That voice. That walk. That craggy grin. Thousands have imitated the Duke. But his impact has never been duplicated.
From the top of his dusty cowboy hat to the soles of his boots, John Wayne embodied the American frontier spirit like no one before or since. Unflinchingly brave, uncompromisingly fair, the Duke became a role model – an icon of what it meant to be a real man.
John Wayne was born Marion Michael Morrison on May 26, 1907, in Winterset, Iowa and moved to California in 1914. It’s hard to believe now, but when the Duke left USC (where he played football) for the movies, he wasn’t an overnight sensation. Not that he wasn’t trying: his filmography shows that between 1929 and 1933, he appeared in an astonishing twenty six films. But none of the roles were big enough for the Duke’s persona to shine through.
Director John Ford gave the Duke his start in the movie business in 1926, as an assistant propman making thirty-five dollars a week. One day, while moving a Louis Quinze sofa on the backlot, the Duke was spotted by director, Raoul Walsh.
Walsh ordered his casting director to give young Marion Morrison a screen test immediately. The Duke was cast in THE BIG TRAIL. It seemed like he was on his way. But the movie did so poorly at the box office that some Hollywood pundits proclaimed “the Western is dead.”
John Wayne’s star plummeted. During the ’30’s, he seemed destined for nothing grander than a journeyman career in obscure action pictures and serials.
But John Wayne never gave up. Finally, his old friend John Ford cast Duke in a new film, STAGECOACH. It changed everything.
In 1939, John Wayne soared to stardom as Ringo Kid, and his legend began. He was the ultimate “good guy”, tough but fair, willing to take it – or give it – on the chin if that’s what it took to get the job done.
But one of his finest roles was as the hard-bitten, utterly unlikeable cattle baron Tom Dunson in RED RIVER (1948). Director Howard Hawks originally wanted Gary Cooper for the part, but Coop wouldn’t have it – he felt the character was too ruthless. (The character’s obsessiveness may have rubbed off. John Wayne insisted that Hawks hire experienced cowhands. He did, putting more than 70 experienced riders to work – and his film over budget. The $1.5 million budget for the film eventually ballooned to nearly double that figure.)
In films like Big Jim McClain, The Sons of Katie Elder, and In Harm’s Way, John Wayne taught a generation of men how to stand tall, how to give a kiss, and how to take a punch.
In 1969, he won the Best Actor Oscar for TRUE GRIT. John Wayne kept working right until the end of his life – his final film, THE SHOOTIST (1976) was just three years before his passing.