John Wayne was born Marion Robert Morrison on May 26, 1907, in Iowa. John’s father was a pharmacist and his mother a dutiful homemaker and mother. John’s grandfather was an American Civil War veteran-Marion Mitchell Morrison (1845–1915). The Wayne family moved to Palmdale, California when John was just nine years old.
A local firefighter at the fire station that was on John’s route to school in Glendale started calling John “Little Duke” because John never went anywhere without his huge Airedale Terrier, Duke. John preferred “Duke” to “Marion” and the nickname stuck.
While in high school, John worked in an ice cream shop and was very athletic. He even played football for the 1924 league champion Glendale High School team. His athletic abilities led John to get a scholarship to the University of Southern California (USC), majoring in pre-law. A broken collarbone (the result of a body surfing accident) halted his athletic career. John lost his athletic scholarship and was forced to drop out of USC.
The coach of the USC football was friends with Tom Mix (a silent western film star of the day) and got Mix and director John Ford to hire “Duke” as a prop boy and an extra at the studio.
Tom Mix was also good friends with Wyatt Earp-legendary lawman and part of the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. John met Earp on several occasions and later credited his walk, talk, and onscreen mannerisms to his acquaintance with Wyatt Earp.
Duke soon started to get bit parts in movies and established a longtime friendship with the director who provided most of those roles, John Ford. In 1930, director Raoul Walsh saw Duke moving studio furniture while working as a prop boy and ended up casting him in his first starring role in The Big Trail (1930).
For his screen name, the director suggested “Anthony Wayne”, but the head of Fox Studios rejected it as sounding “too Italian.” The director then suggested “John Wayne.” The studio agreed, and the name was set, even though Duke was not even present for the discussion. So Marion (Duke) Morrison was gone, and John Wayne (Duke) was born. John’s pay was also raised to $105 a week (about $1,500 today).
The Big Trail was not a commercial success, and it sent John Wayne to small roles in “A” budget movies. For most of the 1930’s John was seen mainly in “B” movies and low budget “poverty row” westerns.
Some 80 “horse operas” in total between 1930 and 1939. The 1930’s also saw John Wayne marry the first of his eventual three wives-Josephine. They had four children together.
John Wayne’s breakthrough role came with director John Ford’s “Stagecoach” (1939). But getting the movie made was difficult, because of John Wayne’s B-movie status and track record in low-budget Westerns throughout the 30s. Ford had difficulty getting financing for what was to be an “A” budget film.
But Ford managed to wheel and deal and got the movie made. It became a huge critical and financial success, and John Wayne became a mainstream star.
When the US entered the Second World War, John wanted to enlist but was declined due to his age and his four dependent children.
So as many in Hollywood did during the time, John Wayne joined the USO and toured U.S. bases and hospitals in the South Pacific in 1943 and 1944. But guilt from “staying home” never left John.
“The Sands of Iwo Jima” (1949), would earn John Wayne his first Oscar nomination. John Wayne would appear in more than 20 of John Ford’s films throughout the next two decades, including She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), The Wings of Eagles (1957), and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) with James Stewart: the first movie in which he called someone “Pilgrim”.
“The Alamo” (1960) earned John his second Oscar nomination. John also produced and directed the film.
John Wayne finally won a Best Actor Oscar for “True Grit” (1969). This came 20 years after his first nomination. In 1974, John Wayne took the role of gritty detective “McQ” in a popular crime drama. His last film was “The Shootist” (1976), in which he played a character who was dying of cancer -the illness to which Wayne himself died of three years later.
In all, John Wayne is credited with starring in over 140 films. Wayne also appeared in the Top Ten Money Makers Poll of all films from 1949 to 1974 with a total of 25 years on the list. Wayne has more appearances than any other star on the lists, beating Clint Eastwood (21 yrs.) into second place.
John Wayne has married a total of 3 times (all were Latina women) and had seven children.
His last wife, Pilar, was with John from 1954 until John’s passing from cancer in 1979. John Wayne left behind a filmography of machismo in the Wild West and during wartime, that is of an era long gone.
Fred Jacobs is a full-time resident of Puerto Vallarta and the author of three books.