American actor John Wayne (1907-1979) played characters who typically exuded decisiveness, virility, and an American "can-do" spirit in over 75 films.
John Wayne was born Marion Mitchell Morrison on May 26, 1907, in Winterset, Iowa. He received his nickname "Duke" while still a child, because of his love for a dog of that name. The family's circumstances were moderate. His father was a pharmacist whose business ventures did not succeed. The family moved to California in 1914. His parents were divorced in 1926.
From the age of 12 he was forced to help support himself. He did so with a variety of odd jobs, including stints as a delivery boy and as a trucker's helper. A star football player on the Glendale High School team, he was accepted at the University of Southern California on a football scholarship. An accident ended his playing career and scholarship; without funds to support himself he left the university in 1927 after two years there.
He had spent some time while at college working at the Fox studio lots in Los Angeles as a laborer, prop boy, and extra. While doing so he had met John Ford, the director, who took a shine to him (and would over the years have a major impact on his career). In 1928, after working at various odd jobs for some months, he was again employed at the Fox studios, mostly as a laborer but also as an extra and bit player. His efforts in the main went unbilled, but he did attain his first screen credits as Duke Morrison.
His first real break came in 1929, when through the intervention of Ford he was cast as the lead in a major Fox production, the Western movie The Big Trail. According to some biographers Fox executives found his name inappropriate and changed it to John Wayne, the surname being derived from the American Revolutionary general "Mad Anthony" Wayne.
The Big Trail was not a success, and Fox soon dropped him. During the 1930s he worked at various studios, mostly those on what was known as "Poverty Row." Wayne appeared in over 50 feature films and serials, mostly Westerns. He even appeared in some films as "Singing Sandy." Tall, personable, able to do his own stunts, it appeared that he was doomed to be a leading player in low-budget films.
However, thanks to Ford, with whom he had remained friends, Wayne was cast as the lead in that director's film Stagecoach, a 1939 Western that became a hit and a classic. This film was a turning point in Wayne's career. And although it took time for him to develop the mythic hero image which propelled him to the top of the box office charts, within a decade he was voted by movie exhibitors one of the top ten box office attractions of the year, a position he maintained for 23 of the next 24 years.
Wayne appeared in over 75 films between 1939 and 1976 when The Shootist, his last film (and appropriately enough a Western), was released. In the vast majority of these films he was a man of action, be it in the post Civil War American West or in contemporary U.S. wars. As an actor he had a marvelous sense of timing and of his own persona, but comedy was not his forte. Action was the essence of his films. His characters exuded decisiveness, confidence, virility, strength, and an American "can-do" spirit. Indeed, critics have emphasized over and over again the manner in which he represented a particular kind of "American Spirit."
As a box-office superstar he had his choice of roles and vehicles, but he chose to remain with the genre he knew best. As the years passed his only concession to age was the gradual elimination of romance from the roles he played. He went from wooing leading ladies such as Marlene Dietrich (Pittsburgh, 1942), Gail Russell (Angel and the Badman, 1947), and Patricia Neal (Operation Pacific, 1951) to more mature roles as a rowdy pater familias (McClintock, 1963), an older brother (The Sons of Katie Elder, 1965), and an avuncular marshal (Rio Lobo, 1970).
Wayne's politics were not always right-of-center, but in the latter part of his life he became known for his active anti-Communism. His ultra conservatism began in the mid-1940s. He served as head of the extremist anti-Communist Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals; supported various conservative Republican politicians, including Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon; and spoke out forcefully on behalf of various causes such as American participation in the Vietnam War.
His politics also influenced his activities as a producer and director. Wayne's production companies made all kinds of films, but among them were Big Jim McClain (1951), in which he starred as a process server for the House Un-American Activities Committee fighting Communists in Hawaii, and Blood Alley (1955), in which he played an American who helps a village to escape from the Communist Chinese mainland to Formosa. The two films that Wayne directed also are representative of his politics: The Alamo (1960) is an epic film about a heroic last stand by a group of Texans in their fight for independence against Mexico and included some sermonizing by the Wayne character about democracy as he saw it; The Green Berets (1968), in which Wayne played a colonel leading troops against the North Vietnamese, was an outspoken vehicle in support of America's role in the war.
Wayne was married three times. He had four daughters and three sons by two of his wives (Josephine Saenez, 1933-1945, and Pilar Palette Weldy, after 1954). His second wife was Esperanza Diaz Ceballos Morrison (1946-1954). Wayne was the recipient of many awards during his career, including an Oscar for his role as the hard-drinking, one-eyed, tough law man in True Grit (1969) and an Academy Award nomination for his playing of the career marine noncom in Sands of Iwo Jima (1949). Plagued by various illnesses during the last few years of his life, he publicly announced his triumph over lung cancer in 1964. But a form of that disease claimed him on June 11, 1979.
Further Reading on John Wayne
For additional information, see the biographies by Maurice Zolotow (1974), Mike Tomkies (1971), and Donald Shepherd and Robert Saltzer with David Grayson (1985).
Additional Biography Sources
Riggin, Judith M., John Wayne: a bio-bibliography, New York: Greenwood Press, 1992.
Levy, Emanuel, John Wayne: prophet of the American way of life, Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1988.
Roberts, Randy, John Wayne: American, New York: Free Press, 1995.