This Life’s Hard, But It’s Harder If You’re Stupid

John Wayne? Redd Foxx? Robert Mitchum? George V. Higgins? Steven Keats? Eddie Coyle? Jackie Brown?

Dear Quote Investigator: When someone performs a witless or laughably irritating act there is a barbed response that reflects exasperation. Here are three versions:

  • Life is hard. It’s harder when you’re stupid.
  • Life’s hard. It’s harder if you’re stupid.
  • Life is tough. It’s tougher if you’re stupid.

These words have been attributed to the famous actor John Wayne, the prominent comedian Redd Foxx, and the well-known thespian Robert Mitchum. Would you please examine the provenance of this remark?

Quote Investigator: QI and other researchers have found no substantive evidence that John Wayne crafted this saying. The earliest strong match known to QI appeared in the 1971 novel “The Friends of Eddie Coyle” by George V. Higgins.

A character named Jackie Brown who specialized in acquiring guns for fellow criminals employed the line. Brown thought it would be foolish to drive into the woods to meet with two strangers armed with machineguns to perform a transaction. Instead, he told a messenger that the two men should come to him. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

This life’s hard, but it’s harder if you’re stupid. Now you go and get them, and I’ll be waiting here. When you come back I’ll tell you what to do next. Move.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

When Higgins’s novel was made into a movie in 1973 the title was preserved. The main character, Eddie Coyle, was played by Robert Mitchum; however, Coyle never used the phrase in the book, and Mitchum did not utter it in the film. The gun dealer, Jackie Brown, was played by Steven Keats. He did speak a slightly altered version of the remark as shown in a film trailer: 2

This life’s hard man, but it’s harder if you’re stupid.

Oddly, in June 1973 an advertisement for the movie in “The Los Angeles Times” highlighted a modified version of the saying with “tough” instead of “hard”: 3

“Life is tough, but it’s tougher if you’re stupid.
I’m not so stupid that I’m gonna drive this car into the woods for two other guys with machine guns who know I’ve got money. Life is tough, but it’s tougher if you’re stupid!’
– One of the friends of Eddie Coyle

In August 1973 an Illinois newspaper review of the film “The Friends of Eddie Coyle” correctly pointed to the actor who delivered the line: 4

Stephen Keats turns in a fine performance as a gun smuggler. He is young but determined and advises one inexperienced punk that “this life’s hard man, but it’s harder if you’re stupid.” This movie is surprisingly lacking in overt violence. There is little gore and visual brutality.

In 1978 a critic praised the acting skills of Robert Mitchum and suggested that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences had overlooked his accomplishments. Unfortunately, the critic’s memory of the dialog in “The Friends of Eddie Coyle” was jumbled. Mitchum was given credit for some words he did speak and some he did not: 5

Imagine that, my wife on welfare. I’m 51 years old, I got three kids, they go to school, and the other kids laugh at ’em. This life is hard, man, but it’s harder if you’re stupid.

In 1983 a newspaper in Orlando, Florida published a profile of Rear Admiral Pauline Martha Hartington who was the commander of the Naval Training Center Orlando: 6

In public, the 52-year-old admiral is professional, polite, unassumingly feminine. She punctuates her statements and jokes with a wry grin, a wink. On her office wall is a framed picture of her being kissed by Shamu, Sea World’s killer whale. Next to it is a motto: “Life is tough, but it’s tougher if you’re stupid.”

In 1987 “The Indianapolis Star” of Indiana stated that the Governor of the state had published a periodical that credited John Wayne (who had died in 1979) with a version of the remark using “tough” instead of “hard”: 7

On Tuesday, the quote was from actor John Wayne:
“Life is tough, but it’s a whole lot tougher if you’re stupid.”

In 1991 a TV critic writing in “The Morning Call” of Allentown, Pennsylvania said that Redd Foxx employed an instance in a pilot program: 8

“Royal Family”–CBS’s highest-testing pilot has Redd Foxx treading familiar “Cosby” territory, dispensing crotchetiness and wisdom (“Life is hard, but it’s a lot harder when you’re stupid”) in equal bags.

In 1995 John Wayne received credit for an instance using “hard” within the signature block of a message distributed via the Usenet discussion system: 9

“Life’s hard, then you die” — Dempsey & Makepeace
“Life’s hard; it’s harder if you’re stupid” — John Wayne

In conclusion, QI believes that George V. Higgins deserves credit for this saying because it appeared in his 1971 novel. A close variant was included in the 1973 screenplay of the book, and the line was delivered by the actor Steven Keats. Instances of the phrase have been attributed to Robert Mitchum by 1978 and to John Wayne by 1987. But these linkages were late and poorly supported. Red Foxx used the saying in 1991 after it was already in circulation.

Image Notes: Publicity photo of Redd Foxx circa 1972. Photo of Robert Mitchum from Screenland in July 1949. Publicity image of John Wayne circa 1933. Images accessed via Wikimedia Commons. Images have been cropped, resized, and retouched.

(Great thanks to Mark whose query led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Special thanks to David Mikkelson of Snopes for his pioneering research. He pointed to the novel by Higgins and to the actor Keats.)

Notes:

  1. 1973 (Copyright 1971), The Friends of Eddie Coyle by George V. Higgins, Quote Page 93, Bantam Books, New York. (Verified with scans)
  2. YouTube video, Title: Three Reasons: THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE, Uploaded on Apr 27, 2015, Uploaded by: criterioncollection, Quotation starts at 56 seconds of 1 minute 35 seconds, Trailer for the Criterion Collection release of “The Friends of Eddie Coyle”. (Accessed on youtube.com on January 16, 2018) link
  3. 1973 June 22, The Los Angeles Times, Section: 4, Advertisement for the film “The friends of Eddie Coyle”, Quote Page 15, Column 1, Los Angeles, California. (Newspapers_com)
  4. 1973 August 21, Daily Chronicle, ‘Last of Sheila’ puzzles but entertains by Brenda Rubens, Quote Page 5, Column 2, De Kalb, Illinois. (Newspapers_com)
  5. 1978 August 31, The Press Democrat Two great actors snubbed by Oscars by Bill Hagen (Copley News Service), Quote Page 9B, Column 2, Santa Rosa, California. (Newspapers_com)
  6. 1983 June 19, The Orlando Sentinel, Naval center commander spurns complainers, demands commitment (Continuation title: Admiral) by Jonathan Susskind (The Sentinel Staff), Start Page C1, Quote Page C3, Column 4, Orlando, Florida. (Newspapers_com)
  7. 1987 January 21, The Indianapolis Star, Governor to press for plan with flier by Robert N. Bell (Star Staff Writer), Quote Page 12, Column 6, Indianapolis, Indiana. (Newspapers_com)
  8. 1991 September 9, The Morning Call, Section: a.m. Magazine, Clearing the decks for comedy by Sylvia Lawler (Television Editor), Quote Page D1, Column 5, Allentown, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)
  9. 1995 April 11, Usenet discussion message, Newsgroup: comp.lang.c, From: Ron Collins @thor.tu.hac.com, Subject: Re: Shareware ANSI compatible C compiler. (Google Groups Search; Accessed January 17, 2018) link