From his 6’, 4” physique to his swaggering walk and slow, gravelly way of talking, John Wayne was a larger-than-life American film icon who epitomized rugged masculinity. He remains popular to this day with film fans of all ages worldwide.
Born Marion Robert Morrison, Wayne entered the world as a large presence, weighing nearly 13 pounds at birth, on May 26, 1907, in Winterset, Iowa. He moved with his family to Lancaster, California, at age 7, and the Morrisons later settled in Glendale. There the young Morrison received his nickname “Duke.” The boy had a dog by that name and the pair spent so much time together that they were called “Little Duke” and “Big Duke.” In high school, Morrison excelled in his classes, student government, and football. He also participated in a number of student theatrical productions.
Morrison won a football scholarship to the University of Southern California. But an injury ended his football career and scholarship after two years. While attending college, he worked as a prop boy, and occasionally as an extra or stuntman. He met director John Ford while working as an extra on Mother Machree (1928). Morrison played his first role in Ford’s Hangman’s House (1928). The American director Raoul Walsh spotted the young prop boy moving furniture on a set and cast him in his first starring role in the Western The Big Trail (1930). Walsh was also credited with creating the screen name John Wayne, which was inspired by the Revolutionary War (1775-1783) hero “Mad” Anthony Wayne. However, the film was a box-office flop. Wayne performed as a (dubbed) singing cowboy in a few films in the early 1930’s and continued to work mostly in low-budget Westerns until the late 1930’s.
Wayne became a star after Ford cast him in the classic Western Stagecoach (1939). In the film, Wayne portrayed the Ringo Kid, an outlaw on his way to Lordsburg, New Mexico, to avenge the killing of his father and brother. Ford and Wayne went on to make many classic films together, including the Westerns Fort Apache (1948), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), Rio Grande (1950), and The Searchers (1956); the drama The Long Voyage Home (1940); and the romantic comedy/drama The Quiet Man (1952).
Wayne’s other notable films include the Westerns The Spoilers (1942), Rio Bravo (1959), and The Comancheros (1961); the adventure film Red River (1948); and the war dramas Sands of Iwo Jima (1949) and The Green Berets (1968). In 1970, Wayne won an Academy Award for his portrayal of Rooster Cogburn, an alcoholic U.S. marshall and Texas Ranger who helps a plucky teenager track down her father’s murderer in the Western True Grit (1969). Wayne made more than 150 movies. He died of cancer on June 11, 1979.