Almost 30 years after his death, John “Duke” Wayne remains a legendary figure in the hearts and memories of America and the world. The universally acclaimed actor wasn’t just known for his almost 200 film performances. John Wayne also was an outspoken advocate for traditional American values and ideals – his patriotism was never in question even when people disagreed with his conservative political views. In support of his country and its Armed Forces, he worked tirelessly with the USO from World War II right through Vietnam. When he passed away, newspaper headlines in Japan read “Mr. America Is Dead” and many Americans agreed.
“The Duke” was born Marion Robert Morrison on May 26, 1907 to Clyde and Mary Morrison of Winterset, Iowa. His middle name was later changed to Michael when a second son was born and named Robert Emmet. After Clyde was diagnosed with tuberculosis, the family relocated to Palmdale, California. After the farm failed in 1916, the Morrison’s moved again to Glendale, only 10 minutes from the heart of Los Angeles.
Marion grew up with a strict work ethic and began working when he was only 11 years old. Before school he delivered newspapers and then, after school, he would deliver prescriptions for his father who worked for a local drugstore. He also had a Saturday job working at the local movie theater – probably where his love of film was born. His nickname as “The Duke” began during this time despite the many rumors that later abounded. Marion had a dog that used to roam around town with him and people affectionately called them “Big Duke” and “Little Duke”. He was to remain “Duke” until the day he died.
Working at such diverse jobs as soda jerk and ice hauler, Morrison was an honor student and a football player in high school. His athletic ability earned him a football scholarship to the University of Southern California. While going to college, he got a job setting up scenery with Fox Films. One of the most influential friendships of his life was to begin at Fox when John Ford made him a prop boy. He dropped out of college to pursue his film career after breaking his ankle during his sophomore year, starting with being an extra whenever he had the chance as well as doing stunt work.
His first starring role was in The Big Trail in 1930 and this is when the stage name of John Wayne was created. The producer, Raoul Walsh, felt that Marion was a “sissy” name and people wouldn’t buy a cowboy actor by that name. Without any real input from Marion, he became John Wayne overnight and went by that name for the rest of his illustrious career. This movie wasn’t a big success for Wayne and he ended up back in bit parts for several years. In the 30’s he also played on some serials: The Shadow Of The Eagle, The Three Musketeers, The Hurricane Express.
In 1939, John Ford needed an actor to play the character of the Ringo Kid in his new western Stagecoach. This movie won acclaim from the critics and the public alike and seemingly overnight, John Wayne became a star. Soon he was to become a household name as the western came into its own as a serious film genre. Although he starred as sailors, football coaches and war heroes, Wayne will forever be memorialized as the Great American Cowboy image that he so capably portrayed. He so embodied the cowboy for America that Life Magazine showed him in cowboy attire, complete with hat, on all three of the covers that featured him.
John Wayne played the cowboy so well and so believably through the years that there are so many films to choose from. To discuss all of them would be to take us much further than this article would have room for but no article about John Wayne would be complete without some highlights from at least a few of his greatest films.
In The Big Trail, Wayne played the character of Breck Coleman as he leads a wagon train cross country. As he guides the pioneers through storms and deserts, he fights off Indian attacks. Meanwhile he looks for a murderer and falls in love with a pioneer woman from the wagon train. While not particularly successful, this is a good example of how talented Wayne already was in the early years of his career.
1947 had John Wayne cast as Quirt Evans in the classic, Angel and the Badman. This movie depicts Wayne as a general bad guy until meeting a Quaker girl who nurses him back to health after being injured. Of course, he ends up having to choose between being bad or being good to win the girl.
He got the chance to show us his comedic talents in McLintock! in 1963. Playing a cattle baron in this film, we got to see Wayne show how funny he could be while battling his land-grabbing enemies along with his own family.
The John Wayne classic film True Grit, from 1969, is one of his most famous movies. Playing U.S. Federal Marshal Rooster Cogburn, he unwillingly teams up with a teenage hoyden to get justice over her father’s death. The pair hooks up with a Texas Ranger, played by Glen Campbell, and chase the bad guys deep into Indian territory before finding the culprit.
Wayne’s last movie was an eerie foreshadowing for his 1979 death. In The Shootist, he plays an aging gunfighter who is dying of cancer. In pain and deciding he wants to go out on his own terms, he sets up a shootout in order to try to be killed quickly.
When “The Duke” passed away in 1979 after losing his long battle with cancer, America grieved and the world mourned with us. Before he died, Wayne had stated that he wanted his epitaph “Feo, Fuerte y Formal” to be carved on his headstone. Translated into English this says “He was ugly, strong and had dignity”. Most would disagree with the ugly but even his detractors always had to acknowledge that he was certainly “strong and had dignity”.
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