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By Susan M. Kelly

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Vintage John Wayne Keybook Photo1973 John Wayne color print from the John Ford Cowboy Kings collectionBig, brash, and brawny, John Wayne loomed larger than life over every one of the more than 200 films he would make during his prolific career.  He became the very personification of a man's man, a legacy which remains to this day.  Ask many people for their definition of the red, white and blue American man, and almost 30 years after his death they’ll still say John Wayne.  His are truly very large boots to fill.

Born to pharmacist Clyde Morrison and his wife Mary, young Marion Morrison found himself facing adversity at a young age.  When his father was stricken with a lung condition, the family moved from rural Iowa to the warmer climate of California.  There, the family, which by now included younger brother Robert, tried their hand at ranching.  When the ranch failed, the family moved to Glendale, California where young Marion worked delivering medicines for his father.  He also acquired an Airedale terrier whom he named “Duke”, a nickname that would stay with Morrison himself throughout his life.

He was a star athlete in high school, and after narrowly missing admission to Annapolis, went on to USC on a football scholarship.  During the summers, cowboy star Tom Mix got him a job as a prop man and he quickly became friends with director John Ford, who eventually gave him bit parts in a few movies.  In 1930, he was cast in Fox’s “The Big Trail” and the studio decided he needed a name which better fit his image.  They settled on John Wayne, and his career was underway.

Wayne quickly fell into a pattern, filming low-budget westerns and routine adventures, until Ford cast him in 1939’s “Stagecoach”. The film would officially put John Wayne on the map, setting off one of the most epic careers in Hollywood history.  He would go on to appear in nearly 250 movies and set a record which still stands by having the lead role in all but 11 of them.  From early on there was just no taking a back seat for John Wayne.  During the 40’s, he branched out of westerns to make several pro-war movies such as “Back to Bataan” (1945) and “They Were Expendable” (1945).  He also starred in the radio series “The Three Sheets to the Wind”.

In 1944 he helped found the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals and would later become its president. He became known almost as much for his staunch political stances as his acting career, taking a strong anti-Communist stance and in the 1950’s, assisting the House Un-American Activities Committee in its efforts to expose Communists in the film industry.

He received a Best Actor Oscar nomination for “Sands of Iwo Jima” (1949) and continued to make his by now trademark westerns, including the brilliant John Ford cavalry trilogy – “Fort Apache” (1948), “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon” (1949) and “Rio Grande” (1950).    In 1956, he worked with Ford again on the epic film “The Searchers”.  His role as Ethan Edwards, a veteran of the Indian wars who must fight back his own prejudice to find his kidnapped niece, was his personal favorite and Late 1940's-Early 1950's John Wayne Paper Premium1955 John Wayne Kane Trading Cardhas been numbered by several sources among the greatest film performances of all time.

With the onset of the 60’s came new political issues, including the unrest in Vietnam, and for Wayne the very popular 1968 Vietnam-set war movie “The Green Berets”, which he co-directed as well as starred in.  The 60’s also brought the first of several severe health crises.  A five-pack-a-day smoking habit led to the eventual diagnosis of lung cancer and in 1964 he had to have his cancerous left lung removed.  The health scare didn’t faze him, though.  As only he could, he declared from his hospital bed that he had “licked the Big C” and he was soon back on his feet and working steadily.

He was finally rewarded with a Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of the one-eyed tough guy Rooster Cogburn in “True Grit” (1969), but not long after that his career began to decline.  Westerns such as “Rio Lobo” (1970) and “The Cowboys” (1972) fared poorly at the box office, despite good reviews, and his foray into more modern roles such as “McQ” (1974) and “Brannigan” (1975) did even worse.  In 1975 he returned to a familiar role with “Rooster Cogburn”, the sequel to True Grit, in which he starred opposite Katharine Hepburn. It was critically panned, but became a minor hit nonetheless.

The changing times were finally catching up with the aging hero, and for the first time John Wayne found himself seriously contemplating retirement.  He made one last film, 1976’s “The Shootist”, in which he played a gunfighter dying of cancer.  The performance would eventually become a stark reality.  His health battles continued in March of 1978 when he underwent heart valve replacement and then, in 1979, when he entered the hospital for gall bladder surgery, it was discovered that the cancer had returned.  His stomach was removed but by then it was too late, as doctor’s determined it had spread to his intestines as well.  He eventually lapsed into a coma and died on June 11, 1979.

At the behest of Senator Barry Goldwater and backed by many of his Hollywood contemporaries, he was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor in 1979. Even after his death, his influence could not be denied.  The larger than life hero had carved a niche for himself that took on epic proportions.  His political views may have lagged behind the times as far as the new generation was concerned, but his staunch patriotism never really went out of style and his legacy continues to stretch far beyond the bounds of Hollywood.  America can always use a hero, and there will never be another quite like the great John Wayne.
Susan M. Kelly is a freelance writer who lives and works in Dunellen, New Jersey.  Susan is a regular contributor to The Movie Profiles & Premiums Newsletter.

Other John Wayne Pages:

A Tribute to John Wayne -- From Brad Lang's Classic Movies site
John Wayne Took the Good With the Bad by Stephen Schochet -- Another page right here on
Tales of the Broke and Famous by Stephen Schochet -- Another page right here on