Before he was a Hollywood icon known as John Wayne, he was simply Marion Robert Morrison. He was born on 26 May 1907 in Winterset, Iowa, the son of Clyde Leonard and Mary "Molly" Alberta (Brown) Morrison. His family moved to Palmdale, CA in 1916 where his father worked as a pharmacist.
During his years at Glendale Union High School, he was active in sports and academics, being part of the football and debating teams and President of the Latin Society.
While traveling to and from school, he would pass by the local fire station. One of the firemen started calling him "Little Duke", since he was always accompanied by his Airedale Terrier, Duke. Preferring "Duke" to "Marion", the nickname would stick with him the rest of his life.
After having his application to the U.S. Naval Academy rejected, he attended the University of Southern California (USC) and majored in pre-law. He received an athletic scholarship and played on the football team until he broke his collarbone during a bodysurfing accident. As a result, he lost his scholarship and had to leave college.
He was hired by director John Ford and silent western film star Tom Mix as a prop boy and extra as a favor to his former USC football, with whom they were friends. From this job, he established a longtime friendship with John Ford, who provided most of his roles. He also met legendary lawman Wyatt Earp, who was good friends with Tom Mix and was an unpaid film consultant for several silent cowboy movies. It was from that acquaintance that the Duke later credited his walk, talk and persona.
While working in various bit roles, he was given on-screen credit as "Duke Morrison" in 1929's Words and Music. Then, after seeing him moving furniture as a prop boy, director Raoul Walsh cast him in his first starring role in The Big Trail (1930). When he professed inexperience, Walsh told him to just "sit good on a horse and point." For his screen name, Walsh suggested "Anthony Wayne", after the Revolutionary War general "Mad" Anthony Wayne. However, Winfield Sheehan, the head of Fox Studios, said it sounded "too Italian." Walsh then suggested "John Wayne" and Sheehan agreed. Thus, an icon was born and he was not even present for or involved in the decision.
For the film, Walsh had employed 93 actors and used as many as 725 Natives Americans from five different Indian tribes. He also obtained 185 wagons, 1,800 cows, 1,400 horses, 500 buffalos and 700 chickens, pigs and dogs for the production of the film. It was to be the first big-budget outdoor spectacle of the sound era, made at a then-staggering cost of over $2 million. However, 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 box office flop at the time.
After the commercial failure of The Big Trail, Wayne was relegated to small roles in A-pictures. He played the lead, with his name over the title, in many low-budget Westerns. By Wayne's own estimation, he appeared in about 80 of these "horse operas" from 1930 to 1939. In Riders of Destiny (1933), he became one of the first singing cowboys of film, although it was dubbed.
One of the main innovations Wayne is credited with in these early Westerns was allowing the good guys to fight as convincingly as the bad guys; by not always making them fight clean. He claimed, "Before I came along it was standard practice that the hero must always fight clean. The heavy was allowed to hit the hero in the head with a chair or throw a kerosene lamp at him or kick him in the stomach, but the hero could only knock the villain down politely and then wait until he rose. I changed all that. I threw chairs and lamps. I fought hard and I fought dirty. I fought to win."
His second breakthrough role came with John Ford's Stagecoach (1939). Because of Wayne's B-movie 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. In addition, Ford had not directed a western since the silent movie days. After rejection by all the major studios, Ford struck a deal with independent producer Walter Wanger where Claire Trevor, a much bigger star at the time, received top billing. Stagecoach was a huge critical and financial success, and Wayne became a mainstream star. Cast member Louise Platt credited Ford as saying at the time that Wayne would become the biggest star ever because of his appeal as the archetypal "everyman".
America's entry into World War II resulted in a deluge of support for the war effort from all sectors of society and Hollywood was no exception. Wayne was exempted from service due to his age (he was 34 years old at the time of Pearl Harbor) and family status (classified as 3-A, family deferment). He repeatedly wrote to John Ford saying he wanted to enlist, but
Republic Studios was emphatically resistant to losing him since he was their only A-list actor under contract. The President of Republic threatened Wayne with a lawsuit if he walked away from his contract and Republic Pictures intervened in the Selective Service process, requesting Wayne's further deferment.
By many accounts, his failure to serve in the military later became the most painful part of his life. His widow later suggested that his patriotism in later decades sprang from guilt, writing: "He would become a 'superpatriot' for the rest of his life trying to atone for staying home."
Of course, what tale of a Hollywood screen legend would be complete without discussing his off-screen life? He was beset by demons, drank copious amounts of alcohol, smoked four to five packs of unfiltered Camels every day and was an unrepentant philanderer, having multiple affairs throughout his three ill-fated marriages. Lest we forget, he too, was human.
While filming, In Harm’s Way in 1964, he had brutal coughing fits and people knew something was seriously wrong. He refused to see a doctor until his wife insisted that he go. X-rays discovered a tumor in his left lung. His lung was removed in a six-hour surgery, during which doctors found a malignant tumor the size of a chicken egg. A second surgery quickly followed to drain the fluid that swelled his face up to the size of a basketball. For years he struggled with post-surgical depression and daily breathing difficulties that were little known to the general public. He publicly declared himself free of the smoking habit but that was a lie. He just went from cigarettes to small cigars that maybe were less damaging than his usual unfiltered Camels. He also smoked large cigars and chewed tobacco. He needed an oxygen inhaler on the set and was increasingly plagued by bad colds and still coughing.
When he died on 11 June 1979, he had lost 100 lbs. The cancer had spread everywhere and he was on heavy narcotics for the pain.
His career flourished for 50 years, beginning with the silent movie era of the 1920s. He appeared in a total of 179 film and television productions and he was among the top box office draws for three decades.
“I would like to be remembered, well … the Mexicans have a phrase, “Feo fuerte y formal”. Which means he was ugly, strong and had dignity.” ― John Wayne