John Wayne was born Marion Mitchell Morrison on 26th May 1907 but became known by his nickname “Duke” and was an American film actor, director, and producer. An Academy Award-winner for True Grit (1969), Wayne was among the top box office draws for over three decades. An enduring American icon, for several generations of Americans he epitomized rugged masculinity and is famous for his demeanour, including his distinctive calm voice, walk, and height.
Born in Iowa, Wayne grew up in Southern California. He found work at local film studios when he lost his football scholarship to University of Southern California (USC) as a result of a bodysurfing accident. Initially working for the Fox Film Corporation, he mostly appeared in small bit parts. His first leading role came in Raoul Walsh’s lavish widescreen epic The Big Trail (1930), which led to leading roles in numerous B movies throughout the 1930s, many of them in the Western genre.
Wayne’s career took off in 1939, with John Ford’s Stagecoach making him an instant mainstream star. Wayne went on to star in 142 pictures. Biographer Ronald Davis says: “John Wayne personified for millions the nation’s frontier heritage. Eighty-three of his movies were Westerns, and in them he played cowboys, cavalrymen, and unconquerable loners extracted from the Republic’s central creation myth.”
Wayne’s other well-known Western roles include: as a cattleman driving his herd north on the Chisholm Trail in Red River (1948); as a Civil War veteran whose young niece is abducted by a tribe of Comanches in The Searchers (1956); and as a troubled rancher competing with an Eastern lawyer for a woman’s hand in marriage in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). He is also remembered for his roles in The Quiet Man (1952), Rio Bravo (1959), and The Longest Day (1962). In his final screen performance, he starred as an aging gunfighter battling cancer in The Shootist (1976). He appeared with many important Hollywood stars of his era, including Maureen O’Hara, James Stewart, Dean Martin, and Natalie Wood. His last public appearance was at the Academy Awards ceremony on 9th April 1979.
Although he enrolled in a cancer vaccine study in an attempt to ward off the disease, Wayne died of stomach cancer on 11th June 1979, at the UCLA Medical Centre, and was interred in the Pacific View Memorial Park cemetery in Corona del Mar, Newport Beach. According to his son Patrick and his grandson Matthew Muñoz, a priest in the California Diocese of Orange, he converted to Roman Catholicism shortly before his death. He requested that his tombstone read “Feo, Fuerte y Formal”, a Spanish epitaph Wayne described as meaning “ugly, strong, and dignified”. The grave, which went unmarked for 20 years, is now marked with a quotation from his controversial 1971 Playboy interview: “Tomorrow is the most important thing in life. Comes into us at midnight very clean. It’s perfect when it arrives and it puts itself in our hands. It hopes we’ve learned something from yesterday.”
Among the cast and crew who filmed the 1956 film The Conqueror on location near St. George, Utah, 91 developed some form of cancer at various times, including stars Wayne, Susan Hayward, and Agnes Moorehead, and director Dick Powell. The film was shot in southwestern Utah, east of and generally downwind from the site of U.S. Government nuclear weapons tests in southeastern Nevada. Many contend that radioactive fallout from these tests contaminated the film location and poisoned the film crew working there. Despite the suggestion that Wayne’s 1964 lung cancer and his 1979 stomach cancer resulted from nuclear contamination, he believed his lung cancer to have been a result of his six-packs-a-day cigarette habit.
Wayne’s enduring status as an iconic American was formally recognized by the U.S. government in the form of the two highest civilian decorations. On 26th May 1979, he was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal. Hollywood figures and American leaders from across the political spectrum, including Maureen O’Hara, Elizabeth Taylor, Frank Sinatra, Mike Frankovich, Katharine Hepburn, General and Mrs Omar Bradley, Gregory Peck, Robert Stack, James Arness, and Kirk Douglas, testified to Congress in support of the award. Robert Aldrich, president of the Directors Guild of America, made a particularly notable statement:
“It is important for you to know that I am a registered Democrat and, to my knowledge, share none of the political views espoused by Duke. However, whether he is ill disposed or healthy, John Wayne is far beyond the normal political sharpshooting in this community. Because of his courage, his dignity, his integrity, and because of his talents as an actor, his strength as a leader, his warmth as a human being throughout his illustrious career, he is entitled to a unique spot in our hearts and minds. In this industry, we often judge people, sometimes unfairly, by asking whether they have paid their dues. John Wayne has paid his dues over and over, and I’m proud to consider him a friend and am very much in favour of my government recognizing in some important fashion the contribution that Mr Wayne has made.”
Wayne was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom on 9th June 1980, by President Jimmy Carter. He had attended Carter’s inaugural ball “as a member of the loyal opposition”, as he described it. In 1998, he was awarded the Naval Heritage Award by the US Navy Memorial Foundation for his support of the Navy and military during his film career. In 1999, the American Film Institute (AFI) named Wayne 13th among the Greatest Male Screen Legends of Classic Hollywood cinema.
Several celebrations took place on 26th May 2007, the centennial of Wayne’s birth. A celebration at the John Wayne birthplace in Winterset, Iowa, included chuck-wagon suppers, concerts by Michael Martin Murphey and Riders in the Sky, a Wild West Revue in the style of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, and a Cowboy Symposium with Wayne’s co-stars, producers, and costumers. Wayne’s films ran repetitively at the local theatre. Ground was broken for the New John Wayne Birthplace Museum and Learning Centre at a ceremony consisting of over 30 of Wayne’s family members, including Melinda Wayne Muñoz, Aissa, Ethan, and Marisa Wayne. Later that year, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and First Lady Maria Shriver inducted Wayne into the California Hall of Fame, located at The California Museum for History, Women and the Arts.
This year, Republican assemblyman Matthew Harper proposed marking 26th May as “John Wayne Day” in California. This resolution was struck down by a vote of 35 to 20, due to Wayne’s views on race and his support of controversial organizations such as the John Birch Society and The House of Un-American Activities.
In 1973, The Harvard Lampoon, a satirical paper run by Harvard University students, invited Wayne to receive The Brass Balls Award, created in his “honour”, after calling him “the biggest fraud in history”. Harvard Square had become known for leftist intellectualism and protest throughout the 1960s and 1970s. Wayne accepted the invitation as a chance to promote the recently released film McQ, and an Army convoy offered to drive him into the square on an armoured personnel carrier. The ceremony was held on 15th January 1974, at the Harvard Square Theatre and the award was officially presented in honour of Wayne’s “outstanding machismo and penchant for punching people”. Although the convoy was met with protests by members of the American Indian Movement and others, some of whom threw snowballs, Wayne received a standing ovation from the audience when he walked onto the stage. An internal investigation was launched into the Army’s involvement in the day.