There are few brighter stars in the Hollywood firmament than one John Wayne (born 26 May 1907). If there were any actors who attained greater celebrity than him, they were few and far between. Not only did he play roles and direct some films, John Wayne also came to stand for an ethos, the spirit of a land.
John Wayne is one of the most misunderstood or least understood stars whose names come readily to mind. There are too many misperceptions about Wayne to dispel all at once, but we can hit the high points and perhaps learn something about the man rather than the image.
So, let's take a look at the life of the man we know as John Wayne.
John Wayne was known by several different names during his life. He was born Marion Robert Morrison in Winterset, Iowa, and his parents later changed his name to Marion Mitchell Morrison when they decided to name their next son Robert. "John Wayne" was a stage name that was created in his 20s.
|Wayne's signed high school picture.|
Wayne was a Presbyterian of Scottish, Scots-Irish, Irish, and English ancestry. His grandfather was a Civil War veteran who was still alive for the first years of his life. The family moved to California as part of a large migration of Iowans, encouraged by an advertising campaign in the state touting the wonders of southern California. They settled in Palmdale, then in Glendale.
Wayne got his nickname "The Duke" from a local fireman in Glendale who noticed that the boy was devoted to his Airedale Terrier named Duke. So, when you call John Wayne "The Duke" you actually are calling him by his dog's name.
Wayne liked the nickname. It stuck.
|"The Quiet Man" (1952).|
Wayne thus grew up in California and attended Glendale High School, where he starred on the football team.
|John Wayne with first wife Josephine Alicia Saenz in 1932.|
John Wayne was married three times and had seven children with them. Each wife was of Hispanic descent. Wayne had nothing against Hispanics or Mexicans, as may be believed or said in some quarters; in fact, Wayne owned a large ranch in Mexico where he filmed several of his productions (which no doubt helped him to pay for the ranch's upkeep). However, that does not mean that Wayne got along with each wife every single day of their time together. Wayne had two divorces, and second wife Esperanza tried to shoot him due to jealousy over his supposed affairs.
Wayne applied to the US Naval Academy after graduating from high school, but was turned down. It was the first, but not the last, time that he attempted to join the military. His efforts repeatedly were frustrated for reasons out of his control, but some still hold that against him as being somehow at odds with his Hollywood image.
|This is not a still from a movie set. John Wayne was authorized to don military garb during his morale visit to the front lines in Australia in 1943-44.|
Wayne wound up at USC and played for the football team, which won a national championship while he was a member. A broken collarbone ultimately ended his athletic career. The team's coach, Howard Jones, arranged for Wayne to be hired by director John Ford and western star Tom Mix to work as a prop boy and occasional extra in exchange for Jones giving Mix tickets to games. This is how Wayne, still known as Marion Morrison, got his start in Hollywood.
|"McLintock!" (1963), here with Maureen O'Hara and directed by Andrew McLaglen..|
Wayne's first (uncredited) role was as a guard in period piece "Bardelys the Magnificent" (1926) as part of a "cast of thousands." That film was long believed lost, but a copy (minus one reel) was recently found, and it is in very good condition.
Wayne worked for the Fox Film Corporation and received credit as "Duke Morrison" in the film "Words and Music" in 1929. His breakthrough role was in "The Big Trail" the following year. Director Raoul Walsh crafted his stage name for that role after some back-and-forth with the studio. Wayne had no input on the decision and did not even know about the discussions.
|With Katherine Hepburn on the set of "Rooster Cogburn" (1975).|
Wayne appeared in numerous other films during the 1930s, and his next big breakthrough was in "Stagecoach" (1939), directed by John Ford.
|Wayne with daughter Aissa.|
Wayne was one of the biggest stars in Hollywood by 1941. Like many other top Hollywood stars such as Clark Gable and Jimmy Stewart, Wayne wanted to enlist after Pearl Harbor despite being over-age. However, he had contractual obligations and the studio threatened to sue him if he abandoned his contract. Despite the threat, he officially applied to serve in the OSS anyway, but through a chain of mis-adventures outside of Wayne's control it never happened. OSS Commander William Donovan issued Wayne an official OSS Certificate of Service anyway. Many think that Wayne's inability to serve contributed to his later choices of patriotic roles and carefully cultivated image as a patriot.
|Wayne with son Ethan.|
Wayne's career built throughout the war and in the subsequent years, primarily in westerns. He carefully practiced his iconic western drawl and walk, which were not natural to him, much in the manner of later imitators. The hard work paid off when he won his Oscar for the popular western "True Grit" (1969).
Wayne battled lung cancer for the last 15 years of his life. It went into remission, but ultimately killed him. It was common to say that John Wayne "beat cancer," but it eventually got him. Many think that Wayne acquired it due to radioactive fallout from previous atomic bomb testing on the Utah location of his film for Howard Hughes called "The Conqueror" in 1956. Dozens of others from that cast and crew ultimately developed some form of cancer and perished.
Wayne made his last public appearance at the Academy Awards ceremony held in 1979 and gave a sentimental but hopeful speech.
|John Wayne with Ricky Nelson on the set of "Rio Bravo."|
Wayne was no choir boy, and engaged in his share of frat-boy antics. He once spent a night in the San Francisco jail for trying to stow away aboard a tramp steamer bound for Hawaii.
|Wayne with Maureen O'Hara.|
Wayne directed two films: "The Alamo" and "The Green Berets." Neither was a particular financial success, though they are considered cult films by some.
|Wayne with daughter Aissa, circa 1960, photographed at their ranch-style home in the San Fernando Valley. Pool house is in the foreground with main residence on the hill.|
The Governor of Alabama, George Wallace, asked Wayne to be his vice-presidential candidate in 1968. Wayne, not particularly political despite some controversial statements at times, declined.
|Wayne with his mother Mary Alberta Brown, known as Molly.|
Wayne loved poetry, and one of his favorite poets was Robert Frost ("the road not taken").
|Wayne with Lucille Ball and Vivian Vance on the set of "I Love Lucy." He made a very unique television appearance on the show, which then was the most popular on the air, and all he asked as payment was a bottle of Scotch.|
Wayne not only did numerous westerns in the 1930s, he actually was the first singing cowboy ("Riders of Destiny" in 1933).
|Wayne with a very friendly Steve McQueen.|
Wayne won a Southern California Shakespeare Oratory contest for a recital of Cardinal Wolsey's farewell speech from "Henry VIII."
|Wayne on the set of "Red River" (1948).|
Wayne's first contract was for $75 per week, which was not bad money during the Great Depression.
|Wayne with Lee Marvin on the set of "Donovan's Reef" (1963). While those are likely movie bandages, Wayne was injured for real during filming when he crashed through a table, and the incident can be seen in the finished film.|
Wayne holds the inflation-adjusted record for the total gross of his 153 films.
|Wayne in his breakthrough film "Stagecoach" (1939).|
Wayne established the precedent for huge payments for cameo roles in pictures with "The Longest Day" (1962), on which he only worked for four days but earned a full salary. He did another cameo a few years later as a Roman Centurion in "The Greatest Story Ever Told."
|Wayne with Marguerite Churchill on the set of "The Big Trail" (1930).|
John Wayne, along with stuntman Yakima Canutt and Robert Bradbury, helped create stunt fighting, where chairs would crash over bad-guys' backs and so forth.
|John with brother Robert and their pet Pekingese.|
Wayne was skilled with props and knives, so much so that he once gave a demonstration in knife throwing to the New York City Police Department.
For years, Wayne bred cattle in Arizona, and was one of the most successful breeders in the state. He also owned an estate in Mexico where several of his films were shot. Thus, he could live at home while filming some of his most treasured Westerns.
|John with son Patrick Wayne on the set of "North To Alaska" (1960).|
While he had a reputation as a rugged man's man, in fact Wayne loved to ballroom dance, and he was quite skilled at it.
Wayne owned a large yacht ("Wild Goose"), where he spent much of his free time and which was used as a location for several films. It was a converted US Navy Yard Mine Sweeper and was listed on the US National Register of Historic Places in 2011. It remains in use today for dinner cruises out of Newport Beach, California.
|John with Aissa in San Fernando.|
Wayne was a skilled boxer in the 1920s who fought under the name Duke Morrison and fought top contenders in California and Nevada. He was the great-uncle of top prizefighter Tommy Morrison, who fought under the nickname "The Duke."
|John Wayne receiving his Academy Award, presented by Barbra Streisand.|
Duke once portrayed his own father, a pharmacist, in "In Old California."
|Wayne in the final scene of his final film, "The Shootist" (1976). Perhaps the best exit in film history.|
Wayne's children (with Pilar Wayne) were Aissa Wayne, Ethan Wayne and Marisa Wayne. His children with Josephine Wayne were Michael Wayne, Patrick Wayne, Toni Wayne and Melinda Wayne. Many of them are still living, and several entered the film business and did quite well.
|John Wayne makes his farewell speech at the 1979 Academy Awards. He died a few months later. Apparently in tremendous pain, he never showed it, coming quickly down a long stairway with a bounce in his step.|
Wayne's production company was called "Batjac," which was mis-spelled by his secretary (it was supposed to be called "Batjak" after a company in Wayne's film "Wake of the Red Witch"). Wayne decided to spare the secretary's feelings and kept the name as she typed it.
John Wayne still holds the record for the actor with the most leading parts, at 142, and in all but 11 of his films he was the lead. John Wayne will remain a Hollywood icon as long as there is a Hollywood.