John Wayne (1907-1979)

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John Wayne
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John Wayne was one of the most successful and best known actors in Hollywood. He appeared in almost 180 films over the course of his career and won a Best Actor Oscar in 1969 for 'True Grit'. His box-office appeal was huge and his movies have so far grossed over $700million - far in excess of any other performer.

Yet, he was far more than just a money making machine. He became a legend, an icon for the youth of America and the world to aspire to, an image of moral strength, physical courage and immense determination. His career spans almost the entire history of Hollywood, beginning in silent movies in the 1920's right up to 'The Shootist' in 1976 when he gave one of his greatest ever performances.

The American Film Institute named him thirteenth among the Greatest Male Stars of All Time. In 2007 a Harris Poll placed Wayne third among America's favorite film stars. He is the only one who has appeared on the poll every year. His movie,'The Searchers' was named the Greatest Western of all time by the American Film Institute in 2008.

He is still the most popular actor in history and is still, today, 3 decades after his death, an immense presence towering over Hollywood. His epitaph, written in Spanish, is "He was ugly, he was strong and he had dignity".


John Wayne was born in Winterset, Iowa on May 26, 1907. His birth name was Marion Robert Morrison, which was changed shortly afterwards to Marion Mitchell Morrison as his parents had decided to give their next son the name Robert.

The family moved to the sunny climate of California to improve his father's health and after an abortive attempt at ranching, they moved again and his father opened a pharmacy shop in Glendale, California. Marion delivered orders for his father, whilst still at school. He began to be called 'Little Duke' to differentiate him from his huge Airedale dog called 'Duke' and the nickname 'Duke' stuck with him for the rest of his life.

Attending Glendale High School he proved to be an excellent student and also showed early promise as an actor. He took part in several school plays and even represented the school in the Southern California Shakespeare Competition, reciting a passage from 'Henry VIII'.

As well as showing his academic prowess, the strong, tall young man also made use of his athletic build and made a name for himself as a football player, getting an athletic scholarship in 1925 to study law at the University of Southern California. He played football for the outstanding USC team and his first appearances on film are as a footballer with his USC team mates in 'Brown of Harvard' in 1926 and 'The Dropkick' the following year.

Early Movie Career

Wayne's promising football career ended when he had a serious ankle injury in 1926 during his second year. By then he had started doing part time work as a prop man at the local film studios where he became good friends with the young up-and-coming director, John Ford, who was to play a big part in Duke's early career. Ford began giving him walk-on parts in his movies during the late 1920's, at first under the name Duke Morrison, and it was Ford who gave him his big break by recommending him to director Raoul Walsh for the lead role in the Western 'The Big Trail' in 1930. It was for this movie that his name was changed by Fox Studios to John Wayne.

Although now regarded as a classic, 'The Big Trail' failed at the box office, mainly because it was filmed in a new widescreen format which few movie theaters were able to show. Although he received plaudits for his performance, the 23 year old Wayne had to put his movie career on hold, and for the next ten years he worked hard learning his new profession.

During this time he made over 60 'B' movies, mainly Westerns such as 'Texas Cyclone' and 'Haunted Gold' in 1932, 'The Man from Utah' in 1934, 'Born to the West in 1937 and 'Santa Fe Stampede and 'Red River Range' in 1938. He honed his riding, roping and gun skills during this time and he consciously developed his distinctive voice, walk and acting style as he realised he needed to be able to stand out amongst the other actors who were flocking to Hollywood.


Finally, in 1939, he was given the opportunity to show what he could do when Ford cast him as in the landmark Western 'Stagecoach'. It was the movie that redefined the Western and showed the depth and range of Wayne's acting abilities. He played an escaped outlaw caIled the Ringo Kid who joins a stagecoach on a dangerous journey through Indian territory. The movie was a great success both critically and financially and it made John Wayne a top Hollywood star.

For the remainder of his long career, Wayne continued to appear in many of Ford's films of all types, particularly Westerns such as 'Fort Apache' in 1948, 'She Wore a Yellow Ribbon' the following year, 'Rio Grande' in 1950, 'The Searchers' in 1956 and 'The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance' in 1962 and war movies such as 1945's 'They Were Expendable' and more conventional dramas such as 'The Quiet Man in 1952.

World War II

In the early 1940's Wayne starred in a series of movies with Marlene Dietrich and his popularity with the public continued to rise steadily. He received criticism and accusations of being a draft dodger for not entering the armed services during World War II. He was in fact exempt from military service due to his age (he was 34 at the time of Pearl Harbor) and his family status, classified as 3-A (family deferment).

He made a very significant contribution to the war effort by making films such as 'The Fighting Seabees' in 1944 and 'They Were Expendable' in 1945 and many wartime veterans said that a major reason for their joining up was their great appreciation of his movies. He also became a regular and immensely popular visitor to the war zones of World War II, noticeably raising morale amongst the troops.

After 1945 he continued to develop his 'tough-guy with morality' image and he gradually became an icon of masculinity for American men to aspire to. It was a deliberate strategy on Wayne's part. As an intelligent man he knew he was a product being packaged, and he was quite happy to be part of it.

His popularity continued to rise during the late 1940's with different genres of movies including several World War II thrillers such as 'Back to Bataan' in 1945, 'Sands of Iwo Jima' in 1949, for which he was nominated for the Best Actor Academy Award; costume action dramas like 'Wake of the Red Witch in 1949; and of course, Westerns like 'Angel and the Badman' in 1947 and the classic 'Red River' in 1948.

By the start of the 1950's he was one of Hollywood's top stars. He also began producing movies through his own company Batjac, (originally called Wayne-Fellowes), many of which were very successful, including 'Island in the Sky' in 1953, 'The High and the Mighty' in 1954, and 'Rio Bravo' in 1958. 'The Searchers' in 1956 is seen by many critics as Wayne's finest performance. He plays Ethan Edwards, a Civil War Veteran searching for his niece who has been taken by Indians and the movie explores serious themes such as racial prejudice and sexism. In 1960 Wayne directed his first movie, 'The Alamo' in which he also starred, as Davy Crockett.

As his career progressed, Wayne's honest, straight-dealing reputation rose with him and he achieved a uniquely strong position in the mind of the movie-going public as well as the film critics. He continued to act in a succession of popular movies including 'Hatari!' in 1962, 'Donovan's Reef' the following year, 'The Green Berets' in 1968 and 'True Grit' in 1969 for which he won the Best Actor Oscar.

After 'True Grit' his career went into decline. In the 1970's he played in a succession of Westerns which were successful primarily because of his reputation rather than for any intrinsic quality. 'Rio Lobo' in 1970 was mauled by the critics, 'Big Jake' in 1971 made money but 'The Cowboys' in 1972 was indifferent and 'The Train Robbers' and 'Cahill U.S. Marshal' the following year were also disappointing.

During this time he made several movies in which he tried to emulate Clint Eastwood as a 'Dirty Harry' type of tough cop but the movies were ridiculed because of his age and increasing waistline. 'McQ' in 1974 was only moderately successful, and 'Brannigan' the following year performed poorly.

In 1975 Wayne starred in a sequel to 'True Grit', titled 'Rooster Cogburn...and the Lady', co-starring Katharine Hepburn, but it was again mauled by the critics. Seriously considering retirement, Wayne made one more movie and it was one of his best. 'The Shootist' in 1976, tells the story of an ageing gunslinger who, discovers that he is dying of cancer. Wayne gave a memorable performance made more poignant as he himself was dying of the same disease.


John Wayne married three times, each time to Latin-American women, a strange fact which he called 'happenstance'. His first marriage in 1933 was to Josephine Saenz, the daughter of the Panamian Consul in Los Angeles. They had four children but Josephine had no real interest in the business of movies and could not understand her husband's passion for his work. The marriage ended in divorce in 1945.

Wayne had affairs with several of his leading ladies, most notably with Marlene Dietrich whom he met in 1941 when they co-starred in 'Seven Sinners'. They made two other pictures together, 'The Spoilers' and 'Pittsburgh', both in 1942. Their affair, during which both dated other people, lasted on-and-off for several years before it faded.

His second marriage was to Esperanza 'Chata' Baur in 1946, ending in divorce after seven years. The divorce was messy and unedifying to both parties. Chata was an alcoholic who accused her husband of beating her. Wayne denied it emphatically. Chata also accused Wayne of having an affair with Gail Russell, his leading lady in 'Angel and the Badman' in 1947. both Wayne and Gail Russell denied the affair.

Wayne was essentially a private man and he deplored the publicity surrounding his second divorce, although it did not shake his popularity with the public. He and Chata eventually divorced in 1954 and Wayne married his third and last wife, Pilar Palette, on the day his divorce became final.

Pilar, who was 22 years younger than Wayne was an actress and her father was a Peruvian politician. She took an active interest in her husband's career. The couple had three children but separated in 1973. They never legally divorced.

After their separation Wayne was romantically involved with his secretary Pat Stacy for the remaining six years of his life.

Wayne was a wealthy man and invested his large income wisely. He lived with his third wife, Pilar, in a large house in Newport Beach, California, where he also had a 135-foot yacht. He also owned cattle ranches in Stanfield and Springerville, Arizona.


Wayne began to have serious health problems in the 1960's. Since his youth he had been a heavy smoker, getting through five packs a day, and in 1964, he was diagnosed with lung cancer. He underwent successful surgery to remove his entire left lung and four ribs. For the rest of his life he had oxygen bottles with him. In 1969 he announced that he had 'licked the big C'.

He suffered a stroke in 1974, which is why he can be seen talking out the side of his mouth in some of his films made around this time. In March 1978 he had heart valve replacement surgery; and in January 1979 his stomach was removed.

John Wayne died of gastric cancer on June 11, 1979 and was buried in the Pacific View Memorial Park cemetery in Orange County, California. Wayne was buried in secret and the grave went unmarked until 1999, in case Vietnam War protesters desecrated the site. Twenty years after his death he finally received a headstone made of bronze which was engraved with a quotation which reads:

"Tomorrow is the most important thing in life. Comes into us at midnight very clean. It's perfect when it arrives and it puts itself in our hands. It hopes we've learnt something from yesterday."

John Wayne Academy Awards

One Win:
Best Actor ... True Grit (1969)

Two Unsuccessful Nominations:
Best Actor ... Sands of Iwo Jima (1949)
Best Picture ... The Alamo (1960)

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John Wayne Filmography

Brown of Harvard (uncredited)
Bardelys the Magnificent (uncredited)
The Great K & A Train Robbery (uncredited)
Annie Laurie (uncredited)
Glitter (uncredited)
Four Sons
Hangman's House (uncredited)
Noah's Ark (uncredited)
King of the Khyber Rifles (uncredited)
Words and Music (as Duke Morrison)
Salute (uncredited)
The Forward Pass (uncredited)
Men Without Women (uncredited)
Born Reckless (uncredited)
Rough Romance (uncredited)
Cheer Up and Smile (uncredited)
The Big Trail
Girls Demand Excitement
Three Girls Lost
The Deceiver
Range Feud
Maker of Men
The Shadow of the Eagle
Texas Cyclone
Two-Fisted Law
Lady and Gent
The Hurricane Express
Ride Him, Cowboy
That's My Boy (uncredited)
The Big Stampede
Haunted Gold
The Telegraph Trail
The Three Musketeers
Central Airport (uncredited)
Somewhere in Sonora
The Kid's Last Fight
His Private Secretary
Baby Face
The Man from Monterey
Riders of Destiny
Football Coach (uncredited)
Sagebrush Trail
Stolen Goods
The Lucky Texan
West of the Divide
Blue Steel
The Man from Utah
Randy Rides Alone
He Wore a Star
The Trail Beyond
The Lawless Frontier
'Neath the Arizona Skies
Texas Terror
Rainbow Valley
The Desert Trail
The Dawn Rider
Paradise Canyon
Westward Ho
The New Frontier
Lawless Range
The Oregon Trail
The Lawless Nineties
King of the Pecos
The Lonely Trail
Winds of the Wasteland
Sea Spoilers
California Straight Ahead!
I Cover the War
Idol of the Crowds
Adventure's End
Born to the West
Pals of the Saddle
Overland Stage Raiders
Santa Fe Stampede
Red River Range
The Night Riders
Three Texas Steers
Wyoming Outlaw
New Frontier
The First Rebel
Dark Command
The Refugee
The Long Voyage Home
Seven Sinners
Citadel of Crime
Lady from Louisiana
The Shepherd of the Hills
Lady for a Night
Reap the Wild Wind
The Spoilers
In Old California
Flying Tigers
Mademoiselle France
A Lady Takes a Chance
In Old Oklahoma
The Fighting Seabees
Tall in the Saddle
Flame of the Barbary Coast
Back to Bataan
They Were Expendable
Without Reservations
Angel and the Badman
Fort Apache
Red River
3 Godfathers
Wake of the Red Witch
The Fighting Kentuckian
She Wore a Yellow Ribbon
Sands of Iwo Jima