: “How foolish are those people who stand up out of respect for a Torah scroll, but do not stand up out of respect for a ‘Gavra Rabba,’ ‘a great man.’ For the Bible says that you may administer a maximum of 40 lashes; but the rabbis lessened that number to 39.”
What is the definition of “a great man”? The sages explain a “great man” is one who can figure out a way to interpret the Bible so as to reduce the maximum number of lashes by one.
Rabbi Meir looked at Rabbi Chaim Ozer and said: “Is that all it takes to become great?” He then answered his own question. “The sages are teaching us that a “great man” is someone who lessens the pain of another human being!”
As I get older, I’m less and less impressed by many of the “important” people I meet. Too often, “important” people aren’t as great or as important as we think them to be. Although our culture venerates famous and charismatic people, the Bible teaches us that this measuring stick is false. True greatness is judged by our capacity to help a fellow human being and lessen their pain – even a criminal deserving of lashes!
John Wayne’s biographer describes him as a great, all-time actor, an icon – who also happened to be a very nice guy. But I see things very differently. Sure, John Wayne was a great actor. But whatever he accomplished on the screen, however famous he might have been for his acting, all of it is secondary. Because his true legacy, his far more significant legacy, is that he was a “Gavra Rabba,” “a great man” – a man who tried to lessen the pain of other people.
May we find the truly great men and women in our lives, and learn to fully appreciate them – and God willing, become a little bit greater ourselves.