Before there was Sylvester Stallone, Jackie Chan, whichever incarnation of James Bond that floats your boat, or Chuck Norris, there was John Wayne, the original action hero. While other leading men were wearing rouge and flitting across the silver screen like mandy pandy, high-fallootin aristocrats, John Wayne represented the everyman; but better. He was gritty, uncompromising, wholly masculine and hard-working. It’s no wonder the entire universe has been in love with him for about 75 years now.
1. He Started Off as a ‘Marion’
Even though he was a boy. His parents originally named John ‘Marion Robert Morrison’ when he was born in May, 1907. But then they decided ‘Robert’ was too good a name to be delegated to middle position, so they took it back and gave it to Marion’s younger brother when he was born. Marion was rechristened ‘Marion Mitchell Morrison,’ but for some reason that ‘Marion’ bit rubbed him the wrong way. Can’t imagine why.
2. Even as a Kid, he Preferred to be Called ‘Duke’
Not ‘The Duke,’ just ‘Duke.’ And at first, it wasn’t his nickname, it was his dog’s. The story goes that when Wayne (Morrison) was a kid, he never went anywhere without his Airedale terrier ‘Big Duke.’ Pretty soon, he became so associated with that dog that his neighbors started calling him ‘Little Duke.’ And Marion let them, because, once more, he wasn’t so fond of ‘Marion.’
3. John Wayne: Surfer Dude
Although Wayne was born in Iowa, his dad’s health forced the family to move the warmer climate of California during his childhood. And there, John Wayne thrived. He was a hardcore athlete, even earning a football scholarship to USC. But then he lost the scholarship and couldn’t earn enough money to continue his studies. He eventually dropped out of college altogether.
And how did he lose that crucial scholarship? Body surfing, that’s how. John Wayne dislocated his shoulder while surfing with his frat buddies. At first he just tried to hide the injury from teammates and coaches, but before long he was cut from the team and his college money was gone.
4. John Wayne: Movie Muckabout
After dropping out of school, Wayne spent the next 13 years learning the movie business as a jack-of-all-trades. Along the way, a few things happened. One, he met Wyatt Earp. Two, he developed a friendship with famous director John Ford, who managed to slip Wayne in as an extra in a buttload of movies. So many movies, in fact, that by the time John Wayne hit the bigtime with his breakout role in Stagecoach, he had appeared in no less than 79 roles, most of them uncredited walk-on parts. Three, he became the first, albeit dubbed, singing cowboy with sound on screen.
5. ‘John Wayne’ Was Not John Wayne’s Idea
He liked ‘Duke Morrison.’ But studio executives thought ‘Duke’ wasn’t American enough, so they had a powwow and came up with ‘John Wayne.’ John Wayne himself wasn’t invited to the meeting.
6. John Wayne Never Got Around to Enlisting
To be fair, at the age of 34, John Wayne technically wasn’t eligible for enlistment when Pearl Harbor was bombed. But age didn’t stop Gene Autrey, Jimmy Stewart, Henry Fonda, Clark Gable and countless other stars from enlisting once the war got under way. He did eventually join the service in some goodwill-touring-hospitals-and-military-bases sort of capacity, but Wayne never actually saw any action in World War II.
I probably spoke too soon.
Not enlisting probably wouldn’t have been that big of a deal if Wayne wasn’t such a war hawk later in life. He even made what ultimately became regarded as the only pro-Vietnam War movie ever, The Green Berets. Roger Ebert once listed The Green Berets as one of his most hated films for the way it glorified war.
7. John Wayne and Playboy are Dubiously Connected
In 1971 John Wayne granted Playboy magazine a disastrous interview. In it, the 63 year old declared himself a white supremacist, called modern studio executives ‘high class whores’ and had some Joe McCarthy level paranoid anti-Communist sentiments. But things really went loco when asked about Native American affairs:
Our so-called stealing of this country from them was just a matter of survival. There were great numbers of people who needed new land, and the Indians were selfishly trying to keep it for themselves.
But you can’t whine and bellyache ’cause somebody else got a good break and you didn’t, like these Indians are. We’ll all be on a reservation soon if the socialists keep subsidizing groups like them with our tax money.
8. Which is Weird, Because All Three of his Wives Were Latinas
Wayne divorced his first wife, Josephine, and took up with his second wife, Esperanza, who he divorced seven years later on the same day that he married third wife, Pilar, pictured above. Pilar lasted 22 whole years of marriage with Wayne.
9. He Died of Shady Cancer
In 1956, John Wayne somehow managed to play Genghis Khan in the major flop The Conqueror. What would have been an otherwise unremarkable movie was marred by the fact that it was shot downwind of a former nuclear weapon testing site, and that the four main characters all eventually died of cancer. In fact, of the 220 cast and crew, 91 of them had developed cancer by 1980 and 46 had died of it. Wayne was one of the unlucky 46.
10. This, That and the Other
John Wayne was 6’4, wore a toupee, and smoked six packs of cigarettes a day until a bout with cancer cost him a lung. He was also credited with going public with his cancer battle in order to encourage fans to get cancer screenings. He was a freemason who drank so much that directors knew to get his scenes in by noon, otherwise they’d just be working with a very drunk John Wayne.
Despite all that, as well the super racisty statements made over the years, not to mention the times he bragged about supporting the blacklisting of supposedly Communist actors in the 50’s, distinguished actors from all across the political spectrum campaigned to get him a Congressional Medal of Honor in 1979. Not only was the Congressional Medal of Honor awarded to his family after his death, but Democrat Jimmy Carter awarded the lifelong Republican the Presidential Medal of Freedom after his death as well.