Forty years ago this month, John Wayne died. The crafted image of the ultimate macho actor made his death seem surreal and unacceptable; but the movies he made live on.
Hardly a week expires without a Wayne movie playing somewhere on the small screen. Why?
His is the male image that still resonates. Flawed in real life? Sure, but his persona then was highly popular, and still is. He was a large man, not just physically, but spectacularly so at the box office.
For 25 years Wayne was in the top 10 of Hollywood stars. His own summation of his career captures his appeal.
"When I started in this business I embraced sincerity, and I have been selling the hell of it for fifty years!"
There are legions of John Wayne stories, some true, some not, and some that should be.
Following is a closer look at an American icon.
From Iowa to California
He was born in Winterset, Iowa in 1907. Most early Wayne historians claimed he was named Marion Robert Morrison. They got it wrong; it was Marion Michael. His birth was unusual; he was delivered by a female physician, a rare event for the times.
Father Clyde was an amiable and liked assistant pharmacist. Mother Mary was a practicing shrew. She rode Clyde unmercifully about finances, or lack thereof. She had a point. Clyde was often on the wrong end of business ventures, even going bankrupt.
The family moved to California, enticed by Clyde's father for whom he worked. The ranch environment captured young Marion, and he and horses started a lifelong relationship.
Wayne acquired his nickname from a family dog, Duke. Often the pair would pass a fire station and interact with the occupants. The firemen called them "Duke and Little Duke." The name stuck and was embraced for a lifetime; not hard to figure given the choice of Marion.
The marriage of Clyde and Mary hit the rocks in 1921. Brother Bob stayed with Mary, and Duke located with his dad in Glendale, near LA.
Wayne excelled in school, academically and athletically. His presence
on the grid iron led to a scholarship at mighty powerhouse USC. A swimming injury ended his football career, but by then he had been introduced to the movie industry. (He and other footballers were cast for a movie; among the players was lifelong friend Ward Bond).
Wayne gave up school due to loss of a scholarship and embarked on the film industry. Luck was on his side. Legendary (even then) director John Ford took a liking to the young man. Ford, who had a sadistic side, challenged Wayne. The older mentor, who had starred on a Maine championship football team, knocked the young man down. Wayne, caught by surprise, said, "Let's do that again." Ford went flying.
Marion Morrison became John Wayne during the filming of "The Big Trail," a 1929 epic talkie. Several took credit for the new name. Wayne got top billing. The film was a bomb.
For the next 10 years, Wayne labored on the sets of second-rate studios, cranking out "B" westerns. He even endured a series where he starred as "Singing Sandy." The vocals were dubbed in.
He was a hard-working actor; quick to learn the various stunts needed, like fake fights and horse falls. He spent most of his time with stuntmen and film crews. This work ethic would serve him well when he became a star.
Movie-making & the sea
Duke's stoic western roles and his conservative politics misled many critics in Hollywood and New York. Fact is, he was an intelligent man. Wayne was well read and had vast interests. He could play chess and bridge with the best; often spending time between shoots with whomever was available.
His politics led some to depict Wayne as a racist. Rather silly considering all three of his wives were Hispanic. He bonded with singer Nat King Cole when they both battled cancer. He could be outrageously profane, but always apologized to women if they were in ear shot.
He was a heavy drinker, but was rarely drunk. He smoked up to five packs of cigarettes daily, loved charcoal-cooked rare steaks, and was on location many times near A bomb test sites. All had to contribute to his cancers. His admission of the disease was an ice-breaker for celebrities. "I licked the big C," Wayne growled.
He raised seven children, four from his first marriage with Josephine Saenz, three with third wife Pilar Pallete. His second marriage, by all accounts, was a train wreck that ended with a messy divorce well publicized.
"Chata" caught his eye in Mexico. She claimed to be a budding movie star. More than likely she was a courtesan who brought her mother along to live with Wayne. Chata did not last long, succumbing to alcohol addiction shortly after the divorce.
One of Duke's great loves, after his kids and movie-making, was the sea. He
often sailed with John Ford and Ward Bond on Ford's boat, the Aaraner. Wayne later bought a converted mine sweeper and took pleasure in boating, fishing and, of course, drinking, when he was between pictures.
He went broke twice. Once because of the ineptness of a friend who handled his money, the second was the result of his passion to film the Alamo battle. It took him years to recover from the latter. He performed the triple roles of director, producer and star; and it darn near killed him.
From 1928 to 1976, Duke made more than 150 films. His Oscar in 1969 was demeaned by critics who claimed it was more for his long tenure than for his performance.
Maybe so. But his performances in "Red River," "Sands of Iwo Jima" and "The Searchers" should have won Oscars. Duke's last movie in 1976, "The Shootist," was his 11th movie death scene. He was not well during production, but rose to the challenge. When the scene played out for the cameras, all cast and crew were present. There were no dry eyes.
Wayne made his last public appearance at the 1979 Oscars. Cancer ridden, he presented an Oscar for best picture, which, ironically, was an anti-war film. He was so emaciated that he wore a wet suit under his tux.
He passed away in June at 72. Media coverage of his death was worldwide.
The one movie that captures Marion Morrison best was Ford's Irish salute, "The Quiet Man." Duke and longtime friend Maureen O'Hara produced a classic.
The last Wayne to make a Western was grandson Brendan Wayne, the son of Mary Antonia "Tony" Wayne La Cava. He had a role in "Cowboys and Aliens."
It was also a Ford movie, but not John. A slightly worn Harrison Ford starred in this rather campy meld of six shooters versus out-of-this-world outlaws.
I shudder to think how the Duke would comment. Expletives deleted.
When you contemplate the history of films, which dates back to 1903 with the first commercial success, "The Great Train Robbery" (of course a Western), there is a short list of enduring stars whose films are still watched.
Tracy, Bogart, Gable, Cooper and Grant are on it.
Wayne tops the list.
Four award-winning Western authors will be at the Quail Creek Madera
Club House, Friday, June 14, from 10 a.m. to noon. I will be there to introduce them and they will share their versions of Western history. It's free.
Hope to see you there.
Scott Dyke is a Wyatt Earp historian, Western writer, lecturer and researcher. He is a member of the Western Writers of America. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.