Who Was John Wayne?
Actor John Wayne received his first leading film role in The Big Trail (1930). Working with John Ford, he got his next big break in Stagecoach (1939). His career as an actor took another leap forward when he worked with director Howard Hawks in Red River (1948). Wayne won his first Academy Award in 1969 for his role in True Grit.
John Wayne was born Marion Robert Morrison on May 26, 1907, in Winterset, Iowa. (Some sources also list him as Marion Michael Morrison and Marion Mitchell Morrison.) One of the most popular film actors of the 20th century, Wayne remains an American film icon to this day.
The oldest of two children born to Clyde and Mary "Molly" Morrison, Wayne moved to Lancester, California, around the age of seven. The family moved again a few years later after Clyde failed in his attempt to become a farmer.
Settling in Glendale, California, Wayne received his distinctive nickname "Duke" while living there. He had a dog by that name, and he spent so much time with his pet that the pair became known as "Little Duke" and "Big Duke," according to the official John Wayne website. In high school, Wayne excelled in his classes and in many different activities, including student government and football. He also participated in numerous student theatrical productions.
Winning a football scholarship to the University of Southern California, Wayne started college in the fall of 1925. He joined the Sigma Chi fraternity and continued to be a strong student. Unfortunately, after two years, an injury took him off the football field and ended his scholarship. While in college, Wayne had done some work as a film extra, appearing as a football player in Brown of Harvard (1926) and Drop Kick (1927).
Out of school, Wayne worked as an extra and a prop man in the film industry. He first met director John Ford while working as an extra on Mother Machree (1928). With The Big Trail (1930), Wayne received his first leading role, thanks to director Raoul Walsh. Walsh is often credited with helping him create his now legendary screen name, John Wayne. Unfortunately, the western was a box office dud.
For nearly a decade, Wayne toiled in numerous B movies, mostly westerns, for different studios. He even played a singing cowboy named Sandy Saunders among his many roles. During this time period, however, Wayne started developing his man of action persona, which would serve as the basis of many popular characters later on.
Working with Ford, he got his next big break in Stagecoach (1939). Wayne portrayed the Ringo Kid, an escaped outlaw who joins an unusual assortment of characters on a dangerous journey through frontier lands. During the trip, the Kid falls for a dance hall prostitute named Dallas (Claire Trevor). The film was well-received by moviegoers and critics alike and earned seven Academy Award nominations, including one for Ford's direction. In the end, it took home the awards for Music and for Actor in a Supporting Role for Thomas Mitchell.
Reunited with Ford and Mitchell, Wayne stepped away from his usual Western roles to become a Swedish seaman in The Long Voyage Home (1940). The film was adapted from a play by Eugene O'Neill and follows the crew of a steamer ship as they move a shipment of explosives. Along with many positive reviews, the movie earned several Academy Award nominations.
Around this time, Wayne made the first of several movies with German actress and famous sex symbol Marlene Dietrich. The two appeared together in Seven Sinners (1940) with Wayne playing a naval officer and Dietrich playing a woman who sets out to seduce him. Off-screen, they became romantically involved, though Wayne was married at the time. There had been rumors about Wayne having other affairs, but nothing as substantial as his connection to Dietrich. Even after their physical relationship ended, the pair remained good friends and co-starred in two more films, Pittsburgh (1942) and The Spoilers (1942).
Wayne started working behind the scenes as a producer in the late 1940s. The first film he produced was Angel and the Badman (1947). Over the years, he operated several different production companies, including John Wayne Productions, Wayne-Fellows Productions and Batjac Productions.
Wayne's career as an actor took another leap forward when he worked with director Howard Hawks in Red River (1948). The western drama provided Wayne with an opportunity to show his talents as an actor, not just an action hero. Playing the conflicted cattleman Tom Dunson, he took on a darker sort of character. He deftly handled his character's slow collapse and difficult relationship with his adopted son played by Montgomery Clift. Also around this time, Wayne received praise for his work in Ford's Fort Apache (1948) with Henry Fonda and Shirley Temple.
Taking on a war drama, Wayne gave a strong performance in Sands of Iwo Jima (1949), which garnered him his first Academy Award nomination for Best Actor. He also appeared in more two westerns by Ford now considered classics: She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) and Rio Grande (1950) with Maureen O'Hara.
Wayne worked with O'Hara on several films, perhaps most notably The Quiet Man (1952). Playing an American boxer with a bad reputation, his character moved to Ireland where he fell in love with a local woman (O'Hara). This film is considered Wayne's most convincing leading romantic role by many critics.
Politics and Later Years
A well-known conservative and anticommunist, Wayne merged his personal beliefs and his professional life in 1952's Big Jim McLain. He played an investigator working for the U.S. House Un-American Activities Committee, which worked to root out communists in all aspects of public life. Off screen, Wayne played a leading role in the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals and even served as its president for a time. The organization was a group of conservatives who wanted to stop communists from working in the film industry, and other members included Gary Cooper and Ronald Reagan.
In 1956, Wayne starred in another Ford western, The Searchers, and again showed some dramatic range as the morally questionable Civil War veteran Ethan Edwards. He soon after reteamed with Howard Hawks for Rio Bravo (1959). Playing a local sheriff, Wayne's character must face off against a powerful rancher and his henchmen who want to free his jailed brother. The unusual cast included Dean Martin and Angie Dickinson.
Wayne made his directorial debut with The Alamo (1960). Starring in the film as Davy Crockett, he received decidedly mixed reviews for both his on- and off-screen efforts. Wayne received a much warmer reception for The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) with Jimmy Stewart and Lee Marvin and directed by Ford. Some other notable films from this period include The Longest Day (1962) and How the West Was Won (1962). Continuing to work steadily, Wayne refused to even let illness slow him down. He successfully battled lung cancer in 1964. To defeat the disease, Wayne had to have a lung and several ribs removed.
In the later part of the 1960s, Wayne had some great successes and failures. He co-starred with Robert Mitchum in El Dorado (1967), which was well-received. The next year, Wayne again mixed the professional and the political with the pro-Vietnam War film The Green Berets (1968). He directed, produced and starred in the film, which was derided by critics for being heavy-handed and clichéd. Viewed by many as a piece of propaganda, the film still did well at the box office.
Around this time, Wayne continued to espouse his conservative political views. He supported friend Reagan in his 1966 bid for governor of California as well as his 1970 re-election effort. In 1976, Wayne recorded radio advertisements for Reagan's first attempt to become the Republican presidential candidate.
Wayne won his first Academy Award for Best Actor for True Grit (1969). He played Rooster Cogburn, an eye-patching drunkard and lawman, who helps a young woman named Mattie (Kim Darby) track down her father's killer. A young Glen Campbell joined the pair on their mission. Rounding out the cast, Robert Duvall and Dennis Hopper were among the bad guys the trio had to defeat. A later sequel with Katharine Hepburn, Rooster Cogburn (1975), failed to attract critical acclaim or much of an audience.
Death and Legacy
Wayne portrayed an aging gunfighter dying of cancer in his final film, The Shootist (1976), with Jimmy Stewart and Lauren Bacall. His character, John Bernard Books, hoped to spend his final days peacefully, but got involved one last gunfight. In 1978, life imitated art with Wayne being diagnosed with stomach cancer.
Wayne died on June 11, 1979, in Los Angeles, California. He was survived by his seven children from two of his three marriages. During his marriage to Josephine Saenz from 1933 to 1945, the couple had four children, two daughters Antonia and Melinda and two sons Michael and Patrick. Both Michael and Patrick followed in their father's footsteps, Michael as a producer and Patrick as an actor. With his third wife, Pilar Palette, he had three more children, Ethan, Aissa and Marisa. Ethan has worked as an actor over the years.
Shortly before his death, the U.S. Congress approved a congressional gold medal for Wayne. It was given to his family in 1980. In the same month as Wayne's passing, the Orange County Airport was renamed after him. He was later featured on a postage stamp in 1990 and again in 2004 and was inducted into the California Hall of Fame in 2007.
In honor of his charitable work in the fight against cancer, Wayne's children established the John Wayne Cancer Foundation in 1985. The organization provides support to numerous cancer-related programs and to the John Wayne Cancer Institute at Saint John's Health Center in Santa Monica, California.
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