By Michael Russell
Known as "The Duke", John Wayne made his first appearance in this world on May 26, 1907. His parents, Clyde Leonard and Mary Alberta Brown Morrison, named their first-born child Marion Robert. When his younger brother was born in 1911, his parents decided to name him Robert. Thus, they changed Marion's middle name to Michael.
The Morrison family moved to the Mojave Desert in southern California in 1911, after Clyde was diagnosed with a lung condition. Although the pharmacist-by-trade fancied himself a rancher, he was a poor manager and the family ranch failed. They moved to Glendale, California shortly thereafter. Still, the family was never well-to-do by any stretch of one's imagination. Marion and Robert grew up poor, but proud.
Marion delivered medicines for his father and newspapers, to supplement the family's income. He was frequently accompanied by his dog, Duke. Because they were basically inseparable, his neighbors in Glendale began referring to them as "Little Duke" and "Big Duke". Marion liked the name Duke so much better than his given name that he adopted it as his nickname. It stayed with him for the rest of his life. He joked throughout his life that he was named after a dog.
Marion quickly developed a reputation as a hard worker and he excelled academically, as well as being a star player on his Glendale High School football team. When he graduated from high school, he applied to the U.S. Naval Academy. While he was almost accepted there, his bid ultimately failed. However the University of Southern California at Los Angeles recruited him on a football scholarship. His budding career as a professional athlete was cut short following a swimming accident at a local beach. He lost his scholarship and had to leave USC because he lacked the funds to continue his education there.
During his time at college, he had been working around the local film studios in L.A. Tom Mix, a famous Western film star at that time, got him a summer job at a props department in exchange for USC Trojan football tickets. Marion quickly made friends with the legendary director John Ford and started doing bit parts in films for him in 1928. In a film called "Maker of Men", he was one of the featured football players and was billed as Marion Morrison. He went on to do bit parts in about 70 films, none of which were particularly notable. During those films he was billed by different screen names including Marion Duke, Duke Morrison and a couple of others.
He continued to work as a prop man until his first starring role in a 1930s film called "The Big Trail". The director of that film gave him his stage name, Anthony Wayne, named for the famous general, "Mad" Anthony Wayne. However, the studio did not particularly like the connotations connected with that name and changed his first name to John. The newly named John Wayne went from making $35 weekly to an astounding $75 weekly! Quite an accomplishment for that day and age. And a huge amount of money to someone who grew up poor.
The first movie in which he had a starring role was a flop. But, he began establishing his credentials and reputation as an actor from that point forward. His appearance in the epic Western "Stagecoach" in 1939 brought him to the forefront as a true "star". He never forgot his roots in the industry, though. From 1928 - when John Ford gave him his first bit part - until 1963, he appeared in over 20 of Mr. Ford's films, usually for much less that the going rate at the time. These included such classics as "Stagecoach", "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon" (1949) and "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" (1962). The last film listed there also starred another well - known and established actor, James "Jimmy" Stewart.
The Duke's career spanned almost 250 films and five decades. He also did a radio serial program, from 1942 to 1943, called "The Three Sheets to the Wind". He became involved in film industry politics in 1944 when he helped to organize and charter the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals (MPAPAI). This was a right - wing political organization and Mr. Wayne eventually became its President for two terms. He quickly became known as an ultra - conservative. This was strongly affirmed in 1960 when he produced, directed and starred in the epic film "The Alamo". And his patriotism was even more profoundly evident with another epic in which he co - directed and starred, "The Green Berets" (1968), the only film during that time which positively portrayed the Vietnamese Conflict.
Quite possibly one of his best known characters, for which he won the "Best Actor" Oscar (Academy Award) in 1969, was "Rooster Cogburn" - a crusty, grouchy, one-eyed, aging lawman - in "True Grit". There are those who say that the award was given in recognition of his forty years as an actor, rather than his actual performance in the film. Nontheless, this role was the embodiment of the real person behind the role and not to be denied as a fine blending of Mr. Wayne and the character.
John Wayne remained a lifelong friend to John Ford and they made numerous voyages together in Ford's yacht along with actor Ward Bond. Apparently, Mr. Wayne and Mr. Bond were drinking buddies and loved to play practical jokes on one another. One log entry made by Mr. Ford noted, in polite terms, that the "First Mate" (Wayne) had used Mr. Bond's whiskey flask to relieve his bladder. While it was not revealed as to whether or not Mr. Bond was enlightened to this fact, Mr. Ford obviously appreciated the gesture enough to make a note to himself to give John Wayne a raise.
Mr. Wayne's sense of humor was brought to public attention more blatantly when he agreed to appear on "Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In", on national television, dressed in a pink bunny suit. He could laugh at himself yet come across confident and secure in his acting roles and as a champion of worthwhile causes and endeavors. He embodied true patriotism and belief in America and the sense of values which he felt her citizens should be proud to embrace and accept as normal. He scoffed that there were those who called him a "superpatriot" for what he considered to be the way that all Americans should live and present themselves to the rest of the world. Just imagine what his thoughts would have been when 9/11 occurred!
Part 2 - John Wayne - "The Duke".
The Duke was plagued by health problems which came to a head in 1964. He lost his left lung and two ribs to cancer in September of that year. Although rumors spread that he had developed the disease while filming in Utah, where the U.S. government had been testing nuclear bombs, he denied that this was true. Admittedly, he smoked from three to five packs of cigarettes a day from the early 1930s until the operation in 1964.
His agent and advisors wanted to cover up the hospitalization and illness, due to the fact that the backers and insurers of the motion picture industry were hesitant to have ailing actors performing. It was "bad business" to back someone with a potentially fatal disease. But about 3½ months after his operation, Mr. Wayne held a press conference at his ranch in Encino, California and announced that he had no intentions of going out quietly. Because of his openness and honesty, cancer victims from around the world found new hope and courage in the strength which he showed and offered to them.
Despite his illnesses and their complications, Mr. Wayne continued to do many of his own stunts. In 1969, while filming "The Undefeated", he fell from his horse and fractured three ribs. After almost two weeks of recuperating and then returning to work, he tore a ligament in one of his shoulders and could not use the arm on that side at all. In order to finish the film on a timely basis, his remaining shots were done at an angle to hide the non-use of that arm. He finished filming and showed remarkable aplomb, in spite of tremendous pain.
Mr. Wayne's last film, "The Shootist" (1976), portrayed him as an aging gunfighter who is diagnosed with prostate cancer. He was, at the time, again fighting lung cancer and had been diagnosed with stomach cancer as well. His co-star, the legendary Lauren Bacall, had watched her real life husband, Humphrey Bogart, battle lung cancer and its agonies. The interaction between Ms. Bacall and The Duke came through during the filming and made for some very touching and real life interjections in the final product.
Because Mr. Wayne was not able to work every day, the shooting schedule was extended to accommodate him. Due to the fact that there had been questions about whether or not he would be able to finish the film, because of failing health, he made it his personal mission to accomplish just that - and succeeded in his endeavors.
Following completion of the film, Mr. Wayne had surgery in December of 1976, ironically, for an enlarged prostate. His public appearances decreased drastically after that. But being the trouper that he was he continued to appear, as often as his health allowed, until he lost his battle with cancer on June 11, 1979 at the age of 72 years and 16 days. He left behind him an incredible legacy which survives, even today.
He received many honors and tributes during his lifetime, as well as posthumously. Besides the Oscar that he received for "True Grit", Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona nominated him for the Congressional Medal of Honor in 1979. That was awarded and presented to his family after his demise. And he was honored on the day of his passing by the lighting of the Olympic Torch at the Coliseum in Los Angeles. The torch remained lit until he was interred four days later.
Other notable honors and tributes include:
1970 - received the DeMolay Legion of Honor
1973 - Awarded the Gold Medal from the National Football Foundation in honor of his time as a player at both Glendale High and USC
1974 - Induction into the Hall of Great Western Performers at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum
1974 - The Harvard Lampoon invited Mr. Wayne to appear at the Harvard Square Theater to award him the "Brass Balls Award" for his "outstanding machismo and a penchant for punching people". He accepted and arrived atop an armored personnel carrier which was operated by active military personnel. He mounted the stage of the theater and quickly and adroitly answered the derogatory questions with lightening-quick wit. Despite the ill feelings associated with the college students who voiced anti-war sentiments in regards to Vietnam, he won them over completely
1976 - Presented the People's Choice Award for "Most Popular Motion Picture Actor"
1980 - Posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Jimmy Carter
1986 - Inducted as a Member of the First Class into the DeMolay Hall of Fame
1990 - Pictured on a 25 cent stamp issued by the U.S Postal Service honoring films of 1939. He was featured as "The Ringo Kid" from "Stagecoach"
1997 - Ranked #16 in Empire (UK) Magazine's "Top 100 Movie Stars of All Time"
2001 - Gallup Poll participants selected John Wayne as their favorite movie star of all time
2003 - He placed in the "Top Ten" of the annual Harris Poll asking Americans to name their favorite movie star of all time. No other deceased actor has achieved this status since the inception of this particular poll in 1993
2004 - Commemorated on a 37 cent stamp in the "Legends of Hollywood" series issued by the U.S. Postal Service
Other notable tributes and honors with no listed dates include: voted 4th Greatest Movie Star of All Time by Premiere Magazine, named 13th Greatest Actor on the list of 50 Greatest Screen Legends by the American Film Institue, voted 5th Greatest Movie Star of All Time by Entertainment Weekly Magazine and Mr. Wayne was a Lifetime Member of Sigma Chi Fraternity, the Masons, DeMolay and the USC Trojan Knights.
Further, John "Duke" Wayne holds the record for the actor with the most leading parts - 142. He was the lead actor in all but 11 of those films.
He has been imitated, countless times, by comedians and actors in films and on television. He has been referenced in song lyrics over the last four decades, as recently as 2004 in a song by the country music duo "Big and Rich". He has an airport in Orange County, California named for him and even has a 100 mile stretch of trail in the Iron Mountain State Park in Washington named in his honor.
Even today, one might see a Western film "aficionado" attempt to imitate the rolling walk, the slow drawl and the use of the term "pilgrim" which were employed by this film icon.
And the John Wayne Cancer Institute continues to pursue treatments and cures for several forms of the devastating disease which took this great man out of our physical world. His influence still continues in our lives, almost 30 years after his demise. He will be remembered as long as there are those who carry on his legacy and share his memories and films with future generations.