Big shoes: Lodi’s ‘John Wayne’ makes a name for himself as The Duke

John Wayne swaggered into the retro Hollywood Café in Lodi, camel-colored Resistol hat perfectly centered, belt buckle gleaming.

He approached a shady-looking hombre standing nearby and, in his signature booming baritone that shook the dining room, commanded, “I ain’t gonna tell ya again, stranger, git outta town!”

The 30 or so startled folks siting at tables stopped eating their lunches and stared at the imposing figure. It’s John Wayne! You can’t mistake the walk, the talk, the height, the heft, the bright-yellow suspenders.

How can this be? The movie star died 40 years ago.

Actually, Jeff Wayne Sutherland was in the house. As the only John Wayne impersonator in California and Nevada, he rules the role.

“Everybody in Lodi knows we have a John Wayne impersonator,” said café owner Darlene Carrera. “He’s almost a regular here.”

In costume, Sutherland can’t be mistaken for any other Western-movie legend.

“When I do John Wayne, I am John Wayne,” he said. “It’s like I take on a whole other personality. When I walk into a room, everybody knows exactly who I am. Though one kid mistook me for Woody from ‘Toy Story.’”

“Jeff will pop up at events in Lodi, like a street fair or farmers’ market,” said Pat Patrick, president and CEO of the Lodi Chamber of Commerce. “You look up and there’s John Wayne! Big man, big hat, a dead ringer for the Duke.”

John Wayne isn’t the only impersonation Sutherland has mastered. He also does Johnny Cash, George Bush, Bud Abbot, Peter Sellers, Zorro – 50 in all.

“But John Wayne is my bread and butter,” he said. “He’s the reason they hire me and pay me. I’ve made a living out of it, but it’s not my only living.”

30 years in the shadow

Sutherland, 64, is 6 feet, 3 inches tall and 237 pounds, compared to Wayne’s 6-foot-4 and, later in his career, around 240 pounds. He’s been doing John Wayne professionally for 30 years, appearing as the Duke in one setting or another more than 2,000 times.

For instance, he recently dropped into Clint Eastwood’s Mission Ranch restaurant in Carmel, where he was a hit in the bar area as diners waited for their tables. He’s a regular aboard the Sacramento River Train’s “Great Train Robbery” excursion. He gigged at the Vallejo Wild West Festival in July and will be at Dell’Osso Family Farms in Lathrop every day in October. In September, look for him in Galt at the city’s 150th anniversary celebration.

“I’m all over the place,” he said (including charity events and fund-raisers, which he does gratis).

“Historical societies hire me and I’ve appeared in Las Vegas. I’ve got (replicas) of every one of John Wayne’s (movie costumes) from 1948 to 1976, which I wear,” Sutherland said.

For the past four years, Sutherland has appeared aboard Wayne’s yacht, Wild Goose, each May 26 to commemorate the Duke’s birthday. The converted World War II minesweeper, now owned by the Hornblower cruise company, is still docked in Newport Beach, where Wayne owned a 4,500-square-foot home.

“I looked at old photos of John Wayne on his yacht, so I got a skipper’s hat, a blue shirt and while pants,” Sutherland said. “The last time out, I got on the top deck wearing that outfit. The passengers took hundreds of pictures.”

Sutherland traveled to Beverly Hills four years ago to attend an auction of John Wayne memorabilia.

“His kids sold everything, and I was thinking to buy something that actually belonged to him,” he said. “But I couldn’t afford anything. His ‘Green Berets’ hat went for $172,000. People from all over the world were bidding on the internet.”

Over the decades, Sutherland has been a DJ, TV talk-show host and news anchor around Stockton, Modesto and Lodi. He’s also been a film actor and producer in Hollywood. Add stuntman, singer, poet and writer. His favorite John Wayne movies are “The Quiet Man,” “The Searchers,” “North To Alaska” and “The Shootist,” the actor’s last role.

Star-struck from a young age, he has interviewed some 4,000 celebrities, about 1,800 of them for his TV talk show “Jeff’s Star Talk” (1995-2014). Some of them (Loretta Lynn, Tom Selleck) were more familiar than others (pro wrestler-turned-movie heavy Mike Mazurki; Julie Adams, star of “Creature From the Black Lagoon”).

Sutherland introduced movies at the Bob Hope Theater in Stockton for five years and, since 2007, has hosted a Monday-night movies show on KBSV-TV in Cerces, outside Modesto.

“I’ve been on the air every week, somewhere, for 25 straight years,” he said. “But I’m going to say goodbye to all that, but I’ll still do John Wayne.”

Sutherland wants to focus on finishing his tell-all autobiography, “In the Shadow of John Wayne,” to be published in 2020. He wrote to Clint Eastwood, asking if he would write the introduction.

Celebrity-centric anecdotes and excerpts from many of his celebrity interviews that were never aired – including with actress Eva Longoria and MLB player Joe Panik – will be included. For instance, there’s the story about what singing cowboy Roy Rogers told animal-rights groups that criticized him for “stuffing” his beloved horse, Trigger, and displaying him in the Roy Rogers Museum. (Trigger was not stuffed; his skin was stretched over a metal frame.)

Look who’s back

How is it that John Wayne walks among us once again?

The trail began when Sutherland’s father – a true believer after seeing “The Quiet Man” – named him after the Duke. But, because he already had a son named John, he settled on Jeff.

When Sutherland was 10, he and his buddies would sneak in to the El Rancho Drive-In in San Pablo to watch John Wayne movies. “Seeing him on that big screen, I was smitten.” A few years later, when his voice began to change, “I started to talk like him.”

Sutherland has always been obsessed with the movie business. After majoring in performing arts at Contra Costa College, it seemed natural to up and go to Hollywood, hauling along a reel-to-reel tape recorder. His mission: Interview as many stars as possible.

His first stop was the Motion Picture & Television Country House and Hospital in Woodland Hills, a retirement home for movie stars.

“When I got inside, they asked, ‘Who do you want to talk to?’” he recalled. “I was amazed when I saw all these people in wheelchairs. When you’re young, you think they should look like they did in the movies.”

Over multiple visits, he sat with Bud Abbot (of Abbot and Costello), Larry Fine (Three Stooges), Margaret Hamilton (“Wizard of Oz”) and Stepin Fetchit (Lincoln Perry, Hollywood’s first African American movie star).

“I thought, ‘This is something I think I can do – interview celebrities and be a talk show host,’” Sutherland said. “But I got sidetracked.”

Back in San Pablo and Richmond, his plans to join the Navy were replaced with a wife and children. He took whatever work he could find to support them, yet still looked for ways to connect with the movie industry.

In his 30s, he bought a camcorder and began filming interviews at autograph collector shows, then connected with a TV station in Stockton that bought his pitch for “Jeff’s Star Talk.” He found other interview opportunities by showing up at rodeos, testimonial dinners, film festivals, and events such as the Golden Boot Awards, the Oscars for actors in Westerns. “I’d go to L.A. probably 25 times a year, and I made friends with a lot of stars,” he said.

Not surprisingly, one room in his house is dedicated to memorabilia – a jacket once owned by Randolph Scott, a pair of Roy Rogers’ spurs, lobby cards and movie posters signed by Charlton Heston, James Cagney, Bette Davis, Edward G. Robinson and Jimmy Stewart, and 10,000 autographs.

Though impersonating celebrities “is a thrill, I always dreamed about being in the movies,” he said.

True to form, he signed up with Central Casting in L.A., which supplies background actors to movie companies. “I had big parts in little movies and little parts in big movies, a dozen altogether,” he said.

He was in “The Soloist” with Jamie Foxx and Robert Downey, Jr. (2009) and “Flags of our Fathers,” directed by Clint Eastwood (2006).

“Clint Eastwood came up to me and said, “Don’t I know you?’ I said, ‘Yes, I interviewed you at the Hog’s Breath Inn in Carmel.’ Knowing him off and on for 25 years is my claim to fame,” Sutherland said.

Respect the role

But back to John Wayne. The impersonation epiphany came to Sutherland when he was in his late 30s. “John Wayne’s persona had become part of me, so I figured, ‘If I can do such a good impression of him, why not go further?’

“I focused on his walk, how he moved his hips. I studied all his movies, his dialogue, all his famous lines, the patriotic poems he recited about America. Somebody once put a title on me of ‘image-carrier.’ Which is right, because what I’m doing is carrying an image that people loved and respected.”

Sure, Sutherland has fun with the role, and it’s profitable, but he also sees it as a responsibility.

“I always keep in mind who I’m representing and what his reputation was,” he said. “I am not trying to be him. I’m just letting in a little light that shows how great he was.”

And if John Wayne miraculously burst through the front door of the Hollywood Café, boots banging and spurs jangling, what would Sutherland do?

“I’d walk up to him and say, ‘I’m your biggest fan!’”