John Wayne, a Hollywood actor best known for his starring roles in westerns, reportedly had to be restrained by security guards as he tried to pull Native American activist Sacheen Littlefeather off the Oscars stage in 1973. The half-century-old story of Littlefeather's controversial appearance at the awards show and Wayne's violent reaction to it began making the rounds again as the "slap heard around the world," involving an onstage altercation between actor Will Smith and comedian Chris Rock, went viral in March 2022.
Some observers claimed that the moment Smith slapped Rock for joking about Smith's wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, was one of the "ugliest" in the history of the awards. This characterization was criticized by people who cited other alarming moments in Oscar history, including the time convicted rapist Roman Polanski was awarded an Oscar in 2003.
Many also brought up this speech from Oscars history, delivered in 1973:
In 1973, an activist named Sacheen Littlefeather did come to the Oscars at the behest of Marlon Brando, and turned down his Academy Award for Best Actor in protest of the treatment of Native Americans in film. Brando's gesture was also aimed at highlighting the events at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, where a massacre of Native Americans took place in 1890, and where protests were ongoing. Littlefeather's full speech can be watched here:
In a 2021 interview with the Guardian, Littlefeather described how Wayne was so furious at her speech that he had to be restrained. "During my presentation, he was coming towards me to forcibly take me off the stage, and he had to be restrained by six security men to prevent him from doing so," she said.
John Wayne's movies often featured him as a cowboy killing Native Americans, and espousing racist viewpoints. Wayne himself said in a 1971 Playboy interview: "I believe in white supremacy until the blacks are educated to a point of responsibility."
Littlefeather also described this moment in the 2019 documentary "Sacheen: Breaking the Silence."
Littlefeather, according to the Guardian, identifies as a member of the White Mountain Apache and Yaqui Native American tribes. In the Guardian interview, she described how her communication with Brando began:
[...] when she heard Marlon Brando speaking about Native American rights, "I wanted to know if he was for real". She wrote a letter to him and, walking past Coppola's house one day, said: "Hey! You directed Marlon Brando in The Godfather." She asked him for Brando's address. Eventually, Coppola gave it to her.
She heard nothing for months, but one night a man phoned her at the radio station. "He said: 'I bet you don't know who this is.' And I said: 'Sure I do.' And he said: 'Well, who is it?' I said: 'It's Marlon Brando. It sure as hell took you long enough to call. You beat "Indian time" all to hell.' And we started to laugh as if we'd known each other for ever."
They talked for about an hour, she says, then called each other regularly. Before long he was inviting her to visit. She stayed with him several times. They became good friends, but were never lovers or romantically involved. "No, no, he was far too old for me. He was my mother's age, for God's sake! He was extremely intelligent, and always entertaining. He had a great sense of humour. He would put on tons of different voices. We used to have a great time, laughing till tears were coming out of our eyes."
Her speech at the Oscars became a last-minute plan, as described in the Guardian profile:
It was hastily planned, says Littlefeather. Half an hour before her speech, she had been at Brando's house on Mulholland Drive waiting for him to finish typing an eight-page speech. She arrived at the ceremony with Brando's assistant, just minutes before best actor was announced. Howard Koch, the producer of the Academy Awards show, immediately informed her she could not read it – and she would be removed from the stage after 60 seconds. "And then it all happened so fast when it was announced that he had won. I had promised Marlon that I would not touch that statue if he won. And I had promised Koch that I would not go over 60 seconds. So there were two promises I had to keep." As a result, she improvised her speech.
Marty Pasetta, who directed the Oscars live telecast every year from 1972 through 1988, also shared memories of the Littlefeather/Wayne incident in media interviews over the years. "If it looked dramatic in front of the tube, you should have seen what was going on backstage," he told the Chicago Tribune in 1988:
''We had a fight is what we had,'' recalls the silver-haired Oscar veteran, who sits in his Hollywood office behind a flashing neon sign that blinks, ''It's a piece of cake.''
''John Wayne wanted to go out there and physically yank her off the stage. It took six men to hold him back.''
The incident was also mentioned in Pasetta's obituary in the May 23, 2015, edition of the Los Angeles Times:
In 1973, for example, tempers flared backstage when Sacheen Littlefeather accepted Marlon Brando's best actor award for "The Godfather" with an overtly political speech decrying the depiction of Native Americans in film. John Wayne was in the wings "and was so angry he wanted to go out and pull her off stage," Pasetta recalled in an interview with United Press International in 1984.
In the process of looking for additional sources to help confirm the incident, we also found this cartoon and another description of the moment in a 1994 issue of The New Yorker.
The New Yorker, March 1994
Drama critic John Lahr wrote:
The shock of winning and losing—the iconic drama of the American sweepstakes which the Academy Awards annually act out—was nothing compared to the backstage shock suffered by John Wayne in 1973, when he heard a woman who called herself Sacheen Littlefeather of the Apache tribe, explain why Marlon Brando could not accept the Best Actor award for "The Godfather." The Duke, who had dispatched many an Apache on film, didn't take kindly to Brando's protest against Hollywood's depiction of Native Americans. Wayne had to be restrained by six men from yanking Littlefeather off the stage. The Academy Awards ceremony, after all, is one American show that must go on, and on.
Wayne reportedly said after the awards ceremony, "If [Brando] had something to say, he should have appeared that night and stated his views instead of taking some little unknown girl and dressing her up in an Indian outfit."
Afterwards, Brando told talk show host Dick Cavett, "I was distressed that people should have booed and whistled and stomped, even though perhaps it was directed at myself. They should have at least had the courtesy to listen to her."
Such detail we have about the incident has come from Littlefeather and Pasetta, both of whom were eyewitnesses, with no one coming forward in the decades since to contradict these accounts.
Update: Since we published this story, Sacheen Littlefeather received a formal apology from the Academy for being blacklisted after her speech, and they hosted a celebration in her honor in September 2022. On Oct. 2, 2022, her caretaker released a statement saying she had died at the age of 75. (In March 2018, Littlefeather revealed that she had been diagnosed with Stage 4 breast cancer, which had metastasized in recent years.)
In August 2022, film writer and historian Farran Smith Nehme also looked into Littlefeather's claims about John Wayne, and concluded that there was little to no evidence to back them up. Describing the events from video footage at the time:
While Littlefeather describes John Wayne "in the wings," the clip seems to indicate, as Liv Ullmann, Roger Moore and Sacheen Littlefeather exit the stage, that there are no wings to speak of, and no John Wayne. Where was he, and where were the six security men, a six-man-scrum-plus-movie-star presumably being rather difficult to hide? And if this was taking place in a wing-like area further backstage or in the green room, what made Wayne think he could huff and puff all the way to the stage before the orchestra played Littlefeather off? Going back to the original Oscar clip, you'll see he had just 45 seconds to realize what she was saying, get mad, begin to charge, and be held back by the gathering of the security clan. Littlefeather was always clear that no one knew the contents of her speech until she gave it. She could have been getting up there just to take the award and say thank-you.
For that matter, I wonder when the armed guards who escorted Littlefeather herself offstage showed up. They aren't in the clip. The photo still in the documentary shows a balding middle-aged man who is wearing one of those ghastly 1970s ruffledy tuxedos. He is holding her hand, and certainly doesn't look like anybody I'd hire as security, though maybe he was incognito.
Further, she casts doubt on Pasetta's account of the event, which differed the more he spoke of it over the years. She pointed out that in one interview, Pasetta said that Wayne, "hollered, but he stayed." Nehme added that the accounts differed so widely, and there was no available evidence of six security men until public relations expert Dick Guttman and Roger Moore tried to escort Littlefeather to the elevator, and were waylaid by one security man. Guttman's account was devoid of any Wayne appearance:
So, getting back to the stage right wings of the Dorothy Chandler, suddenly there's this not-so-friendly-or-jolly tuxedoed giant challenging our plan to get Brando's surrogate to and through the high-energy press rooms which lay immediately ahead. "She's gotta stay here," this fellow commands. His reason for the gotta is that it is planned that all of the winners will gather on stage at the finale to sing "God Bless America" in a tribute to John Ford. Roger and I explain to him that while it's true that John Ford is very possibly the greatest director (and arguably most humane) who ever held a megaphone, it is also true that in his films he has probably killed more Native Americans than George Custer. This is not computing for this guy, who is trying to herd us back to the stage. [...]
One thing the gods of the stage have is good timing. Suddenly a flat (a piece of scenery) is knocked over somewhere, and our security guy turns to see what the problem is, possibly also needing his alert devotion to duty. Roger gives me a nod, and Ms. Littlefeather and I take off for the elevator. The security guy turns and immediately espies this act of civil disobedience. He makes a move toward the elevator, but Roger… obviously trying to get out of his way… manages to stumble into it. From the elevator, so slow to close, we watch Roger and this guy doing what looks like a samba on the cable-crossed floor. Finally, the guy breaks free and runs toward us yelling, I swear to God, "Where you taking that Indian?" Behind him, as the doors slide slowly shut, we see Roger smiling and giving us a gentle wave of bon voyage.
Her investigation can be read in full here. She concludes saying, "John Wayne angry and yelling, yes, I imagine so. Six security guards holding him back lest he race onstage and attack like he's King Kong: Until one steps forward, I'm going with 'never happened.' After a great deal of research, my conclusion is that this began as an exaggerated tale Marty Pasetta told to interviewers — he wasn't the first Hollywood personality with a story that got more exciting each time it was told, and he won't be the last — and has become a persistent urban legend."
She even spoke to Scott Eyman, who wrote a biography of Wayne, who stated, "Nobody I talked to who knew Wayne ever referred to or, apparently, believed that story. For one thing, Wayne was not physically aggressive. Not with men, certainly not with women. For another thing, he was a well brought up Edwardian man. Politeness was his basic social position unless confronted by overt rudeness."
Wayne has never commented on this alleged encounter himself, and the accounts that do exist are few, and widely differ upon retelling.