Cowgirl Recalls Work, Friendship with 'The Duke' P.J. Murphey lives in Springerville, Ariz., far away from Hollywood. But the 71-year-old woman once made movies with John Wayne — as a stunt rider, an unconventional career for a young woman at the time.
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Cowgirl Recalls Work, Friendship with 'The Duke'

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Cowgirl Recalls Work, Friendship with 'The Duke'

Cowgirl Recalls Work, Friendship with 'The Duke'

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This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Madeleine Brand.


And I'm Alex Cohen.

John Wayne was born 100 years ago this weekend. He made nearly 200 westerns. Some of them were filmed near the small town of Springerville, Arizona.

(Soundbite of movie)

Mr. JOHN WAYNE (Actor): I'm a man and you're boys, not cowmen, not by a damn sight. Nothing but cowboys, just like the word says.

COHEN: Sorry, Duke. It's not all cowboys. Sure, John Wayne could talk the talk, but to make sure the action looked real on a horse, directors often hired locals from Springerville as stunt riders to fill in. Those stunt riders included one young cowgirl, P.J. Murphey. Now 71, P.J. is a feisty, gray-haired pixie of a woman. Arizona Public Radio's Gillian Ferris Kohl spoke to Murphy at her home in Springerville and has this audio portrait.

Ms. P.J. MURPHEY (Former Stunt Rider): I was born at the bottom of Salt River Canyon. My father was full-blooded Apache. My mother was Apache, Crow and Irish. I can't remember not being on the back of a horse ever in my life.

(Soundbite of rodeo)

Ms. MURPHEY: I rode rodeo circuit when girls weren't allowed to ride rodeo circuit. I made up my mind. I was going to ride bulls and broncs too. So I would tuck my hair up under a hat, and I would strap my boobs down, as tight as I could get them - I've always been pretty busty - and I'd wear baggy shirts, and I would enter the competitions as P.J. Cochees(ph), which was my maiden name.

(Soundbite of rodeo)

Ms. MURPHEY: And I was in Jackson Hole, Wyoming when I got busted. I was on this bull, and I could hear the announcer saying this rider is going to get this ride down. And about that time off came my hat and down come the hair. And I didn't hear it because I was concentrating, but they said that this announcer was saying, He, she? Hell, I don't know. But she's making one hell of a ride.

GILLIAN FERRIS KOHL: Even though P.J. had the best ride of anyone that day, the judges disqualified her because she was a girl. That's when 30 angry cowboys stormed the judge's table.

Ms. MURPHEY: And all the hands went up to the judges and said, look, this girl rode this bull. She did it legitimately. She deserves that first. And if she doesn't get it, you won't see us at this rodeo next year.

Cowboys are that way. They figure if a girl has got guts enough to get out there on that 1,500-pound bull, then go for it.

KOHL: P.J. says she's always had a taste for excitement.

Ms. MURPHEY: I'd try anything once and twice if I liked it.

KOHL: She wound up making seven films with John Wayne and was cast in both male and female roles, trading chaps for petticoats when necessary. P.J. even took a punch from the Duke when she doubled for Maureen O'Hara in the film "McLintock!"

(Soundbite of movie, "McLintock!")

Ms. MURPHEY: They're all up on this big hill fighting it out, him and all the guys in town. And Maureen O'Hara goes up the hill to try to break the fight up, while John swings and hits her and knocks her downhill by accident.

(Soundbite of scene from "McLintock!")

Ms. MAUREEN O'HARA (Actress): (As Katherine Gilhooley McLintock) You and your friends.

Mr. WAYNE (Actor): (As George Washington McLintock) Well, we at least saved your hat.

Ms. MURPHEY: Well, I was off my mark less than an inch. And he got me right on the chin, knocked me cold. I went sliding down that mud hill. He was at the bottom of the hill before I was. Hollered, Peach, are you all right? Peach. Peach. Wake up. My God, what have I done? I says, you hit me. What the hell do you think you did?

KOHL: Punches aside, P.J. says she and the Duke had some good times on the set.

Ms. MURPHEY: Oh, it was fun. We had a ball. Of course John was a big drinker and he was a big poker player. And in between takes, we all sit around and played poker and drank booze and get crazy. No two ways about it, I had one heck of a big crush on the Duke. I don't know what it is with us little girls, but we like great big men.

KOHL: P.J. remained friends with John Wayne until his death in 1979. She has just one tattered picture of their time together. Her first husband destroyed the rest 30 years ago in a jealous bonfire.

For NPR News, I'm Gillian Ferris Kohl.

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