John Wayne was born on May 26, 1907 in Winterset, Iowa to parents Clyde Leonard Morrison and Mary Alberta (Brown) Morrison. He was named Marion Robert Morrison at birth, but became known by the nickname “Duke” as a child – a name that stuck with him throughout his life.
John had an Airedale Terrier, named Duke and the two were constant companions so neighbors referred to them as “Big Duke” and “Little Duke”.
John’s father, the son of a Civil War Veteran, ran his own pharmacy. When John was just six years old, his father developed lung problems, making it necessary for them to move to a drier climate. They moved to Lancaster in southern California where his father tried farming. When the farm failed, they move to Glendale, California, where his father opened another pharmacy. In Glendale, John went to school, played football and delivered newspapers. He also made deliveries for his father’s pharmacy. John to the movies several times a week and often saw movies being filmed in an outdoor lot of the nearby Triangle Studios.
His parents divorced in 1926 while John attended USC (from 1925 to 1927) on a football scholarship, after narrowly missing out on admission to the US Naval Academy at Annapolis. He majored in pre-law, but lost his scholarship after being injured while surfing and being unable to play football. So he left school and obtained a summer job at the prop department at a movie studio (in exchange for football tickets) from the silent western movie star Tom Mix. John became good friends with the movie director, John Ford, and the friendship led to bit parts, like the one in Brown of Harvard in 1926, in which he playied football with his former USC teammates. He acted in Words and Music in 1929 and was listed in the credits as “Duke Morrison”.
John continued doing bits parts while working for Fox Film Corporation and received $75 a week for his small acting roles. In 1933 John married Josephine Saenz, the daughter of a Panamanian diplomat. They had four children together before they were divorced in 1945.
John was credited as “John Wayne” in the 1930 feature film, The Big Trail and his pay was increased to $105 a week. Over the next several years, he appeared in more than 70 low-budget western and adventure movies. His breakthrough occurred in 1939 when John’s friend and director, John Ford, cast him in Stagecoach. The movie was a huge success, both critically and financially, and served to launch John Wayne into stardom. He starred in more than 20 John Ford films, including She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and The Sands of Iwo Jima (1949), The Quiet Man (1952), The Searchers (1956) and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962).
In 1946 John married the actress Esperanza Ceballos. Their marriage was not a happy one and they were separated in 1952. Divorce ended their rocky marriage in 1954. The same year John married the daughter of a Peruvian senator, Pilar Pallete, although John was 29 years older than her. John had met her in Peru in 1953 while scouting locations to film The Alamo. They had three children together and were separated in 1973, although they were never divorced.
In addition to his height (6’4″), trademark walk and distinct way of speaking, John Wayne had a reputation for acting in roles that reflected his conservative values and his profound integrity. He turned down the leading role of a corrupt politician in the 1949 drama All the King’s Men after expressing his belief that the movie was unpatriotic. His views were evident in his participation in The Alamo (1960) – he produced, directed and starred in this classic film. He also co-directed and starred in 1968′s The Green Berets. John was a member of the USO and entertained the US Armed Forces from WWII through the Vietnam War.
In 1969 John Wayne won his first Best Actor Award for his role in the film True Grit.
While experiencing many career successes, John Wayne was confronted with many health setbacks, including having a lung and several ribs removed in 1964 while fighting lung cancer and being diagnosed with stomach cancer in 1978. His last film was The Shootist (1976), in which he appeared with James Stewart and Lauren Bacall. Ironically, John played an aging gunfighter losing his battle with cancer.
In 1976 John Wayne was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal from the US Congress as acknowledgment of his stature as an outstanding example of integrity and American values. In 1980 he was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. These medals are the two highest awards that can be awarded to a civilian by the American government.
John Wayne died on June 11, 1979 in Los Angeles, California at the age of 72. He had been married three times and was survived by seven children. In total, John Wayne appeared in over 250 movies in a career lasting more than 50 years. He is known today as one of the greatest stars of the Hollywood genre known as the Western as well as being an enduring example of American values and ideals.
What’s your favorite John Wayne movie?