Western star Constance Towers talks working with John Wayne, William Holden in 'Horse Soldiers': 'Pure luck'

While many fans recognize her as vengeful Helena Cassadine on “General Hospital,” the statuesque blonde originally lassoed in fame with two John Ford Westerns, “The Horse Soldiers” (1959) and “Sergeant Rutledge” (1960). In “The Horse Soldiers,” she starred alongside heavy hitters John Wayne and William Holden, whom she still remembers fondly to this day.

This year, the actress is poised to pay tribute to Holden, who died in 1981, at the Gold Coast International Film Festival, which will also include the late Oscar winner’s partner, Stefanie Powers.

Towers, 88, spoke to Fox News about being discovered, working with Wayne and Holden, how she coped with tragedy on set, as well as transforming into a villain.

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Constance Towers lived a quiet life in Whitefish, Mont., before Hollywood came calling.

Constance Towers lived a quiet life in Whitefish, Mont., before Hollywood came calling. (Photo by John Springer Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

Fox News: How did you get discovered as an actress?
Constance Towers: Oh gosh, that goes way back. I was born in a place called Whitefish, Montana, which is way up in the northwest corner of the state on the Canadian border. My family was all Irish immigrants. I was a first-generation American. They came to the United States through Philadelphia and saw signs that said, “Irish need not apply.” So the only jobs that they could find were railroad jobs. Whitefish was a housing town for the workers. And I was born there.

Constance Towers has led a decadeslong career in Hollywood.

Constance Towers has led a decadeslong career in Hollywood. (Photo by John Springer Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

I had a grandmother who felt it was so important that children learned how to read as early as possible. So I started on my education very early… By the time I was in the first grade, I could read quite well. Two producers came to my little school and asked if there was a child who could act or at least read. I put my hand up. I didn’t know what acting meant, but I could certainly read. They took me outside and in the hallway, I read this little script. I got the part probably because I was the only one who could read it. That started on my path to acting. My parents were wonderfully supportive and they did everything they could to find the best coaches and teachers. I was lucky.

From left: John Wayne, Constance Towers and William Holden

From left: John Wayne, Constance Towers and William Holden (Photo by Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images)

Fox News: You worked with both William Holden and John Wayne. What was your initial impression of them?
Towers: That was my second movie, “The Horse Soldiers”… And the director was John Ford, the highly respected and famous Irish director. It was pure luck. I could hardly speak when I first met them. And yet they were both wonderful to me. John Wayne was as big as he was on the screen and he treated me like his little princess. William Holden was very private. But he was also a gentleman and very willing to help a newcomer. I was in total awe of working with these two stars, but they were both just wonderful. They both got along very well with each other too.

John Wayne and Constance Towers on the set of "The Horse Soldiers," directed by John Ford. 

John Wayne and Constance Towers on the set of “The Horse Soldiers,” directed by John Ford.  (Photo by Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images)

Fox News: Is it true that John Ford expected all the actors to be gentlemen and they weren’t allowed to swear in front of the women on set?
Towers: True. Women had his total respect. He never used bad language and didn’t expect anyone else to do so either on his set. I don’t think John Wayne would have used it anyway, but he didn’t and neither did William Holden. But John Ford ran a very tight ship. He would stop production at 4 o’clock every day so we could all have tea with cookies. It was so dignified. One day, I asked him, “Why do you stop production? It costs money.” He said, “Ah, I get more work out of everybody because by 4 o’clock everyone is tired. So you get a little sugar and then you’ll get back on that high energy until 6 or 6:30.” There was a method to his madness. But it was a delightful set.

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John Wayne and William Holden assist Constance Towers in aiming a revolver on the set.

John Wayne and William Holden assist Constance Towers in aiming a revolver on the set. (Photo by John Springer Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

Fox News: There was a tragedy on set involving stuntman Fred Kennedy. What happened?
Towers: I was riding sidesaddle and had to do a lot of my stunt work. But the insurance people from the studio always made sure their actors were safe. And so John Ford assigned two wonderful actors and stuntmen to be my protectors. Whenever I was on a horse, I had Slim Hightower on one side and Freddy Kennedy on the other. They were the two cutest men you’d ever seen. They played tricks on me and they just had fun.

Fred had lost his forefinger [in a previous accident]. So he only had up to the big knuckle on his right hand. He would stand behind the camera and have that knuckle up his nose just to make me laugh. They were silly like that. But I had a wonderful relationship with them because they protected me. On the last shot of the film on location, John Ford and John Wayne came to me and said, “Look, we’re not going to call cut. When Freddy does his last fall… you’re going to give him a big kiss on the cheek.”

Constance Towers being directed by John Ford

Constance Towers being directed by John Ford (Photo by Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images)

He was really shy, so it was their way of having fun with him. So Freddy came over the fence and did this fall into the bonfire. I ran in, picked him up and gave him a big kiss on the cheek. But as I did, I felt as if I had a thousand breaking bones in my hands. He had broken his neck. I turned around and said, “He’s dying.” And this is all on film somewhere by the way. We immediately picked him up, put him in the back of a truck and rushed him to the hospital. But by the time we got there he was gone… It was a very traumatic moment. We were all very devastated.

Fox News: How did you all cope at the time?
Towers: The company gathered all of these toys and silly things from the set. We went to the grocery stores and bought staples like lard, sugar, flour, milk and water. We took it to the Black family that had been in the film with us. I remembered there was no flooring in the house. They had a horse, a cow and maybe some chickens. We also gathered enough money to buy them a bell for their little Baptist church. There were crowds of people in town who were upset about us doing this. You had to remember the time this took place. You just didn’t do that for people of color in those days. So our company left in a hurry. But it was a beautiful experience for us together as a group during this very sad time.

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American actors Jeffrey Hunter and Constance Towers on the set of "Sergeant Rutledge" directed by John Ford. 

American actors Jeffrey Hunter and Constance Towers on the set of “Sergeant Rutledge” directed by John Ford.  (Photo by Warner Bros. Pictures/Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images)

Fox News: You later found fame in soap operas thanks to “General Hospital.” How does it feel to play a villain?
Towers: The role was originated by Elizabeth Taylor. So when I was offered the part, I went to my drama coach and said, “I don’t know how to do this. I’ve always played the purest heroine.” … But my character is over the top. So I went over the top. And it was so successful. I enjoy her. 

Constance Towers on the set of "General Hospital"

Constance Towers on the set of “General Hospital” (Photo by Rick Rowell/Disney General Entertainment Content via Getty Images)

You can’t take her too far. She’s just a delicious, wonderful, evil woman. But no one has ever said to me, “I hate you.” Instead, someone will stop me on the street and say, “I just love to hate you.” I keep experimenting with her because every villain has a weakness somewhere… They killed her four times and yet I keep coming back. It’s fun and the audience loves it. At the moment I’m dead again, but that’s why I could also make a phone call from home and wake up the characters in their nightmares *laughs*.

Fox News: What was the secret behind your lasting marriage with John Gavin?
Towers: We really loved each other. For a long time, I was in New York and he was in California. So we commuted before we got married. He had two children, I had two children and we blended our families. And they just love each other. I always recognized his ex-wife and she was fabulous. His children accepted me with no guilt. Just love.

… We also trusted each other. When he was in Mexico, I was performing in Los Angeles. When I was in New York, he was in Los Angeles. And despite being apart by distance, we never had one moment of uncertainty. Every weekend, he would get on a plane and spend time with me and I would do the same. It was a lot of give and take, but we supported each other’s ambitions. He may have left this Earth, but he’s still very much a part of our lives. He was wonderful and such a dream.

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Constance Towers and actor John Gavin circa 1990

Constance Towers and actor John Gavin circa 1990 (Photo by Ron Galella, Ltd./Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images)

Fox News: What has kept you going as a performer?
Towers: For any performer really, it’s the love of what you do. And I have such a passion for performing. I just feel so fortunate that I’ve had so many years in this business and can bring something new to it. That has kept me going and I’m just so delighted. But it’s a passion and enjoyment. People often ask me, “Well, aren’t you going to retire?” And I can’t imagine my life without some form of performance. So my answer is always, “No, I’m not thinking of retiring because I wouldn’t know what to do.”

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