Marion Robert Morrison on May 26, 1907 in Winterset, Iowa
June 11, 1979 (age 72) in Los Angeles, California
Wayne was born Marion Robert Morrison
in Winterset, Iowa. His middle name was soon changed from Robert
to Mitchell when his parents decided to name their next son
Wayne's father, Clyde Leonard Morrison (1884–1937), was the son of
American Civil War veteran Marion Mitchell Morrison (1845–1915).
Wayne's mother, the former Mary Alberta Brown (1885–1970), was
from Lancaster County, Nebraska. Wayne was of Presbyterian
Scots-Irish descent through his second great-grandfather Robert
Morrison, who was born in County Antrim, Northern Ireland and
emigrated to the United States in 1782.
Wayne's family moved to Palmdale, California, and then in 1911 to
Glendale, California, where his father worked as a pharmacist. A
local fireman at the station on his route to school in Glendale
started calling him "Little Duke" because he never went anywhere
without his huge Airedale Terrier dog, Duke. He preferred "Duke"
to "Marion," and the name stuck for the rest of his life.
As a teen, Wayne worked in an ice cream shop for a man who shod
horses for Hollywood studios. He was also active as a member of
the Order of DeMolay, a youth organization associated with the
Freemasons. He attended Wilson Middle School in Glendale. He
played football for the 1924 champion Glendale High School team.
Wayne applied to the U.S. Naval Academy, but was not accepted. He
instead attended the University of Southern California (USC),
majoring in pre-law. He was a member of the Trojan Knights and
Sigma Chi fraternities.
Wayne also played on the USC football team under legendary coach
Howard Jones. An injury curtailed his athletic career; Wayne later
noted he was too terrified of Jones's reaction to reveal the
actual cause of his injury, which was bodysurfing at the “Wedge”
at the tip of the Balboa Peninsula in Newport Beach. He lost his
athletic scholarship and, without funds, had to leave the
Wayne began working at the local film studios. Prolific silent
western film star Tom Mix had gotten him a summer job in the prop
department in exchange for football tickets. Wayne soon moved on
to bit parts, establishing a longtime friendship with the director
who provided most of those roles, John Ford. Early in this period,
Wayne appeared with his USC teammates playing football in Brown of
Harvard (1926), The Dropkick (1927), and Salute (1929) and
Columbia's Maker of Men (filmed in 1930, released in 1931). Also,
it is during this period that Wayne is reputed to have met the
legendary gunfighter and lawman
While working for Fox Film
Corporation in bit roles, he was given on-screen credit as "Duke
Morrison" only once, in Words and Music (1929). In 1930, director
Raoul Walsh cast him in his first starring role in The Big Trail
(1930). For his screen name, Walsh suggested "Anthony Wayne",
after Revolutionary War general "Mad Anthony" Wayne. Fox Studios
chief Winfield Sheehan rejected it as sounding "too Italian."
Walsh then suggested "John Wayne." Sheehan agreed, and the name
was set. Wayne himself was not even present for the discussion.
His pay was raised to $105 a week ($1,371 in 2010 dollars).
The Big Trail was to be the first big-budget outdoor spectacle of
the sound era, made at a staggering cost of over $2 million ($26
million in 2010 dollars), utilizing hundreds of extras and wide
vistas of the American southwest, still largely unpopulated at the
time. To take advantage of the breathtaking scenery, it was filmed
in two versions, a standard 35mm version and another in
"Grandeur", a new process utilizing innovative camera and lenses
and a revolutionary 70mm widescreen process. Many in the audience
who saw it in Grandeur stood and cheered. Unfortunately, only a
handful of theaters were equipped to show the film in its
widescreen process, and the effort was largely wasted. The film
was considered a huge flop.
After the failure of The Big Trail, Wayne was relegated to
small roles in A-pictures, including Columbia's The Deceiver
(1931), in which he played a corpse. He appeared in the
serial The Three Musketeers (1933), an updated version of
the Alexandre Dumas novel in which the protagonists were soldiers
in the French Foreign Legion in then-contemporary North Africa. He
appeared in many low-budget "Poverty Row" westerns, mostly at
Monogram Pictures and serials for Mascot Pictures Corporation.
By Wayne's own estimation, he appeared in about eighty of these
horse operas between 1930 - 1939. In Riders of Destiny
(1933) he became film's first singing cowboy, albeit via dubbing.
Wayne also appeared in some of the Three Mesquiteers
westerns, whose title was a play on the Dumas classic. He was
mentored by stuntmen in riding and other western skills. He and
famed stuntman Yakima Canutt developed and perfected stunts still
Wayne's breakthrough role came with director John Ford's classic
Stagecoach (1939). Because of Wayne's non-star status and
track record in low-budget westerns throughout the 1930s, Ford had
difficulty getting financing for what was to be an A-budget film.
After rejection by all the top studios, Ford struck a deal with
independent producer Walter Wanger in which Claire Trevor - a much
bigger star at the time - received top billing. Stagecoach was a
huge critical and financial success, and Wayne became a star. He
later appeared in more than twenty of John Ford's films, including
She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), The Quiet Man
(1952), The Searchers (1956), The Wings of Eagles
(1957), and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962).
Wayne's first color film was Shepherd of the Hills (1941),
in which he co-starred with his longtime friend Harry Carey.
The following year he appeared in his only film directed by Cecil
B. DeMille, the Technicolor epic Reap the Wild Wind
(1942), in which he co-starred with Ray Milland and Paulette
Goddard; it was one of the rare times he played a character with
In 1949, director Robert Rossen offered the starring role of All
the King's Men to Wayne. Wayne refused, believing the script
to be un-American in many ways. Broderick Crawford, who eventually
got the role, won the 1949 Oscar for best male actor, ironically
beating out Wayne, who had been nominated for Sands of Iwo Jima.
He lost the leading role in The Gunfighter (1950) to
Gregory Peck due to his refusal to work for Columbia Pictures
because its chief Harry Cohn had mistreated him years before when
he was a young contract player. Cohn had bought the project for
Wayne, but Wayne's grudge was too deep, and Cohn sold the script
to Twentieth Century Fox, which cast Peck in the role Wayne badly
wanted but refused to bend for.
One of Wayne's most popular roles was in The High and the Mighty
(1954), directed by William Wellman and based on a novel by Ernest
K. Gann. His portrayal of a heroic copilot won widespread acclaim.
Wayne also portrayed aviators in Flying Tigers (1942),
Flying Leathernecks (1951), Island in the Sky
(1953), The Wings of Eagles (1957), and Jet
The Searchers (1956) continues to be widely regarded as
perhaps Wayne's finest and most complex performance. In 2006
Premiere Magazine ran an industry poll in which Wayne's portrayal
of Ethan Edwards was rated the 87th greatest performance in film
history. He named his youngest son Ethan after the character. John
Wayne won a Best Actor Oscar for True Grit (1969).
Wayne was also nominated as the producer of Best Picture for The
Alamo (1960), one of two films he directed. The other was The
Green Berets (1968), the only major film made during the Vietnam
War to support the war. During the filming of Green Berets, the
Degar or Montagnard people of Vietnam's Central Highlands, fierce
fighters against communism, bestowed on Wayne a brass bracelet
that he wore in the film and all subsequent films. His last film
was The Shootist (1976), whose main character, J. B.
Books, was dying of cancer - the illness to which Wayne himself
succumbed 3 years later.
According to the Internet Movie Database, Wayne played the lead in
142 of his film appearances.
Batjac, the production company co-founded by Wayne, was named after
the fictional shipping company Batjak in Wake of the Red Witch
(1948), a film based on the novel by Garland Roark. (A spelling
error by Wayne's secretary was allowed to stand, accounting for
the variation.) Batjac (and its predecessor, Wayne-Fellows
Productions) was the arm through which Wayne produced many films
for himself and other stars. Its best-known non-Wayne production
was the highly acclaimed Seven Men From Now (1956) which
started the classic collaboration between director Budd Boetticher
and star Randolph Scott.
In the Motion Picture Herald Top Ten Money- Making Western Stars
poll, Wayne was listed in 1936 and 1939. He appeared in the
similar Box Office poll in 1939 and 1940. While these two polls
are really an indication only of the popularity of series stars,
Wayne also appeared in the Top Ten Money Makers Poll of all films
from 1949 to 1957 and 1958 to 1974, taking first place in 1950,
1951, 1954 and 1971. With a total of 25 years on the list,
Wayne has more appearances than any other star, beating Clint
Eastwood (21) into second place.
In later years, Wayne was recognized as a sort of American natural
resource, and his various critics, of his performances and his
politics, viewed him with more respect. Abbie Hoffman, the radical
of the 1960s, paid tribute to Wayne's singularity, saying "I like
Wayne's wholeness, his style. As for his politics, well - suppose
even cavemen felt a little admiration for the dinosaurs that were
trying to gobble them up." Reviewing The Cowboys (1972),
Vincent Canby of the New York Times, who did not particularly care
for the film, wrote: "Wayne is, of course, marvelously
indestructible, and he has become an almost perfect father
Wayne had been a chain-smoker of
cigarettes since young adulthood. In 1964, Wayne was
diagnosed with lung cancer, and underwent successful surgery to
remove his entire left lung and four ribs. Despite efforts
by his business associates to prevent him from going public with
his illness (for fear it would cost him work), Wayne announced he
had cancer and called on the public to get preventive
examinations. Five years later, Wayne was declared
cancer-free. Despite the fact that Wayne's diminished lung
capacity left him incapable of prolonged exertion and frequently
in need of supplemental oxygen, within a few years of his
operation he chewed tobacco and began smoking cigars until the day
Although he enrolled in a cancer vaccine
study in an attempt to ward off the disease, John Wayne died of
stomach cancer on June 11, 1979, at the UCLA Medical Center, and
was interred in the Pacific View Memorial Park, Plot: Bayview
Terrace, section 575 in Corona del Mar.