John Wayne shined even more brightly when he had a foil, whether it was a drunken sheriff (El Dorado), a goofy partner like Lullaby Joslin (Red River Range, New Frontier), a saddle pal and business partner (Winds of the Wasteland), or a wizened old-timer whose outbursts of frontier gibberish often carry more wisdom than might have been initially apparent. In that latter category, which we’ve christened Old Coots. (Shameless Plug Alert: A chapter in our new book, John Wayne Speaks: The Ultimate John Wayne Quote Book, is devoted to such characters). There could hardly be two cootier Old Coots than the two actors in the klieg lights of today’s Sunday Shootout—Gabby Hayes and Walter Brennan. Have a look at the film clips below, read our critique of each, then see if you agree with our verdict as to which of these two splendid players is the better Old Coot.
George "Gabby" Hayes with John Wayne in In Old Oklahoma.
George “Gabby” Hayes Hayes (1885-1969) is familiar to fans of Wayne’s early Westerns, having appeared in 14 films with Duke from 1933 to 1944. Interestingly, he was billed as George “Gabby” Hayes only in his last two outings with Duke (In Old Oklahoma and Tall in the Saddle). Before that, he was simply character actor George Hayes (or sometimes George F. Hayes), who could play whatever role was handed to him. He could portray a sheriff, a bartender, a drunk, a stern patriarch, or whatever else the script called for. But it could easily be argued that he was at his best as a crusty old galoot. That doesn’t mean he was a cantankerous old coot. In fact, he was more apt to be comical, cute, and cuddly than crotchety, a character he perfected as a sidekick to cowboy icons Hopalong Cassidy (as Windy Halliday) and Roy Rogers (as Gabby Whitaker). In fact, it was in the 1939 Roy Rogers oater Southward Ho! that he received his first screen credit as George “Gabby” Hayes. He went on to play variants of that same character until his final appearances before a camera on the 1956 The Gabby Hayes Show, in which he played his Gabby character introducing old PRC Westerns on Saturday-morning TV. His entrance scene in In Old Oklahoma, above, captures perfectly Hayes’s take on the crusty prospector persona.
Walter Brennan with John Wayne and Dean Martin in Rio Bravo.
Walter Brennan In a career that, like John Wayne’s, spanned 50 years, Brennan (1894-1974) played henchmen and kidnappers, clowns and sports commentators, and any other role that came along before he established his Old Coot persona. That persona wasn’t limited to Westerns; he could play that role in contemporary dramas (To Have and Have Not), as a wreck salvager (Tammy and the Bachelor), a family bandleader (The One and Only, Genuine, Original Family Band), and famously as Grandpappy Amos on TV’s The Real McCoys. He is at his glorious best as an old coot in the unexpectedly somber scene from Rio Bravo, above.
Verdict There’s a reason why filmmaker Mel Brooks created a character called Gabby Johnson, a tribute to Gabby Hayes, in his hilarious 1974 send-up of Westerns, Blazing Saddles. Gabby Hayes (as opposed to multi-faceted actor George Hayes) could only have existed in Westerns. Walter Brennan’s Old Coots could have been in many different time periods, settings, and film genres. So in the sense of best Old West coot, Gabby would win hands down. But there’s more to this competition. Gabby was a specific type of coot—comical, cute, and cuddly, as mentioned above. Brennan was a different type altogether: He was a cantankerous coot, a complainer, and at times, well, not quite all there. And in that sort of role, nobody could beat Brennan. So our verdict in this Sunday Shootout is a tie. Hayes and Brennan are both superb at what they do, and they do what they do in wholly different ways, neither better than the other.
As compensation for our admittedly less-than-satisfying verdict, we present Jack Starrett as Gabby Johnson, below, from Blazing Saddles.