John Wayne was the masculine ideal of Hollywood’s Golden Age. The all-American actor helped shape the Western as a glamorous film genre in Hollywood. As an A-lister in the industry, Wayne portrayed the classic cowboy of the American imagination in a career spanning over five decades. But John Wayne almost didn’t become an actor.
Initially, Wayne was playing college football, but when his athletic scholarship was pulled after an injury, he needed to find a different path. He quickly realized that he was born for the big screen. From his health complications and controversial opinions, this is the life and incredible career of Marion Morrison, aka the Duke, aka John Wayne.
The Duke: Renamed
The head of Fox Studio was a huge fan of the Revolutionary war. That’s why, when it was time to turn “Marion ‘Duke’ Morrison” into someone who belonged on screen, he went with the last name Wayne, after the Revolutionary War General Anthony Wayne.
The first name John was chosen for a more straightforward reason. It just sounded good in front of Wayne. The actor always preferred the name he was born with, Duke Morrison. He was once quoted saying, “I’m Duke Morrison, and I never was and never will be a film personality like John Wayne.”
Stepping on to the Scene
It was actually an accident that led Wayne into show business. A severe bodysurfing injury wrecked his shoulder, and the future star lost his spot on the University of Southern California’s football team, as well as his athletic scholarship.
Wayne had no choice but to leave college. He took on odd jobs and worked on movie sets. But one of his first jobs after leaving school was setting up furniture in 1927 as the props guy at Fox Studios. So, before he was saddling horses, he was saddling props.
C for Cover Up
The first person to publicly call cancer “The Big C” was John Wayne. The idea came to him as he hoped it would make his own experience with the illness less “scary” to studio executives back in the 1960s.
The actor famously had a long battle with the disease. In his first fight with cancer, the actor lost a rib and half of one of his lungs. Somehow, shortly after that, he still managed to hold a press conference in his living room. He certainly was able to maintain a strong public image.
To Kill or Not to Kill
John Wayne was supposed to star in High Noon but famously walked away from the role because he believed the movie was an allegory against blacklisting, which was something that Wayne supported as a staunch conservative. Wayne had no regrets for helping to get the film’s screenwriter, Carl Foreman, blacklisted and run out of the country.
Joseph Stalin was a huge fan of his. Unfortunately, Stalin’s love for the actor didn’t stop the Soviet leader from contemplating assassinating Wayne because of his strong, loud, anti-Communist views.
As a youngster, Wayne got picked on for his girly-sounding name, Marion Morrison. Therefore, he rebranded himself as Duke, a much manlier name, after Airedale Terrier. The family called the dog “Big Duke” and Marion “Little Duke,” and Wayne loved it.
If there is one thing you shouldn’t ask the Duke about, it’s Duke University. When the actor’s enterprises attempted to register a Kentucky bourbon based on John “the Duke” Wayne, Duke University tried to stop them. They basically claimed that they are “committed to protecting the integrity of Duke University’s trademarks.”
From B to A
Wayne’s made his on-screen debut with his first starring role in The Big Trail (1930). Director Raoul Walsh spotted the handsome young man when he was a prop boy moving around furniture on another film set.
Unfortunately, the movie that could have been his big break flopped financially, and the actor was downgraded to smaller roles. But then, in 1939, Stagecoach came out. The Western film was a massive hit. But originally, Wayne’s reputation as a B-movie regular made it difficult for director John Ford to get funding for the movie.
Wishes He Went to War
Wayne felt a lot of guilt about not serving in World War II. It haunted him for his entire life. Although many of his Hollywood pals volunteered to fight, Wayne didn’t make any particularly great efforts to alter his draft exemption.
Even though he wrote to his friends about hoping to enlist, he kept pushing it off until he “finished just one or two pictures.” His procrastination must have come in part from Republic Studios, which was afraid about losing the only A-list actor under contract with them.
Rejected Oscar-Winning Roles
Wayne was asked to star in All the King’s Men (1949) but rejected the lead role because he thought the script was un-American. The role ultimately went to Broderick Crawford, who won the Academy Award for Best Actor in 1949. Incidentally, he beat out Wayne, who was nominated for his 1949 movie, Sands of Iwo Jima.
Despite his long, impressive, and critically acclaimed career, John Wayne had only nominations for Best Actor at the Oscars: for 1949’s Sands of Iwo Jima and 1969’s True Grit, which he won.
Leading the Way
Wayne’s hair began to thin toward the end of the 1940s. He started wearing hairpieces, but it wasn’t something he was overly insecure about, as you might think. In fact, he would often make public appearances without it, like at Gary Cooper’s funeral.
John Wayne was such a big star that he had more leading movie roles than any other Hollywood actor. Out of the 175 movies he was in, he starred in 142 of them. Wayne asked for “a fifth of bourbon” as payment for his cameo appearance on the Beverly Hillbillies back in 1967.
He Was a Freemason
Contrary to pretty much everything he stood for throughout his later life and career, during his college days at USC, Wayne identified as a socialist. Wayne was also a registered Freemason. You heard that right; the actor even ranked as a Master Mason in Marion McDaniel Lodge No. 56 F&AM, in Tucson, Arizona.
John Wayne was awarded two medals from the United States government. In 1979, he earned the Congressional Gold Medal, and in 1980, he won the Presidential Medal of Freedom. After the tragic events of 9/11, Wayne’s 1973 spoken album “America: Why I Love Her” was re-released on CD. The album was also a best-seller the second time around.
Famous Chess Partners
Wayne has a lot of interests and passions, one being his love of chess. A lifelong chess enthusiast, the actor, had a celebrity list of chess partners, including Marlene Dietrich, Robert Mitchum, and Rock Hudson, among others.
What you may not know about the Duke is that he was very superstitious. He didn’t like it when anyone left a hat on the bed or passed him the salt. I didn’t know leaving a hat on your bed is bad luck. Learning something new every day.
Charming the Crowd
In 1974, the conservative, pro-Vietnam War actor was invited by The Harvard Lampoon to take home the “Brass Balls Award” for his “outstanding machismo and penchant for punching people.”
Wayne graciously accepted it at the Harvard Square Theater in person, riding out in style on an armored personnel carrier manned by the “Black Knights” of Troop D, Fifth Regiment. Wayne gracefully answered various derogatory questions, which apparently won over the crowd. He certainly knows how to impress an audience.
Buddies with Ronald Raegan
Wayne famously had conservative views and clear star power. So, he was constantly approached by Republican party backers about a stab at public office. Wayne would decline, though; he believed that no one would take a Hollywood actor seriously in the White House.
However, his celebrity status didn’t stop him from supporting his good friend Ronald Reagan’s big race for the Governor of California back in 1966 and 1970. Things have definitely changed over the years. These days celebrities use their massive social media platforms to share their political views and advocate for causes that are important to them.
Wayne Had a Type
Although he was a proud Republican, the actor got hate mail from Republicans for the first time in his life after he sided with President Jimmy Carter and the Democrats over the Panama Canal. Josephine Saenz, Wayne’s first wife, was a Panama Native. She was good friends with the late Panamanian leader Omar Torrijos Herrera.
Perhaps it’s a little less surprising than that he supported the people of Panama’s right to control the treasured territory. All of Wayne’s wives were Hispanic or of Latin descent, and he was fluent in Spanish.
John Wayne was born Marion Robert Morrison. But when his little brother was born in 1911, the actor pretty much lost his middle name to the new baby. His parents named the newborn Robert Emmett Morrison and changed the future actor’s name to Marion Michael Morrison. These birth certificates and name changes must have confused historians and Wayne’s future biographers.
Shortly before he lost his battle to stomach cancer at the age of 72, Wayne converted to Roman Catholicism. He asked that his tombstone said, “Feo, Fuerte y Formal,” a Spanish inscription that Wayne said meant “ugly, strong, and dignified.”
Famous Last Words
John Wayne died on June 11, 1979. For 20 years, his grave went unmarked. But if you visit it now, it’s marked with a quote from his controversially racist Playboy interview from 1971. Thankfully, the quote that was chosen was a little more comforting than the rest of the article:
“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 learned something from yesterday.” It sounds pretty fitting for a grave…
Meat Death Rumors
So, there is this urban legend going around that John Wayne died with 40 pounds of red meat wedged in his digestive tract. Nonetheless, people were quick to point out that the actor died of cancer.
Furthermore, since his death was clearly from cancer, he didn’t receive an autopsy meaning there was no opportunity to discover the meat. I guess it’s just a myth that went a little too far, so people believe it. But just to clarify, there was absolutely no evidence to support this theory.
But I Have a Gay Friend
Throughout his life and career, the actor made more than a few public anti-gay remarks. He denounced homosexual themes in movies such as Last Summer (1959) and They Came to Cordura (1959). He made his opinion on the subject clear.
But despite his prejudice, John Wayne was friends, costars, and played chess with Rock Hudson, even though he was openly gay, and Wayne was aware of his sexuality. In fact, Hudson and Wayne remained good friends until Wayne died in 1979.
The Conqueror’s Curse
Strangely and kind of creepily, nearly half of the people working on The Conqueror (1956) starring John Wayne ended up dying of cancer. More specifically, 91 out of the 220 people on set. This included the director and many cast members. The reason for that is that The Conqueror was filmed near an active nuclear test site in Utah, where eleven tests had reportedly been carried out in the year before the production landed there.
As we know, Wayne would succumb to the illness and, unfortunately, lost his own battle with the disease. These numbers don’t include extras or others involved in the movie. Still, that’s a lot of people. It makes it seem like cancer is contagious (which it definitely is not).
They Didn’t Have Spellcheck
Thanks to an accidental typo made by a secretary, Wayne’s production company was named “Batjac.” It was supposed to be called “Batjak” after a shipping company owned by the character Luther Alder played in John Wayne’s movie Wake of the Red Witch (1948). Since he didn’t want to hurt the secretary’s feelings, he kept her spelling.
The “Singing Cowboy” movies were the most popular early Westerns, featuring Gene Autry and Roy Rogers. They would round up cattle rustlers before singing a song about it. In Riders of Destiny (1933), he appeared as “Singin’ Sandy Saunders.” Let’s just say Wayne should stick to acting. His voice was so terrible that his songs were dubbed in by the director’s son.
Don’t Mess with the Duke
Wayne would often get drunk with his friend Ward Bond, and the two would often play practical jokes on each other. One time, Bond bet Wayne that if the two of them stood on opposite ends of a newspaper, and Wayne wouldn’t be able to touch him.
They put a sheet of newspaper down in a doorway. Bond stood on one side, shut the door in Wayne’s face, and yelled, “try and hit me now!” Wayne responded by punching his hand through the door, knocking Bond down and winning the bet. Don’t mess with the Duke!
Got His Back
Wayne had his issues with High Noon (1952), which he called “un-American.” But that didn’t stop him from graciously accepting the Best Actor Oscar on behalf of the movie’s star and Wayne’s good friend, Gary Cooper. What a good friend…?
Apparently, Wayne was afraid that accepting his own award would hurt Cooper’s acting career. A few years later, Wayne teamed up with the film’s director Howard Hawks, to make Rio Bravo (1959). Wayne saw the movie telling the story his own way.
Not a Clint Eastwood Fan
Clint Eastwood sent Wayne a letter once in which he suggested they costar in a Western film. Unfortunately, Wayne wasn’t the biggest fan of Eastwood and specifically hated the revisionist style and violence of Eastwood’s last Western, High Plains Drifter (1973).
He sent a letter back to the young actor. It wasn’t very nice, though. It was an angry letter telling Eastwood exactly how he felt about this. Unsurprisingly, a movie starring Wayne alongside Eastwood never came to fruition. You would think all Hollywood A-listers are friends!
Make Sure to Get My Good Side
On the set of his 1969 film The Undefeated, Wayne fell off his horse and fractured three ribs. The accident also injured his shoulder, which meant he couldn’t work for two weeks until it healed. The movie’s director, Andrew V. McLaglen, had no choice but to only film Wayne from a specific angle for the rest of the production.
One of John Wayne’s biggest regrets in his career was his role in The Conqueror (1969), where he portrayed Temujin, the future Genghis Kahan. He would get visibly uncomfortable whenever someone mentioned the name of the movie and once mentioned that the moral of the movie is “not to make an ass of yourself trying to play parts you’re not suited for.”
John Wayne walked down the aisle three different times. His most bitter divorce was with wife number two: Mexican actress Esperanza Baur. For some reason, she was convinced that her husband was cheating on her with Gail Russel, his Angel, and the Badman (1947) costar.
Things came to a head when Wayne got home from the wrap party super late. The wasted actress greeted the famous actor, and her soon-to-be-ex-husband, with a shotgun and tried shooting him as he walked through the door. Yikes! He literally dodged a bullet after breaking up with that one.
A Series of Unfortunate Opinions
Playboy published an interview with Wayne in May 1971, and it led to a massive uproar. He pretty much told them that he “believed in white supremacy until the Blacks are educated to the point of responsibility” and felt like America did nothing wrong by “taking this country away from [the Native Americans]” who were “selfishly trying to keep it for themselves.” Make what you will of that statement….
Nobody would be able to get away with saying something like this now. Nowadays, he would be what the kids call “canceled.”
Stalin Tried to Kill Him
We mentioned how Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin was a huge John Wayne fan but still wanted him dead because of his vocal anti-Communist opinions. Stalin once sent two KGB assassins after the actor, but the FBI foiled the murder plot. Phew! That could have ended badly.
Nikita Khrushchev, Stalin’s successor, made two requests on his visit to the United States back in 1959: to go to Disneyland and to meet John Wayne. In a private meeting, Khrushchev apparently apologized to Wayne for the assassination attempt and assured the Hollywood actor that he “rescinded the order.”
He Didn’t Really Like Horses
When I think of John Wayne, old Western films immediately come to mind. He just looks like a pretty iconic cowboy. From Red River to Rio Bravo, Wayne’s got it all: the hat, the guns, and, of course, the horses. However, he wasn’t too crazy about the animal.
He spent a ton of time in the saddle for his movies, but he didn’t enjoy riding horses. Unlike his buddy Ronald Raegan, he never rode during his free time. One time he refused to mount a horse on a movie set unless the scene absolutely needed him to.
But He Loved Camels
With his Western persona comes the cowboy hat, a horse, and cigarettes. The actor didn’t only smoke for his movies, though. John Wayne smoked six-packs of unfiltered Camels a day, making him one of the heaviest smokers in Hollywood. I would say he comes in second, after Humphrey Bogart.
In 1952, he was even featured in a Camel cigarette commercial. But in 1964, after he lost a lung to cancer, the star started chewing tobacco and then took on cigars. In his defense, nobody knew the actual dangers of smoking back then. Even doctors recommended cigarettes.
A Beach Bum
Although John Wayne is the epitome of a cowboy, he was actually more of a beach bum. When he was a kid, his family moved from Iowa to Southern California, where he learned to surf and lived on the ocean for most of his life.
The man starring in Westerns like The Quiet Man and The Searchers really enjoyed spending time on his yacht, the Wild Goose. “Where he really lived his life was on boats or on the beach,” according to his son Ethan, number six out of Wayne’s seven kids.
His Guest Appearances
As a famous actor, John Wayne made several cameo appearances. In a 1955 episode of “I Love Lucy,” Wayne guest-starred as himself. The episode involved Lucy sneaking into the actor’s trailer and getting trapped inside, so she pretends to be Duke’s masseuse.
He also showed up on a 1967 episode of The Beverly Hillbillies, the one where he asked to be paid with a bottle of whiskey. In 1974, he was featured on Maude in an episode appropriately titled Maude Meets Duke.
Carefully Crafted Image
We know the actor wasn’t given the name John Wayne at birth. Like many other actors, John Wayne was his stage name, and he created a persona to go with it. Late in his career, the movie star confessed that the character was meant to be the average American man:
“I’ve found a character the average man wants himself, his brother, his kid to be,” he admitted. “It’s the same type of guy the average wife wants for her husband. Always walk with your head held high. Look everybody straight in the eye. Never double-cross a pal.”
He Wanted to Give Away His Oscar
In 1969, Wayne won his first and only Best Actor Oscar award for his performance in True Grit, where he played U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn. Upon accepting the award, he joked, “Wow! If I’d have known that, I’d have put that patch on 35 years earlier.”
Wayne spent the rest of that night drinking with actor Richard Burton, who was a nominee in the same category for his portrayal of King Henry VIII in “Anne of the Thousand Days.” The Duke repeatedly tried giving Burton the trophy insisting that his fellow actor was more deserving of it.
His Final Role
The story of a dying gunfighter seemed like the perfect part for John Wayne in his later years, but the studios were concerned that his poor health would make hiring him too big of a risk. It was only after a bunch of other actors turned the role down that it went to Wayne.
Among these contenders were Charles Bronson, Gene Hackman, George C. Scott, and Clint Eastwood. Unfortunately, their fears came true. Production was forced to shut down for a week due to Duke’s illness. But he ended up finishing the movie and earned high praise for his performance.
His On-Screen Deaths
In eight of his movies, Wayne’s character bit the dust. In “Reap the Wild Wind,” he was killed by a giant squid; in “The Fighting Seabees,” he was shot by a sniper; in “Wake of the Red Witch,” he drowned; and in “Sands of Iwo Jima,” he died in a sniper fire again.
The list goes on. In “The Alamo,” he was killed by a Mexican soldier’s lance; in “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” he died of natural causes; in “The Cowboys,” he was shot by Bruce Dern; and in “The Shootist,” it was a shotgun fire in a saloon.
Heartwarming Final Appearance
John Wayne made his way around Hollywood through his long and successful career. His last public appearance was at the 51st Academy Awards, where he presented the Best Picture Award to The Deer Hunter. Wayne looked sick, but he managed to get through the award ceremony.
Before closing the show, Johnny Carson told the actor, “We have a lot of friends of yours backstage that want to say hello,” and, suddenly, Hollywood stars swarmed the stage. It was a nice gesture and must have meant a lot to Wayne. The actor died two months later.
He Appeared on “Laugh-In”
Despite his strong right-wing political beliefs, John Wayne was featured in 12 episodes of “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In” during the late 1960s and early ‘70s, playing a foil on the left-leaning show. One time, he walked out wearing a bunny outfit and acting upset about the demeaning nature of the skit.
“I guess it could have been worse,” Wayne said after hopping offstage. “They could’ve asked me to dress up like a liberal.” Another time, Wayne recited the poem: “The sky is blue, the grass is green/Get off your butt and join the Marines.”