It has been written and read many times that George "walked away from" or "terminated" his lucrative RKO contract to join the war effort in 1941. This is not true. George was under contract with RKO, and continued making movies for them through 1939. Before the end of that year however, his contract was over (his movies continued to be released until 1940). It is probable that RKO chose not to renew his contract, and instead signed the younger and less expensive Tim Holt as their headliner western star. George, a true gentleman, showed no resentment toward Tim.
Nevertheless, George found himself out of work for the first time in almost 20 years. There were rumors that he was to star in a series for Columbia based on Jack London’s "Smoke Bellew" character. Alternatively, there were plans to shoot movies at different exotic locations, especially in South America, where George was extremely popular – he and Marguerite even took a three month journey to that continent to check out the possibilities. Unfortunately everything fell through. George had plenty of money, but he was not used to being at loose ends.
He heard that John Ford was putting together a photographic unit for the Navy. Although the United States was not yet at war, many people knew that it was only a matter of time. Without waiting, George ran out and enlisted! This put a tremendous strain on his marriage as Marguerite did not like either John Ford or the idea of being a “Navy Wife”.
Ford wanted George as part of his “team”. George had fighting, acting and camera experience. Unfortunately, this, like all those previous movie plans fell through. Nothing came of Ford’s request. As a result, George was first sent to San Diego to help train naval recruits. He also helped create the Navy’s own radio program “Anchors Aweigh”. Later he was involved in Attu/Kiska campaign in the Aleutian Islands. Then, he was sent to the Pacific and served in heavy combat. He was a Beach-Master for landings in the Pacific. During his service he was wounded in the leg, and at various times suffered from pneumonia, dysentery, and malaria. Meanwhile Marguerite, who had never liked California, moved to New York City and opened a hat shop on Madison Avenue, which Walter Winchell described as “popular with the cocktail crowd.”
In 1946, George left the Navy and he and his family returned to California. Things were never going to be the same though. Marguerite claimed that the war had changed George. According to her, he would lock himself away in a room and refuse to come out. He would disappear for a few days, or talk to her sarcastically. Of course, no one on the outside ever knows what really happens in a marriage, but whatever it was, Marguerite got fed up and filed for divorce. Even after this, George continued living with his wife and kids. He did not want a divorce, and he always hoped Marguerite would reconsider her decision. Her mind had been made up unfortunately. The two of them divided up their property, and by 1948, George and Marguerite’s marriage was dissolved. Marguerite got primary custody of Orin and Darcy. George was devastated to say the least. Two years after he returned from the war, the family life he knew and cherished was gone. He was no longer married, and his children were being raised elsewhere. George soon found himself all alone.
He tried to get his career going again, but it had been seven years since he had last made a film. The whole industry had changed since then, and was to change even more rapidly as television began to have its devastating effect. He played a charming supporting role as Duke Muldoon in My Wild Irish Rose, directed by an old friend, David Butler. John Ford gave him two roles in two of his cavalry films of the late 1940s, Fort Apache and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. He and Ford had drifted apart in the 30's after a trip they had taken to the Far East in 1931, (Ford had gone on an alcoholic bender and George had continued the trip for a while without him, coming back to pick him up after he had sobered up. Ford tended to regard this as a “betrayal”) but their friendship resumed after the war and they went back to being close friends as if nothing had ever happened. Getting a chance to go on location in Monument Valley with his old friends John Ford, John Wayne and Vic McLaglen as well as young Harry Carey Jr., Ben Johnson and John Agar must have been one of the few highlights in his life, as Marguerite was obtaining her divorce during this time.
He did make an attempt to get into television. Throughout the 1950's there were newspaper reports that he might be appearing in a western series or a detective series based in San Francisco, but these projects never materialized. He did make a pilot for a series to be called The Sea Hawk concerning a sea captain, which was televised as Typhoon in 1957. That series, like the others, was never picked up by a network. He was involved in producing a series called Assignment Underwater, which did get aired in the early 1960s.
In 1949, George rejoined the Navy as part of the Naval reserve. He was first assigned to Armed Forces radio in Long Beach CA. He was therefore in the Navy during the Korean War, but there is no evidence that he was in any actual combat. Nonetheless, like any reserve officer, he was called to active duty at certain times. In the later 1950's, George took on a project for the Department of Defense as part of President Eisenhower's "People to People" program. He was project officer for a series of orientation films on three Asian countries. One of these films, on Korea, was directed by his old friend John Ford. The other two countries covered were Formosa (Taiwan) and the Philippines. This required him to spend six months of the year in Asia, often under rugged conditions. It was somewhere on the border of Cambodia and Thailand that he developed an eye infection which nearly cost him his vision. He had pooh-poohed the infection until it was so serious that he needed a corneal implant. This work meant that he was still in the military during the early Vietnam era. Thus George could rightly claim to be in the service during four of the 20th century conflicts. He retired from the Navy in 1962 with the rank of captain. In 1963 he went out to Monument Valley once more as part of a John Ford film company. Forty years after The Iron Horse, he played Major Braden in Cheyenne Autumn. This was his last film role.
The late 60's and 1970's saw George enjoying life. Working out, surfing, swimming, and of course traveling. He always had a restless, itchy foot, and described himself at this time as “just a beach bum”! George enjoyed spending time with his children, who by that time had grown up to be fine members of society. Orin became a bassist for the New York Philharmonic. She made history as the first woman signed to a full time contract by that orchestra. Darcy was an acclaimed writer and university professor. George once went on vacation in Hawaii with Orin and enjoyed visiting with his old costar from The Man who Came Back, Dorothy Mackaill. There are reports of him attending a party given by his daughter in NYC, with attendees commenting on his story telling (George was quit the raconteur) and his good looks!
In the late 1970's he was finally persuaded to attend Cinecon. It was being held in NYC that year and the chance to visit Orin, as well as seeing a special screening of Sunrise at the Museum of Modern Art was too much for him to pass up. George was the hit of the festival – a vibrant, good-natured, approachable guest, who could tell long detailed and accurate stories about the glory days of Hollywood. He had so much fun at Cinecon that he decided to go to the Memphis festival of western films in 1980 as well. He had a chance to reunite with another of his leading ladies, Cecilia Parker (whom he called Skippy). There are videos of George being interviewed at this time and they show what a lively, funny and charming person he was.
In 1981, George suffered a debilitating stroke. One entire side of his body was left paralyzed. He couldn’t walk, and he could barely talk. Though, whenever he did talk, it was usually about three things: his children, his ex-wife, and John Ford. George went to a nursing home in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma to be taken care of. Darcy taught at the University of Tulsa and would come to visit George often. Although George was confined to a bed, he was still in high spirits, still had his pleasant personality. Over time however, his health just deteriorated.
On September 4, 1985, George passed away. The suffering he endured due to the stroke was finally over. He was buried at sea by the U.S. Navy – a fitting end. Since his death there has been much written and said about George. Darcy, among others, described his father as exactly the same guy you saw in the movies. Respectful, stalwart, honorable and a perfect gentleman. Always doing the right thing. George didn’t swear, drink, smoke and never did drugs. And he only fought in front of the camera or in the boxing ring. He never, ever had a bad thing to say about anyone. Nearly every female he worked with described him as charming, sweet, and handsome as hell!
George was a devout Catholic and never missed Mass on Sunday (and frequently attended during the week as well). To his dying day, Marguerite was the only woman he ever truly loved. She may have moved on and married again, but George did not. He was a courageous war hero more than once, a faithful husband, terrific father, and great actor.
And you know what else? He was a completely unforgettable human being for all the right reasons. God bless him.