Each year around this time, the Hollywood studios, hungry for Oscars, are busy churning out “For Your Consideration” ads to woo Academy voters. But never in the 91-year history of the awards has anyone seen anything like what went down in 1960.
Chill Wills was a gravelly-voiced actor who had kicked around Hollywood for two decades. He played Uncle Bawley in the 1956 movie Giant, starring Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor and James Dean, though most people probably remember him as the voice of Francis the Talking Mule in a series of low-budget big screen comedies.
But perhaps his most famous role was Beekeeper, the alcoholic sidekick to Davy Crockett (played by John Wayne) in the 1960 Western The Alamo, which Wayne produced and directed
As you can probably tell from the title, the film was based on the 1836 Battle of the Alamo. The project was something that Wayne had wanted to tackle for years.
He even put up $1.5 million of his own money to get it off the ground. Unfortunately, the three-hour-plus extravaganza got lukewarm reviews and didn’t exactly light up the box office. What’s more, as critics were quick to point out, there was a little matter of historical accuracy — or lack thereof.
But there was one bright spot: Wills’s performance got good reviews and a subsequent Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. Yup, at 58 years of age, ol’ Chill had finally hit the big time.
Still, he knew this was probably his last shot at that gold statuette, and he intended to do everything he could to claim the prize. So he hired veteran press agent W.S. “Bow-Wow” Wojciechowicz to mount an Oscar campaign. Big mistake.
Bow-Wow approached the task at hand loaded for bear, with a series of tasteless ads that frankly reeked of desperation. Hard to say, really, which of the ads, which ran in the trade papers — Variety and The Hollywood Reporter among them — was the most offensive.
It might have been the one featuring a photo of Wills, superimposed over a picture of the other actors from the Alamo cast, accompanied by copy that read: “We of The Alamo cast are praying harder than the real Texans prayed for their lives at The Alamo — for Chill Wills to win the Oscar. Cousin Chill’s acting was great. [Signed,] Your Alamo cousins.”
Or maybe what galled the Academy members most was another ditty that listed the name of every Academy member, alphabetically, with a personal greeting from Wills that read: “Win, lose, or draw, you’re still my cousins and I love you all.”
Groucho Marx, one of those Academy voters, couldn’t resist a jab, which ran in Variety days later: “Dear Mr. Chill Wills: I am delighted to be your cousin but I voted for Sal Mineo.” (Mineo was also up for Supporting Actor for his role in The Exodus.)
That cinched it. The Duke (aka John Wayne) hit the roof, and, in an effort to distance himself and his movie from the Wills’ debacle, fired off his own letter, saying that neither he nor The Alamo cast and crew had any part in the cheap publicity stunts.
It ended: “I refrain from using stronger language because I am sure [Wills’] intentions are not as bad as his taste.” Enter, once again, Groucho Marx, who couldn’t resist one last zinger, publicly cracking, “For John Wayne to impugn Chill Wills’ taste is tantamount to Jayne Mansfield criticizing Sabrina for too much exposure.”
Wills fired Bow-Wow and told anyone who would listen that the over-the-top plugs were his press agent’s idea. Bow-Wow took the blame and ran an apology in the trade papers, swearing that his client had had no part in the now notorious ads.
Wills, not entirely satisfied with Bow-Wow’s mea culpa, vowed, “One day I’ll get even with that so-and-so if it’s the last thing I do!”
Whatever. The damage was done. On Oscar night, Wills was no doubt squirming in his seat as emcee Bob Hope cracked, “I didn’t know there was any campaigning, until I saw my maid wearing a Chill Wills button.” The evening went downhill from there.
The award for Best Supporting Actor didn’t go to Chill Wills nor Sal Mineo, but to Peter Ustinov for Spartacus. And despite its seven nominations (including Best Picture), the only Oscar nabbed by The Alamo was for Best Sound.
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Shortly after the Chill Wills-Bow Wow incident, the studios took over the marketing (read: campaigning) during awards’ season. As for Wills? Well, apparently, his pal, The Duke, wasn’t the type to hold a grudge: Wills was cast in Wayne’s 1963 flick, McLintock!.