John Wayne wanted to be an attorney, not an actor.
He had enjoyed the stage as a member of his high school drama club, but entered pre-law at the University of Southern California on a football scholarship.
Then he broke his collarbone bodysurfing and had to drop out. He had been working part time as a prop boy and extra at Fox Film Corp. (later called 20th Century Fox) and began appearing in movies in 1926.
Wayne would go on to star in dozens of classic motion pictures, especially Westerns, including “The Searchers,” “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon,” “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” and “True Grit,” for which he won the Academy Award for best actor.
“My dad worked hard to improve his acting by constantly practicing,” his son, Ethan, president of John Wayne Enterprises in Newport Beach, Calif., told IBD. “He learned not only his lines, but the story backward and forward, knew the camera angles that would work best and was always prepared. He became a master craftsman of filmmaking.”
Wayne (1907-79) was born in Winterset, Iowa, and named Marion Morrison after his grandfather, a Civil War hero.
The family moved to the Los Angeles area, where the father tried ranching and failed, so took a job as a pharmacist in Glendale. Marion was teased about his “girl’s name,” so he was happy when firemen he visited with his dog Duke began calling him Big Duke.
Fascinated by films being made in nearby hills, he began acting in high school. He also wrote for the school paper, was on the debate team, memorized poems of John Milton, became fluent in Latin and was president of his senior class, graduating in 1925.
He started at USC in 1925, but the football scholarship covered only tuition and one meal a day, so his coach asked movie cowboy Tom Mix to get him a job at Fox. Mix and director John Ford were friends of Wyatt Earp and eventually introduced the youngster to the legendary lawman. Wayne began imitating his walk and talk.
His first role as an uncredited extra was in 1926’s silent flick, “Brown of Harvard.” The next year, Wayne was in the accident that ended his college football career.
In early 1930, director Raoul Walsh saw him moving studio furniture and decided Wayne had the strength and charisma to star in “The Big Trail,” the first sound spectacle, budgeted at $2 million (equal to $28 million now). Walsh also gave him his screen name, but while the movie was a critical success, it failed because of the Depression.
Wayne started getting small roles in A pictures and the lead in Bs, mostly Westerns, in which he was mentored by master stuntman Yakima Canutt.
In 1933, Wayne married Josephine Saenz, the first of his three wives of Hispanic descent (he was fluent in Spanish). They had two sons and two daughters, but divorced in 1945. He wed Esperanza Baur the next year, but they divorced eight years later. He married Pilar Pallette in 1954 and they would have a son and two daughters.
In 1939 came his second break, when Ford cast him in “Stagecoach,” the first Western to have three-dimensional characters. It was nominated for an Oscar for best picture, but lost to “Gone With the Wind.”
When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941, Wayne expected to be drafted.
“He was eager to join the service, but was old for a soldier at 34 and had four children, which earned a deferment that Republic Pictures’ boss Herbert Yates insisted he accept or be sued,” said Roger McGrath, author of “Gunfighters, Highwaymen and Vigilantes.” “But if he had taken a physical it would have revealed his broken collarbone, a chronically bad back from having done his own stunts and damage to his inner ear canal caused by staying underwater while filming ‘Reap the Wild Wind.’ With the help of Ford, however, he applied to the photographic unit of the Office of Strategic Services, but the acceptance letter wasn’t forwarded by his estranged wife, Josephine. However, director William Donovan did assign him to make observations of the men and officers during a USO tour of the southwest Pacific in 1943-44, for which he was given a certificate of temporary service for OSS.”
Wayne also made morale-building pictures like “Flying Tigers,” “Fighting Seabees” and “Back to Bataan.” He would hail the heroes in later films like “They Were Expendable” and “Sands of Iwo Jima.”
After the war ended in 1945, he went back to making Westerns, including classics like “Fort Apache,” “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon,” “Red River,” “Rio Grande” and “Rio Bravo.” His most notable was “The Searchers,” directed by Ford and released in 1956, which is No. 12 on the American Film Institute’s list of “100 Greatest American Films of All Time” (just ahead of “Star Wars”).
“He personified for his fans the character he often played in Westerns, the great individualist working hard to survive and protect his family on the frontier,” said R.L. Wilson, author of “The Peacemakers: Arms and Adventure in the American West.” “I knew Katharine Hepburn, who expressed how much of a pleasure it was to be on sets with him.”
Wayne also did a favor for Ford, making a romance set in Ireland with Maureen O’Hara, 1952’s “The Quiet Man,” which won Ford an Oscar as best director.
Disaster At The Alamo
After 12 years of preparation, Wayne felt ready to produce, direct and play the part of Davy Crockett in “The Alamo” in 1959. He regarded it as the greatest of all stories of American heroism, but found little interest from the studios. He borrowed against everything he owned to raise the $12 million (equal to $97 million today).
But everything went wrong on location in Brackettville, Texas. He hired much of Ford’s crew, and Ford insisted on directing some scenes, almost none of which were used, at a cost of $250,000. A flood destroyed thousands of adobe huts that had been constructed. A fire burned up many of Wayne’s files. A cast member was murdered. It received mixed reviews when released in 1960, though the final attack by the Mexican army is stirring.
Then Wayne discovered that his accountant had lost most of his remaining money through bad investments. He quickly signed a nonexclusive contract with Paramount Studios for 10 movies at $600,000 each (worth $5 million now).
One of the first was “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” in 1962. The same year, he starred in “The Longest Day,” a D-Day classic; “Hatari,” about the rescue of African animals; and the wide-screen epic “How the West Was Won.”
“The Green Berets,” released in 1968, expressed Wayne’s view that the Vietnam War was necessary to stop communist expansion. It did well at the box office, if not with the critics.
He pleased both critics and fans with 1969’s “True Grit,” which earned him $1.5 million (worth $10 million now) and the best actor Oscar.
Wayne’s last movie was 1976’s “The Shootist,” in which he gave one of his best performances.
The 142 pictures in which he played the lead grossed $377 million worldwide (equivalent to $3 billion today). He appeared for 25 years, the most of any star, in the Top Ten Money Makers Poll — a measure of ticket sales — from 1949-74.
He died of stomach cancer at age 72.
“Whatever he played, the power of Wayne’s personality shone through — clarity triumphant,” wrote Scott Eyman in “John Wayne: The Life and Legend.” “He played the kind of man he needed to believe in, the kind of man the audience needed to believe in, his own genre. . . . At his best, he was an American amalgam of Shakespeare’s Prince Hal and Falstaff, for our time, for all time — larger than life, transcending death.”
Superstar of motion pictures, especially Westerns and war movies.
Overcame: Box office flops.
Lesson: When you get knocked down, dust yourself off and move forward.
“All I do is sell sincerity, and I’ve been selling the hell out of that ever since I started.”
John Wayne wanted to be an attorney, not an actor.