Biography of John Wayne, "The Duke" of American Cinema

The Biggest Box Office Star in Hollywood History

John Wayne holding a rifle in a publicity photo for the movie Shepherd of the Hills.

Getty Images

Actor John Wayne (born Marion Richard Morrison; May 26, 1907–June 11, 1979) was an iconic American actor who became the biggest box office attraction in Hollywood history. On screen, Wayne personified the American hero, portraying numerous protagonists in Westerns and war movies. Decades after his death, Wayne remains an American icon.

Fast Facts: John Wayne

  • Given Name: Marion Richard Morrison
  • Occupation: Actor
  • Born: May 26, 1907 in Winterset, Iowa
  • Died: June 11, 1979 in Los Angeles, California
  • Education: University of Southern California (no degree)
  • Key Roles: Stagecoach (1939), Red River (1948), The Quiet Man (1952), The Searchers (1956), The Longest Day (1962), El Dorado (1967), True Grit (1969), The Shootist (1976)
  • Key Accomplishments: Ranked among the top ten box office stars every year from 1949 to 1974, with just one exception in 1958
  • Spouse(s): Josephine Saenz, Esperanza Baur, Pilar Pallete
  • Children: With Josephine: Michael, Toni, Patrick, and Melinda; with Pilar: Alissa, John Ethan, and Marisa

Early Life and Career

John Wayne was born in 1907 in Winterset, Iowa with the given name Marion Robert Morrison. His family moved to Southern California when he was nine years old. There, he received his lifelong nickname "Duke," which was the name of the family dog.

Upon graduation from high school, Wayne, who was 6'4", received an athletic scholarship to the University of Southern California, where he played football. However, Wayne lost his scholarship after breaking his collarbone while bodysurfing, and he left school. USC football coach Howard Jones was able to get Wayne work as a Hollywood extra through his friendship with Western movie star Tom Mix. In his first-ever movie role, Wayne played a Yale football player in 1926's Brown of Harvard. Between roles, Wayne also worked in the prop department of Fox Studios.

The stage name "John Wayne" was inspired by famed American Revolutionary War General Anthony Wayne. He was first credited as such the 1930 Western The Big Trail, which was his first starring role. Unfortunately, The Big Trail was shot in an early widescreen format that most theaters were not able to properly project, so the film was not a success. Wayne returned to playing bit parts in major studio films. He also appeared in more substantial roles in dozens of low-budget films from smaller studios known as "Poverty Row" studios. Many of these were Westerns, which developed Wayne's reputation in the genre.

Stagecoach and Stardom

Wayne's longtime friend, film director John Ford, cast Wayne in the 1939 Western Stagecoach. In fact, Ford refused to make the film if Wayne was not in the cast. Stagecoach was a critical and commercial success, and it revived Wayne's career in studio films. Wayne and Ford would go on to collaborate on some of their best films.

John Wayne attempted to enlist in World War II with the Office of Strategic Services, but Republic Pictures refused to release him from his contract, and he ultimately received a deferment. Wayne received criticism for not serving in the war for the rest of his life. During the war, Wayne and Ford collaborated on the film They Were Expendable (1945).

In the mid-1940s, Wayne helped create the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, a conservative anti-communist/anti-fascist organization. Wayne sometimes expressed his conservative views in his films, such as Vietnam War-era The Green Berets (1968), which Wayne produced and co-directed. The film took a firm stance in support of the controversial war, and despite negative reviews, it was a sizable box office hit.

After World War II, Wayne had numerous hit films, including Fort Apache (1948), Red River (1948), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), and Sands of Iwo Jima (1949). His success continued in the 1950s with films like Rio Grande (1950) and The Quiet Man (1952), both of which featured Wayne's frequent co-star, Maureen O'Hara. Rio Grande was also the film debut of Wayne's son Patrick Wayne, who would go on to appear in several of his father's movies.

Critics consider Wayne and Ford's The Searchers (1956) to be one of the greatest Westerns ever made. In The Searchers, Wayne plays one of the most complex characters of his career. In addition to his collaborations with Ford, Wayne also made several popular movies with director Howard Hawks, including Rio Bravo (1959) and El Dorado (1967).

However, not every movie Wayne made was a box office success. Wayne made perhaps his most critically-derided film in 1956, The Conqueror, in which Wayne played Genghis Khan in an infamous example of miscasting.

Later Years and Death

In 1969, Wayne starred in True Grit as grizzled U.S. Marshal "Rooster" Cogburn. It was one of the most critically-acclaimed performances in Wayne's career. He later won the Academy Award for Best Actor, as well as the Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Drama, for his performance in True Grit.

Other popular films for Wayne during this time were Rio Lobo (1970), Big Jake (1971), The Cowboys (1972), and the True Grit sequel Rooster Cogburn (1975). Wayne's final film was The Shootist (1976), in which he plays an aging gunfighter dying of cancer at the turn of the century.
Wayne had been diagnosed with lung cancer in 1964, but had his left lung removed to prevent it from spreading. However, in 1979 he was diagnosed with stomach cancer, and died on June 11 of that year.

Legacy

John Wayne was well-known for his on screen persona: a strong-willed, forceful, and physically powerful man with a strict moral code. He became an on-screen symbol of American heroism and masculinity in the U.S. and internationally.

Wayne's films were also incredibly successful at the box office. Wayne ranked among the top ten box office stars every year from 1949 to 1974, with just one exception in 1958. No other actor has appeared in the top ten that many times.

Three weeks before his death, Wayne received the Congressional Gold Medal. He was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Sources

  • Roberts, Randy. John Wayne: American. University of Nebraska Press, 1995.
  • Eyman, Scott. John Wayne: The Life and Legend. Simon & Schuster, 2015.
  • Davis, Ronald L. Duke: The Life and Image of John Wayne. University of Oklahoma Press, 1998.