For us at Bio.com, May has been a celebration of American West legends—both historical and cinematic. And when it comes to the Hollywood cowboy, Marion Mitchell Morrison—more commonly known as John Wayne—is one of the most widely recognized, due to his successful and lengthy film career. Over the course of five decades, Wayne starred in 142 films and appeared in more than 175 total, making him a household name in the United States. He was admired for his tough guy persona and personified the Old West for many Americans. Many people know John Wayne for his work in film—as an actor, producer, and director—but there was a lot more to the man than just his career. In honor of Wayne, who would’ve turned 105 on May 26, here are just a few of the often forgotten stories about him.
1. What’s in a Name? John Wayne was born Marion Robert Morrison on May 26, 1907. When his parents named his younger brother Robert Emmet, he decided to change his middle name to Michael. In addition to his given name, he acquired the nickname “Duke.” The origin of the Duke nickname is often questioned, but Wayne himself says it was simple, “Hell, the truth is that I was named after a dog!” He owned an Airedale named Duke as a youth, and locals in his hometown of Glendale often called the two “Big Duke” and “Little Duke.” But having just three nicknames was apparently not enough for the young Wayne, and in 1930, while shooting The Big Trail, director Raoul Walsh gave him the more rugged moniker John Wayne.
2. Fallen Dreams. John Wayne got into acting because of an accident. He dreamed about being a football player, and at an imposing and athletic 6’4,” he had an excellent chance. In fact, he attended the University of Southern California on a football scholarship as a tackle, but a severe shoulder injury that he incurred while body surfing destroyed his athletic dreams. Since he didn’t have any money, Wayne was forced to drop out of school. Luckily for him (and for us), a friendship with director John Ford allowed his film career to begin just as his athletic career ended.
PHOTO GALLERY: John Wayne, Life and Legacy
3. War Story. John Wayne did not serve in World War II, even though he portrayed the ideal American hero and appeared in the Pacific for a USO tour during the war. The U.S. ordained him with 3-A status, which meant his service was deferred for family reasons. Although many of Wayne’s close friends claim he regretted not serving, he seemed to have enough of his own battles to fight back at home: The actor was dealing with a troubled marriage and four kids to support, despite a blossoming film career.
4. It’s Complicated. Although John Wayne portrayed heroic men revered for their honorable deeds, in real life, he had some bad habits that were hard for him to break. When it came to the lady department, he had a wandering eye and also suffered through two difficult divorces (Josephine Alicia Sanez, 1945 & Esperenza Baur, 1954). He was also a lover of the bottle and an avid smoker, appearing in several Camel ads. It was said that Wayne would regularly go through five packs of cigarettes a day, but in 1964, all that changed when he was diagnosed with lung cancer and had to get a lung removed.
5. All Sorts of Honors. Like most of us, John Wayne dealt with his own personal demons. However, his problems did not stop him from becoming one of the most distinguished civilians in US history. Wayne was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in 1979 and shortly after his death, in 1980, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. After his battle with lung cancer, Wayne spoke out against cigarettes and devoted himself to cancer research, establishing the John Wayne Cancer Foundation & Institute. Additionally, he earned the highest honor in his own profession, being awarded the Oscar for Best Actor at the 42nd Annual Academy Awards for his portrayal of Rooster Cogburn in True Grit.