Actor John Wayne was born Marion Robert Morrison on May 26 1907, in Winterset, Iowa. (Some sources also list him as Marion Michael Morrison and Marion Mitchell Morrison.) One of the most popular film actors of the 20th century, John Wayne remains a popular American icon to this day. He was already a sizable presence when he was born, weighing around 13 pounds.
The oldest of two children born to Clyde and Mary “Molly” Morrison, Wayne moved to Lancester, California, around the age of seven. The family moved again a few years later after Clyde failed in his attempt to become a farmer.
Settling in Glendale, California, Wayne received his distinctive nickname “Duke” while living there. He had a dog by that name, and he spent so much time with his pet that the pair became known as “Little Duke” and “Big Duke,” according to the official John Wayne website. In high school, Wayne excelled in his classes and in many different activities, including student government and football. He also participated in numerous student theatrical productions.
Winning a football scholarship to University of Southern California (USC), Wayne started college in the fall of 1925. He joined the Sigma Chi fraternity and continued to be a strong student. Unfortunately, after two years, an injury took him off the football field and ended his scholarship. While in college, Wayne had done some work as a film extra, appearing as a football player in ‘Brown of Harvard’ (1926) and ‘Drop Kick’ (1927).
Out of school, Wayne worked as an extra and a prop man in the film industry. He first met director John Ford while working as an extra on ‘Mother Machree’ (1928). With ‘The Big Trail’ (1930), Wayne received his first leading role, thanks to director Raoul Walsh. Walsh is often credited with helping him create his now legendary screen name, John Wayne. Unfortunately, the western was a box office dud.
For nearly a decade, Wayne toiled in numerous B movies-mostly westerns-for different studios. He even played a singing cowboy named Sandy Saunders among his many roles. During this time period, however, Wayne started developing his man of action persona, which would serve as the basis of many popular characters later on.
Working with Ford, he got his next big break in ‘Stagecoach’ (1939). Wayne portrayed the Ringo Kid, an escaped outlaw, who joins an unusual assortment of characters on a dangerous journey through frontier lands. During the trip, the Kid falls for a dance hall prostitute named Dallas (Claire Trevor). The film was well received by movie goers and critics alike and earned seven Academy Award nominations, including one for Ford’s direction. In the end, it took home the awards for Music and for Actor in a Supporting Role for Thomas Mitchell.
Reunited with Ford and Mitchell, Wayne stepped away from his usual Western roles to become a Swedish seaman in ‘The Long Voyage Home’ (1940). The film was adapted from a play by Eugene O’Neill and follows the crew of a steamer ship as they move a shipment of explosives. Along with many positive reviews, the movie earned several Academy Award nominations.
Wayne started working behind the scenes as a producer in the late 40’s. The first film he produced was ‘Angel and the Badman’ (1947). Over the years, he operated several different production companies, including John Wayne Productions, Wayne-Fellows Productions and Batjac Productions.
Wayne’s career as an actor took another leap forward when he worked with director Howard Hawks in ‘Red River’ (1948). The western drama provided Wayne with an opportunity to show his talents as an actor, not just an action hero. Playing the conflicted cattleman Tom Dunson, he took on a darker sort of character. He deftly handled his character’s slow collapse and difficult relationship with his adopted son played by Montgomery Clift. Also around this time, Wayne also received praise for his work in John Ford’s ‘Fort Apache’ (1948) with Henry Fonda and Shirley Temple.
Wayne worked with O’Hara on several films, perhaps most notably ‘The Quiet Man’ (1952). Playing an American boxer with a bad reputation, his character moved to Ireland where he fell in love with a local woman (Maureen O’Hara). This film is considered Wayne’s most convincing leading romantic role by many critics.
A well-known conservative and anticommunist, Wayne merged his personal beliefs and his professional life in 1952’s ‘Big Jim McLain’. He played an investigator working for the U.S. House Un-American Activities Committee, which worked to root out communists in all aspects of public life. Off screen, Wayne played a leading role in the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals and even served as its president for a time. The organization was a group of conservatives who wanted to stop communists from working in the film industry, and other members included Gary Cooper and Ronald Reagan.
In 1956, Wayne starred in another Ford western, ‘The Searchers’, and again showed some dramatic range as the morally questionable Civil War veteran Ethan Edwards. He soon after reteamed with Howard Hawks for ‘Rio Bravo’ (1959). Playing a local sheriff, Wayne’s character must face off against a powerful rancher and his henchmen who want to free his jailed brother. The unusual cast included Dean Martin and Angie Dickinson.
Wayne made his directorial debut with ‘The Alamo’ (1960). Starring in the film as Davy Crockett, he received decidedly mixed reviews for both his on- and off-screen efforts. Wayne received a much warmer reception for ‘The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance’ (1962) with Jimmy Stewart and Lee Marvin and directed by John Ford. Some other notable films from this period include ‘The Longest Day’ (1962) and ‘How the West Was Won’ (1962). Continuing to work steadily, Wayne refused to even let illness slow him down. He successfully battled lung cancer in 1964. To defeat the disease, Wayne had to have a lung and several ribs removed.
In the later part of the 60’s, Wayne had some great successes and failures. He co-starred with Robert Mitchum in ‘El Dorado’ (1967), which was well received. The next year, Wayne again mixed the professional and the political with the pro-Vietnam War film ‘The Green Berets’ (1968). He directed and produced as well as starred in the film, which was derided by critics for being heavy handed and clichéd. Viewed by many as a piece of propaganda, the film still did well at the box office.
Around this time, Wayne continued to espouse his conservative political views. He support friend Ronald Reagan in his 1966 bid for governor of California as well as his 1970 re-election effort. In 1976, Wayne recorded radio advertisements for Reagan’s first attempt to become the Republican presidential candidate.
Wayne portrayed an aging gunfighter dying of cancer in his final film, ‘The Shootist’ (1976), with Jimmy Stewart and Lauren Bacall. His character, John Bernard Books, hoped to spend his final days peacefully, but got involved one last gunfight. In 1978, life imitated art with Wayne being diagnosed with stomach cancer.
Wayne died on June 11 1979, in Los Angeles, California. He was survived by his seven children from two of his three marriages. During his marriage to Josephine Saenz from 1933 to 1945, the couple had four children, two daughters Antonia and Melinda and two sons Michael and Patrick. Both Michael and Patrick followed in their father’s footsteps Michael as a producer and Patrick as an actor. With his third wife, Pilar Palette, he had three more children, Ethan, Aissa, and Marisa. Ethan has worked as an actor over the years.
Shortly before his death, the U.S. Congress approved a congressional gold medal for Wayne. It was given to his family in 1980. In the same month as the Duke’s passing, the Orange County Airport was renamed after him. He was later featured on a postage stamp in 1990 and again in 2004 and was inducted into the California Hall of Fame in 2007.
In honor of his charitable work in the fight against cancer, Wayne’s children established the John Wayne Cancer Foundation in 1985. The organization provides support to numerous cancer-related programs and to the John Wayne Cancer Institute at Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California.