Few people in this world live up to their own legend. This is especially true in the case of movie stars. Once in a great while that happens. It certainly seems to have happened with ruggedly handsome, tough guy, John Wayne.
Thirty-five years ago today, John Wayne succumbed to cancer. He had been battling the disease for more than a decade. Fifteen years prior he had a lung and several ribs removed. Like so many of the characters he played, he just didn’t give up.
Wayne was born Marion Morrison on May 26, 1907 at Winterset, Iowa. As a child, he and his family moved to Glendale, Calif. He was a high school football star and attended the University of Southern California on a scholarship. Wayne soon figured out that college wasn’t for him.
He took a job as studio laborer, where he befriended an up and coming young director, John Ford. Wayne’s first movie roles were bit parts that he played under the name Duke Morrison. “Duke” came from the name of the Wayne family’s beloved pet dog.
Wayne’s first starring role came in 1930 with The Big Trail, directed by his college friend, Raoul Walsh. At his suggestion Duke Morrison became “John Wayne.” Walsh thought the new moniker was more appropriate for a tough western hero.
Even though Wayne had a name more suited to his roles, The Big Trail turned out to be a big flop. This inauspicious start set the tone for nearly a decade of roles in mediocre westerns. Wayne sometimes made as many as two movies in one week. Perhaps the most notable of these assembly line films are the ones in which Wayne portrayed “Singing Sandy” a lyrical cowboy cut of the Roy Rogers cloth.
After nearly a decade slogging through largely forgettable roles, Wayne’s big break came when his old friend, John Ford, cast him as Ringo Kid in the now-classic epic, Stagecoach. The film won Oscars for best supporting actor and best musical score. It was nominated for five others including best picture.
It also positioned Wayne for a meteoric rise. Wayne went on to play larger-than-life heroes in dozens of movies that symbolized a type of rugged, strong, straight-shooting American man. Ford directed Wayne in some of his best-known films, including Fort Apache (1948), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), Rio Grande (1950), The Quiet Man (1952) and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence (1962).
Of these films, The Quiet Man represents an interesting variation on Wayne’s typical screen persona. Trading six guns for boxing gloves, Wayne turns in one of his most complex and tender performances as Sean “Trooper” Thorton, an ex-boxer whose return to his native Ireland is spurred by a death in the boxing ring.
Off-screen, Wayne was a strong advocate for conservative political causes. We see these views reflected in films like The Alamo (1960) and the Green Berets (1968), both of which he produced and directed.
During more than 40 years of making movies, Wayne appeared in more than 200 films with dozens of other production, direction and television credits. Perhaps the one credit most dear to Arkansans is the one for which he won a best actor Oscar — True Grit (1969), where he played a drunken, one-eyed federal marshal, Rooster Cogburn, opposite Glen Campbell.
On his mastery of acting, Wayne told Time magazine: “In my acting, I have to identify with something in the character. The big tough boy on the side of right – that’s me. Simple themes. Same me from the nuances. All I do is sell sincerity and I’ve been selling the hell out of that ever since I started.”
During his life and since, Wayne has come to stand for an idealized America, a place where justice and determination always win the day. While we often fail to realize those ideals, we’re glad Wayne made them so clear.