How John Wayne became an American icon
John Wayne is a man who needs no introduction having won an Academy Award and starring in almost 300 movies. Perhaps lesser known was his friendship with Wyatt Earp, and the time that Stalin tried to have him killed. The man has some stories, and we have the collection that show us what life was like for one of the most popular movie stars in history.
He was a 13 lb. baby
Marion Morrison, aka John Wayne, was born on May 26, 1907 in Winterset, Iowa. He definitely was not a mama’s boy from the very start, as he clocked in at a whopping 13 pounds when he was born. His mother, Mary “Molly” Alberta Brown, and father Clyde Leonard Morrison, loved the big baby nonetheless.
Before Marion was 10-years-old, his family came out west and relocated to Palmdale, California before settling in Glendale. He was in close proximity to Hollywood, and even though it was in its infancy as a film-making location, it would have a profound impact on his and career.
He was quite the Renaissance man
Just as Marion was big when he was born, and larger than life when he became famous, he grew to be 6’4” which wasn’t so much tall as it was giant in the era. It also made him well suited for sports, and he excelled as an offensive tackle on his high school football team.
Marion was a force on the football field, but he did not rely solely on the sport to occupy his time. He was on the debate team, and in the Latin society. Eventually his football prowess played out well for him, as he was accepted into USC with a scholarship.
He renamed himself the “Duke,” after a childhood friend
Marion was never a fan of his name and was often ridiculed about it sounding feminine when he was growing up. A guy like John Wayne wasn’t about to put up with that, so he dissociated himself from his birth name, That’s when he gave himself the nickname that would stick with him his entire life: Duke.
Duke Morrison got his nickname from an odd place. The Morrison family had a beloved Airedale Terrier, and his name was Duke. The family called the dog “Big Duke” and the future John Wayne “Little Duke,” and despite the fact that he was nicknamed after a dog (like Indiana Jones), it suited him nicely.
An injury forced him out of a promising football career
Duke was living the good life while in college. He excelled on the football field and joined a fraternity. His first two years were a dream, and the USC football team was destined for greatness, but something happened that caused him to miss the action and changed his life forever.
In 1928 the “Thundering Heard” era of USC football began. Unfortunately for Duke, in 1927, just before his junior year began, he was swept up by a wave while body surfing, and his shoulder smashed into the ocean floor. It was an event that would change the course of his career.
His first role in Hollywood was a prop guy on set
When one thinks of John Wayne, one certainly does not picture a California surfer, but that’s exactly what brought him to Hollywood and the big screen. He tried to return to football, but his shoulder was so badly injured, that even after it healed, it was never quite the same.
Duke Morrison dropped in the roster and was eventually cut from the team. He couldn’t pay his fraternity dues or his tuition fees, and was in desperate need of cash. That’s when one of his former coaches found him a job as a prop guy for Fox Studios. That was his introduction to the entertainment business.
His first role was…a football player.
Duke tried his best to go to school and work his new job, but he was on the outs at USC. His injury caused him to quit football altogether, and eventually he left the university too. Even before he left USC, he was able to score a role in his first film: “Brown of Harvard.”
“Brown of Harvard” was a sports drama movie made in 1926. Duke was well suited for this role because it involved many live action football sequences. He appeared in those scenes, but was not actually credited for his role. He would go on to play similar roles as an extra in almost 20 films in the next three years.
He was coached by infamous Deputy Wyatt Earp
While on the set as a prop guy and an extra, Duke met the acquaintance of some of Hollywood’s earliest stars. In 1926 he was an extra in “The Great K & A Train Robbery,” starring Tom Mix. Mix was one of the first actors to make the Western genre takeoff, and while Duke learned a lot from him, he learned even more from a legit lawman of the actual old West.
Dodge City Marshall and gunfighter at the O.K. Coral, Wyatt Earp was on hand in many early Western films, and was a close friend of Tom Mix (Mix was a pallbearer at Earp’s funeral, and reports say he wept while carrying the Western icon). If anyone knew about life in the West, it was him.
Learning the way of the Wild West
Eventually, Duke found himself in the company Wyatt Earp himself on the set of a John Ford movie. Two legends of their era exchanged ideas, and the Duke later commented on what a big influence Earp was on his career. John Wayne looked to Wyatt for inspiration and guidance in his roles.
“Earp was the man who had actually done the things in his life that I was trying to do in a movie. I imitated his walk; I imitated his talk.” Through this transference of identity, the legend of Earp played out in the infamous heroes portrayed by the Duke, and the modern American Western hero was born.
He also was mentored by one of the greatest stunt mans of the day
In the late 1920s, Duke was perfecting his walk, his talk, and his overall persona. But he still had a ways to go, as Hollywood was slowly making action sequences a more integral part of movies. Lucky for him he worked with one of the best stuntmen in film history who pioneered modern techniques.
Yakima Canutt was a rodeo world champion and is responsible for transforming movie action scenes from slow, one punch fights to exciting, drawn out brawls. He was fearless in his pursuits as a stuntman and had a major impact on the Duke. Canutt even played as John Wayne’s stuntman in several films.
Learning the stunt ropes
Yakima Canutt was one tough S.O.B. Between films he competed in rodeos, and while on set, he put everything he had into production. Yakima suffered a broken nose, broken ribs, and broken legs, all for the sake of good content. He even had his intestines severed when a horse fell on top of him.
Yakima liked Duke from the beginning. He loved that Duke was willing to try any stunt he threw at him and taught him techniques such as how to fall off a horse properly. Later the Duke would credit many of his mannerisms to Yakima, including his infamous hip rolling walk.
The Duke’s big break
In 1930 Duke got his first major break while moving studio furniture behind the set of “The Big Trail.” There, Director Raoul Walsh saw the tall, handsome Duke Morrison and cast him as the lead role in the movie. The Duke was about to go from supporting role to front man.
The movie itself endures because it is one of the first to Grandeur wide-screen filming. In it, Duke plays a fur trapper who leads a band of pioneers on the Oregon trail, falls in love, and avenges the murder of his best friend. It was a role he was meant for, and the last he would play as Duke.
The Duke becomes John Wayne
The Duke would stay as a nickname, but he actually didn’t have any say in how his name changed to the one we know today. As legend would have it, Director Walsh had a meeting with Fox Studios chief Winfield Sheehan to decide on what to call him moving forward.
Walsh initially suggested that he be called Anthony Wayne, after the Revolutionary War General “Mad” Anthony Wayne. But Sheehan thought that the name Anthony name sounded too Italian, so Walsh picked one of the most popular male names in America instead. From that day forward, Duke would be known as John Wayne.
John Wayne got demoted from front man back to supporting roles
The innovation brought to the set of “The Big Trail” actually worked against the studio. They spent over $2 million (around $30 million today) on the film, and many theaters were not yet outfitted to accommodate the widescreen shot. The movie flopped, and soon after Wayne left the studio in search of another.
He landed at Columbia Pictures where he immediately got on the wrong side of studio boss Harry Cohn. Wayne was relegated back to small roles, and was eventually dropped as an actor altogether. He stayed at it and found small roles with Poverty Row Studios such as Mascot and Monogram.
John Ford to the rescue (again)
John Wayne slowly but surely gained a personal following while making low budget, mostly western films. Between 1931–1939, Wayne made over 60 movies, and audiences were starting to respond to his characters, and seek out films with him in it just for the sake of watching him. Then an old friend launched him stardom in 1939.
Director John Ford, who had also introduced Wayne to Wyatt Earp, cast him as The Ringo Kid in “Stagecoach.” He made five more films that year, all of them with right-hand man Yakima Canutt. By 1941, the year the United States entered WWII, Wayne was a top ten box office draw.
He wanted to fight in WWII, but was exempted from service
John Wayne wanted to fight in WWII. His name (Marion Morrison) was his grandfather’s name, and he was veteran of the Civil War. Even though he was 34 years old when the war broke out, he still might’ve been able to qualify for the service, but there were other factors at play.
John Wayne had several ailments that might’ve made him 4-F (ineligible for medical reasons), given his chronic ear infections, a bad back from moving stage props, and his bum shoulder. In the end, none of that mattered because the studio successfully lobbied to receive a 3-A classification, which exempted him from service.
John Ford kept him from going to war
The studio had reason to keep John Wayne in the studio making movies instead of fighting on the battlefields of WWII, as he was just about the only A-list movie star in Hollywood still making movies at the time. Nonetheless, he wrote to Director John Ford often trying to join his unit.
Ford (pictured above at center) joined the service, but even so, he did everything he could to keep John Wayne out. Ford kept telling him that he just need to finish one or two more films, then he’d let him enlist. But the moment never came, and John Wayne never did formally attempt to have his draft status reclassified.
He did an entertainment tour for the troops a la Bob Hope
Some actors immersed themselves into the thick of combat during WWII (e.g. Jimmy Stewart, who won the Distinguished Flying Cross twice), but many had a more ceremonial role, such as comedian Bing Crosby. But like Crosby, John Wayne really wanted to do his part for the troops during the war.
For months, John Wayne toured various US military installations for the USO and made appearances for the troops. John Wayne also applied for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS, or the precursor to the CIA), and rumor has it he was accepted. Rumor also has it his ex-wife destroyed the letter.
Fighting the war from the home front
John Wayne also did a lot for the war effort by constantly making films about the action, which raised a lot of money for war bonds. His first war movie ever was the 1942 film “Flying Tigers,” which was about the group of American fighter pilots fighting in China prior to America’s entry into the war.
“Flying Tigers” came out less than a year after the United States declared war on Japan, and it flushed out to be a major box office success. He would go on to make many more war films, including the ones he made during WWII such as “Fighting Seabees” and “Back to Bataan.”
His career really took off during WWII
WWII catapulted John Wayne to stardom, and he was well on his way to becoming the most popular actor in Hollywood. In 1949 he played Sergeant John Stryker in “Sands of Iwo Jima,” which was a movie about the horrific battle and pivotal of Iwo Jima just four years earlier.
In the movie, John Wayne’s character is a hard-nosed leatherneck of “the old breed,” who is disliked by most of his men. But his tough approach to his men becomes necessary as the combat gets harder. Later in the movie his character is killed. The role was perfect for John Wayne and audiences loved it, and it was good enough to earn him his first nomination for Best Actor.
“You’re short on ears and long on mouth.”
Laurence Oliver ended up winning that year for his portrayal of Hamlet, but John Wayne was becoming far more popular. He was the epitome of the strong, silent type, who was always in control of the situation and never used 10 words when two would suffice. He was building the archetype of the American tough guy.
He also appealed to the men who returned from WWII in a unique way. In 1979 film historian Andrew Sarris said of Wayne, “At his first appearance, we usually sense a very private person with some wound, loss or grievance from the past. At his very best, he is much closer to a tragic vision of life.”
“A man’s got to do what a man’s got to do.”
John Wayne would continue to make war movies that were immensely popular, even after WWII had ended. Some of his best roles came in 1960s when he acted in the huge production that was “The Longest Day,” which also had Hollywood heavyweights Sean Connery, Robert Mitchum, and Henry Fonda.
He also took on the Vietnam War in “The Green Berets” in 1968, the same year as the bloody Tet Offensive. It wasn’t well-received, but Wayne defended the movie by saying he was trying to show soldiers performing their duty, and not focus on why, or if they should be there.
He became the embodiment of an American during the Cold War
Of course, John Wayne made a hell of a lot more movies, and what he’s best known for are his portrayals of heroes in Western classics. One of the best films he made came in 1966 with “El Dorado.” He acted side by side with his friend Robert Mitchum, and audiences and critics loved the film.
Perhaps even more popular than “El Dorado” was his 1959 movie “Rio Bravo.” “Rio Bravo” was seen as a response to the 1952 Gary Cooper classic “High Noon.” Wayne played the powerful, American good guy, while Cooper portrayed a hero at odds with what he was trying to do, and it was perceived as Anti-American and pro-communist.
There’s a new Sheriff in Hollywood, and he doesn’t take kindly to commies
The 1950s was a time when anti-communist fervor was sweeping the country in what became known as the Red Scare. The McCarthy hearings of 1954 tried to pull the communists out of the government and military, while efforts to do the same in Hollywood were seeing actors and filmmakers blacklisted.
In 1950 future president Ronald Reagan (also a famous actor at the time) famously testified in front of the House Un-American-Activities Committee and named names of potential communists. John Wayne was a staunch supporter of the anti-communist effort. In fact, it was John Wayne who had the writer of “High Noon” run out of town.
Stalin wanted Wayne gone
American’s had a vision of what their hero looked and acted like, and John Wayne was the personification of that man. But all politics aside, this image caused the leader of the communist world to put John Wayne in his crosshairs. Joseph Stalin, premier of the Soviet Union, wanted him dead. Turns out, he wasn’t a fan.
Stalin absolutely loved film, even American ones. He hated how John Wayne’s characters metaphorically took shots at communists, so in 1951 he sent a pair of hitmen to take him out. Fortunately, the FBI was able to foil the plot and arrested the two men before they could get to Wayne.
On behalf of my country, we’re sorry for that one time we tried to kill you
In 1959 new Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev visited the United States, and before he arrived, he announced he only wanted two things: to visit Disneyland and to meet John Wayne, which is a testament to what a huge star Wayne really was. Surprisingly, Wayne agreed, and the happy dictator actually formally apologized for the assassination attempt.
Believe it or not, this wouldn’t be the last time the FBI would foil an assassination plot against the Duke. With great fame came some danger. Reports say there were several — including an attempt in 1966, when a sniper was set to take him out during a visit to Vietnam.
Box office fails
In 1956 John Wayne starred in what is considered his worst role ever. “The Conqueror” will go down in history as culturally tone-deaf because a tall, American white man portrayed the Mongolian Emperor Genghis Kahn. The film would be rated as one of the 50 worst of all time. Today, it probably wouldn’t make it past the stringent Hollywood PC requirements.
The production of the film was also a disaster of epic proportions. According to reports, the set was downwind from a nuclear test site, and according to People Magazine, 91 out of 220 people on set developed some form of cancer. It was good enough to be dubbed “The Conqueror’s Curse.
The iron lung
In 1964 John Wayne got a cancer scare of his own. He was diagnosed with pulmonary cancer that year, and in a candid interview, he coined the term “the big C.” Many pointed to “The Conqueror’s Curse,” but Wayne had a different theory about why he ended up with the illness.
John Wayne was basically a chain smoker. He is reported to have smoked six packs a day throughout his entire adult life. He even did a campaign with Camel cigarettes. He would survive this cancer scare, but it caused part of one his lungs and a number of ribs to be removed.
John Wayne would bounce back from his cancer scare, and in 1969 at the age of 62 years old, he would make the film that finally won him an Academy Award. His portrayal of US Marshal Reuben “Rooster” J. Cogburn in “True Grit” saw him as a loudmouth, drunken, one-eyed lawman who was way past his prime.
In his Oscar acceptance speech the following year, John Wayne kept it short and simple, which was fitting for him. He said, “I’ve come up here and picked up these beautiful golden men before, but always for friends… tonight I don’t feel very clever or very witty. I feel very grateful, very humble, and all thanks to many, many people.”
“Tomorrow is the most important thing in life.”
John Wayne’s career was winding down and in 1976, 50 years since he started acting, he made his final movie, “The Shootist” (actually, his final film was the 1977 classic “Star Wars,” where he was a voice-over for the character Garindan). Unfortunately, he would have another bout with cancer that would make it impossible to act.
John “Duke” Wayne succumbed to stomach cancer on June 11, 1979, at the UCLA Medical Center. His grave was initially unmarked, but 20 years after his death, a quote of his was added to the tombstone. “Tomorrow is the most important thing in life. It comes into us at midnight very clean. It’s perfect when it arrives and it puts itself in our hands. It hopes we’ve learned something from yesterday.”
Finding common ground with the younger generation
Before his death, John Wayne visited Harvard University to receive the Brass Balls Award in 1974. His health was declining, and he faced a student population that was anti-everything he stood for. They berated him with disrespectful questions about everything from his political beliefs to his toupee. When asked about his toupee he said, “This is real hair. It’s not mine, but it’s real.”
And when a student called out his views on the Vietnam War, Wayne said, “Good thing you weren’t here 200 years ago or the tea would’ve never made the harbor.” By all accounts, this moment should’ve been a disaster for the Duke, but his charm disarmed their youthful fervor, and all came away with mutual respect.
Winning in the afterlife
John Wayne would go on to win many awards posthumously. He was awarded the United States’ highest achievements for a civilian with a Congressional Gold Medal and Presidential Medal of Freedom. In a speech in favor of the former award, President of the Director’s Guild Robert Aldrich had this to say:
“John Wayne is far beyond the normal political sharpshooting in this community. Because of his courage, his dignity, his integrity, and because of his talents as an actor, his strength as a leader, his warmth as a human being throughout his illustrious career, he is entitled to a unique spot in our hearts and minds.”
A noble legacy
John Wayne’s legacy lived far beyond his life and is still with us today. In 1985 his family agreed to let a new cancer institute use his name, and the John Wayne Cancer Foundation was born. Their mission statement makes it obvious why they chose John Wayne, as it tries to “bring courage, strength, and grit to the fight against cancer.”
And of course, there is his lengthy filmography that includes almost 300 films. His invention and portrayal of the iconic American hero survives in film even today, and while pessimists insist that his acting perpetuated a myth, it showed multiple generations of people what a person is supposed to be fighting for and to have courage when doing it.