1907 - 1979
American actor John Wayne played characters who typically exuded
decisiveness, virility, and an American "can-do" spirit in over
Wayne was born Marion Mitchell Morrison on May 26, 1907, in
Winterset, Iowa. He received his nickname "Duke" while still a
child, because of his love for a dog of that name. The family's
circumstances were moderate. His father was a pharmacist whose
business ventures did not succeed. The family moved to
California in 1914. His parents were divorced in 1926.
From the age of 12 he was forced to help support himself. He did
so with a variety of odd jobs, including stints as a delivery
boy and as a trucker's helper. A star football player on the
Glendale High School team, he was accepted at the University of
Southern California on a football scholarship. An accident ended
his playing career and scholarship; without funds to support
himself he left the university in 1927 after two years there.
He had spent some time while at college working at the Fox
studio lots in Los Angeles as a labourer, prop boy, and extra.
While doing so he had met John Ford, the director, who took a
shine to him (and would over the years have a major impact on
his career). In 1928, after working at various odd jobs for some
months, he was again employed at the Fox studios, mostly as a
labourer but also as an extra and bit player. His efforts in the
main went unbilled, but he did attain his first screen credits
as Duke Morrison.
His first real break came in 1929, when through the intervention
of Ford he was cast as the lead in a major Fox production, the
Western movie The Big Trail. According to some biographers Fox
executives found his name inappropriate and changed it to John
Wayne, the surname being derived from the American Revolutionary
general "Mad Anthony" Wayne.
The Big Trail was not a success, and Fox soon dropped him.
During the 1930s he worked at various studios, mostly those on
what was known as "Poverty Row." Wayne appeared in over 50
feature films and serials, mostly Westerns. He even appeared in
some films as "Singing Sandy." Tall, personable, able to do his
own stunts, it appeared that he was doomed to be a leading
player in low-budget films.
However, thanks to Ford, with whom he had remained friends,
Wayne was cast as the lead in that director's film Stagecoach, a
1939 Western that became a hit and a classic. This film was a
turning point in Wayne's career. And although it took time for
him to develop the mythic hero image which propelled him to the
top of the box office charts, within a decade he was voted by
movie exhibitors one of the top ten box office attractions of
the year, a position he maintained for 23 of the next 24 years.
Wayne appeared in over 75 films between 1939 and 1976 when The
Shootist, his last film (and appropriately enough a Western),
was released. In the vast majority of these films he was a man
of action, be it in the post Civil War American West or in
contemporary U.S. wars. As an actor he had a marvelous sense of
timing and of his own persona, but comedy was not his forte.
Action was the essence of his films. His characters exuded
decisiveness, confidence, virility, strength, and an American
"can-do" spirit. Indeed, critics have emphasized over and over
again the manner in which he represented a particular kind of
As a box-office superstar he had his choice of roles and
vehicles, but he chose to remain with the genre he knew best. As
the years passed his only concession to age was the gradual
elimination of romance from the roles he played. He went from
wooing leading ladies such as Marlene Dietrich (Pittsburgh,
1942), Gail Russell (Angel and the Badman, 1947), and Patricia
Neal (Operation Pacific, 1951) to more mature roles as a rowdy
pater familias (McClintock, 1963), an older brother (The Sons of
Katie Elder, 1965), and an avuncular marshal (Rio Lobo, 1970).
Wayne's politics were not always right-of-centre, but in the
latter part of his life he became known for his active
anti-Communism. His ultra conservatism began in the mid-1940s.
He served as head of the extremist anti-Communist Motion Picture
Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals; supported
various conservative Republican politicians, including Barry
Goldwater and Richard Nixon; and spoke out forcefully on behalf
of various causes such as American participation in the Vietnam
His politics also influenced his activities as a producer and
director. Wayne's production companies made all kinds of films,
but among them were Big Jim McClain (1951), in which he starred
as a process server for the House Un-American Activities
Committee fighting Communists in Hawaii, and Blood Alley (1955),
in which he played an American who helps a village to escape
from the Communist Chinese mainland to Formosa. The two films
that Wayne directed also are representative of his politics: The
Alamo (1960) is an epic film about a heroic last stand by a
group of Texans in their fight for independence against Mexico
and included some sermonizing by the Wayne character about
democracy as he saw it; The Green Berets (1968), in which Wayne
played a colonel leading troops against the North Vietnamese,
was an outspoken vehicle in support of America's role in the
Wayne was married three times. He had four daughters and three
sons by two of his wives (Josephine Saenez, 1933-1945, and Pilar
Palette Weldy, after 1954). His second wife was Esperanza Diaz
Ceballos Morrison (1946-1954). Wayne was the recipient of many
awards during his career, including an Oscar for his role as the
hard-drinking, one-eyed, tough law man in True Grit (1969) and
an Academy Award nomination for his playing of the career marine
noncom in Sands of Iwo Jima (1949). Plagued by various illnesses
during the last few years of his life, he publicly announced his
triumph over lung cancer in 1964. But a form of that disease
claimed him on June 11, 1979.
In more than 200 films made over 50 years, John Wayne saddled up
to become the greatest figure of one of America's greatest
native art forms, the western.
The movies he starred in rode the range from out-of-the-money
sagebrush quickies to such classics as "Stagecoach" and "Red
River." He won an Oscar as best actor for another western, "True
Grit," in 1969. Yet some of the best films he made told stories
far from the wilds of the West, such as "The Quiet Man" and "The
Long Voyage Home."
In the last decades of his career, Mr. Wayne became something of
an American folk figure, hero to some, villain to others, for
his outspoken views. He was politically conservative and,
although he scorned politics as a way of life for himself, he
enthusiastically supported Richard M. Nixon, Barry Goldwater,
Spiro T. Agnew, Ronald Reagan and others who, he felt, fought
for his concept of Americanism and anti-Communism.
But it was for millions of moviegoers who saw him only on the
big screen that John Wayne really existed. He had not created
the western with its clear-cut conflict between good and bad,
right and wrong, but it was impossible to mention the word
"western" without thinking of "the Duke," as he was called.
By the early 1960's, 161 of his films had grossed $350 million,
and he had been paid as much as $666,000 to make a
movie--although in his early days on screen, his salary ran to
no more than two or three figures a week.
It was rarely a simple matter to find a unanimous opinion on Mr.
Wayne, whether it had to do with his acting or his politics.
Film critics were lavish in praise of him in some roles and
shrugged wearily as they candled his less notable efforts; one
critic, apparently overexposed to westerns, angered him by
commenting, "It never Waynes, but it pours."
Mr. Wayne was co-director and star of "The Green Berets," a 1968
film that supported the United States action in Vietnam. The
movie was assailed by many major critics on all grounds,
political and esthetic, but the public apparently did not mind;
in only six months, it had earned $1 million above its
production cost of $7 million.
Won Growing Respect
As the years passed, Mr. Wayne was recognized as some sort of
American natural resource, and his various critics, political
and film, looked on him with more respect. Abbie Hoffman, the
radical of the 1960's paid tribute to Mr. Wayne's singularity.
Reviewing "The Cowboys," made in 1972, Vincent Canby, film
critic of The New York Times, who did not particularly care for
it, wrote, "Wayne is, of course, marvellously indestructible,
and he has become an almost perfect father figure."
But years before he became anything close to a father figure,
Mr. Wayne had become a symbolic male figure, a man of
impregnable virility and the embodiment of simplistic, laconic
virtues, packaged in a well-built 6-foot-4-inch, 225- pound
He had a handsome and hearty face, with crinkles around eyes
that were too lidded to express much emotion but gave the
impression of a man of action, an outdoor man who chafed at a
settled life. He was laconic on screen. And when he shambled
into view, one could sense the arrival of coiled vigour awaiting
only provocation to be sprung. His demeanour and his roles were
those of a man who did not look for trouble but was relentless
in tackling it when it affronted him. This screen presence
emerged particularly under the ministrations of John Ford and
Howard Hawks, the directors.
Overcame Great Odds
Appearances were not altogether deceiving. Mr. Wayne loved
adventure and the outdoors. He did believe that things were
either right or wrong, and he came back against great odds. In
1964, a malignant tumour was removed from his chest and left
lung, and within several months he was on location making
More recently, he found himself the target of much hate mail
from the right wing, whose political idol he had been, after he
supported President Carter's espousal of the Panama Canal
treaties. He did not mind. Although his basic views had not
moderated, his tolerance, it seemed, had. He had even shown up
at a function to congratulate Jane Fonda, who was to the left
what he was to the right, on winning a screen award.
Mr. Wayne made his last public appearance at the Academy Awards
ceremony in April, where he drew an emotional standing ovation
when he strode out on stage to present the Oscar for best
He was recently presented with a special Congressional medal of
the kind given to such national figures as the Wright Brothers.
Between his first starring role in "The Big Trail" in 1930, and
his last one, as the most celebrated gunslinger in the West who
finds he is dying of cancer in "The Shootist," in 1976, Mr.
Wayne shot his way through generations of film fans with little
change in style or personality. He had consciously adapted his
posture for that first movie and retained it. He was sometimes
inseparable from it in the flesh.
Watched Movies Being Made
"When I started, I knew I was no actor and I went to work on
this Wayne thing," he once recalled. "It was as deliberate a
projection as you'll ever see. I figured I needed a gimmick, so
I dreamed up the drawl, the squint and a way of moving meant to
suggest that I wasn't looking for trouble but would just as soon
throw a bottle at your head as not. I practiced in front of a
His entrance into films was as fortuitous as any made by a young
fellow who grew up near the Hollywood badlands. But the Wayne
saga actually started much farther east, in the small town of
Winterset, Iowa, where he was born May 26, 1907, and was named
Marion Michael Morrison.
His father, Clyde L. Morrison, had a drugstore, but when Marion
was 6 years old, his father, because of ill health, moved the
family to Southern California and became a homesteader with an
80-acre farm. Not long after, the family settled in Glendale,
where Mr. Morrison again went and opened a pharmacy. His store
was in the same building as a theatre, and young Marion, who
rose at 4 A.M. to deliver newspapers and then, after school and
football practice, delivered orders from the store, went to the
movies four or five times a week, free.
Even earlier, when he was 7, he had learned about horses and
played cowboy. In Glendale, he saw movies being made at the
Triangle Studios, where they often shot outdoor scenes. The link
between horse and camera was yet to be forged, but the
influences were there from the beginning. Along the way he had
acquired the nickname "Duke." It came from an Airedale terrier
he had had, he used to say as he debunked press releases that
tried to explain the moniker as some sort of rubbed-off
Came to Ford's Attention
He worked as truck driver, fruit picker, soda jerk and ice
hauler and was an honour student and a member of an outstanding
football team at high school. His athletic talents brought him a
football scholarship at the University of Southern California,
but in his second year he broke an ankle and dropped out.
While he was still at school, he got a job, as other football
players did, as a scenery mover at Fox Films. John Ford was
attracted to the youth's hulking physique and made him a
"fourth-assistant prop boy." When Mr. Ford was making a
submarine film on location in the channel off Catalina Island,
the regular stuntmen refused to go into the water because of
rough seas. Mr. Ford asked the prop boy if he would. He did,
immediately, and became part of the Ford team.
In an early film, Republic Pictures gave him a screen credit as
Michael Burn and, in another, as Duke Morrison. When Raoul Walsh
cast him as the star of "The Big Trail," his expensive, $2
million western, the director thought that Marion was too
sissified a name for a western hero, and "John Wayne" was born.
Rode in 40 Westerns
The movie was a flop. It had been shot as a talking picture on
72-millimeter film, a "superwestern" designed for large screens
that required protection equipment that few movie houses were
After two non-westerns, Mr. Wayne retreated into short-order
horse operas. Between 1933 and 1939, he made more than 40
westerns, all Grade B or C undertakings, interspersed with
several that took him off the range but not into any particular
Then, like a good guy riding in to relieve the oppressed, his
old benefactor, Mr. Ford, came along to cast Mr. Wayne as the
Ringo Kid in the Oscar-winning "Stagecoach," the 1939 movie that
took westerns from the Saturday afternoon for-kids-only category
and attracted the attention of more intellectual film critics.
It was a turning point also for Mr. Wayne.
His next major role found him in a milieu far from the cactus
sets. He played a simple Swedish lad in the crew of a freighter
in "The Voyage Home," Mr. Ford's 1940 film based on the sea
plays of Eugene O'Neill.
Mr. Wayne's work from that point reads like a bill of lading of
popular Hollywood wares. He starred with Marlene Dietrich in
three films: "Seven Sinners" (1940), "Pittsburgh" (1943) and
"The Spoilers" (1942). Others included Cecil B. De Mille's "Reap
the Wild Wind" (1942), as well as a slew of World War II movies
that embraced Mr. Ford's "They Were Expendable" in 1945.
Later came "Fort Apache" and "Red River," in 1948, and "Three
Godfathers" and "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon," both in 1949. In
1952, Mr. Wayne showed off to best effect as the young
Irish-American returned to Ireland in Mr. Ford's "The Quiet
Man." It was a much-acclaimed film and is still a frequent
feature on television.
Invested in 'The Alamo'
By the late 1940's, Mr. Wayne had already been transformed from
a dashing young adventurer to an older one, no less dashing, but
in a somewhat more restrained tempo. In "Red River," directed by
Mr. Hawks, Mr. Wayne portrayed a ruthless cattle baron, not
altogether a good guy, but one with some depth to him. In this
instance, Montgomery Clift, the co-star, represented the forces
Mr. Wayne invested $1.2 million in 1960 to make "The Alamo,"
about the fight between the Americans--the good guys--and the
Mexicans--the bad guys. He played Davy Crockett. The picture was
very dear to his heart because, he said, "We wanted to re-create
a moment in history that will show this generation of Americans
what their country still stands for . . what some of their
forebears went through to win what they had to have or
die*liberty and freedom."
He was bitterly disappointed when the film failed. However, he
quickly went on to other work: "The Man Who Shot Liberty
Valance," "Hatari" and "The Longest Day," all in 1962; "How the
West Was Won" in 1963, and "El Dorado" in 1967, another film
directed by Mr. Hawks.
In 1969, Mr. Wayne was almost universally hailed when he starred
in "True Grit," directed by Henry Hathaway. Mr. Wayne played a
disreputable, one-eyed, drunken, fat old man who was a Federal
Marshal called Rooster Cogburn. In 1970, the Academy of Motion
Picture Arts and Sciences awarded him an Oscar for his
The success of "True Grit" led to "Rooster Cogburn," in 1975, in
which he co-starred with Katharine Hepburn in her first western.
Mr. Wayne starred in his first television special, "Swing Out,
Sweet Land," a paean of patriotism, in 1970, and later became
well-known for various television appearances. He never made a
television series and had deep reservations about the medium's
approach to the western.
"Television has a tendency to reach a little," he observed,
referring to television westerns' propensities for psychological
insights. "In their westerns, they are getting away from the
simplicity and the fact that those men were fighting the
elements and the rawness of nature and didn't have time for this
His anti-Communist sentiments led Mr. Wayne to help found the
Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals
in 1944, and he was its president for two terms.
The organization, which eventually disbanded, was accused of
having given the names of suspected Communists in the film
industry to the House Committee on Un-American Activities,
although Mr. Wayne said later that he had never been party to
any such thing.
Once, interviewed about civil rights, he said: "I believe in
white supremacy until the blacks are educated to the point of
responsibility. I don't believe in giving authority and
positions of leadership and judgment to irresponsible people."
He said that when he was in school, he was a "socialist," but
not for long. He said that he was a rebel, but not one like the
youngsters of the late 60's.
"Mine is a rebellion against the monotony of life," he said.
"The rebellion in these kids*particularly the S.D.S.'ers and
those groups*seems to be a kind of dissension by rote."
In his later years, Mr. Wayne, who had invested in oil and also
in a shrimp business in Panama, among other things, became more
financially conservative than he had been. He had not kept a
very tight hand on his money earlier, and at one point realized
he was not as well off as he had thought.
However, he was not impoverished. He lived with his third wife,
Pilar Palette Wayne, who was born in Peru, in an 11-room,
seven-bathroom, $175,000 house in Newport Beach, Calif., where
he had a 135-foot yacht. He owned cattle ranches in Stanfield
and Springerville, Ariz.
Mr. Wayne's first two marriages, to Josephine Saenz and
Esperanzo Bauer, also Latin Americans, ended in divorces. He had
seven children from his marriages, and more than 15
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This web page was last updated on:
17 December, 2008