Today marks the centennial anniversary of the birth of Hollywood’s best known cowboy.
Wayne was born Marion Robert Morrison in Winterset, Iowa, but his name was changed to Marion Michael Morrison when his parents decided to name their next son Robert. His family was Presbyterian; father Clyde Leonard Morrison was of Irish and Scottish descent and the son of an American Civil War veteran, while mother Mary Alberta Brown was of Irish descent.
Wayne’s family moved to Palmdale, California, and then Glendale, California, in 1911, where his father worked as a pharmacist in a drug store. It was local firemen at the firehouse that was on his route to school in Glendale who started calling him “Little Duke,” because he never went anywhere without his huge Airedale Terrier dog, Duke. He preferred “Duke” to “Marion,” and the name stuck for the rest of his life.
As a teen, Wayne worked in an ice cream shop for a person who shoed horses for local Hollywood studios. He was also active as a member of the Order of DeMolay, a youth organization associated with the Freemasons, that he joined when he came of age. He attended Wilson Middle School in Glendale. He played football for the 1924 champion Glendale High School team.
Wayne applied to the U.S. Naval Academy, but was not accepted. He instead attended the University of Southern California (USC), majoring in pre-law. He was a member of the Trojan Knights and joined the Sigma Chi fraternity. Wayne also played on the USC football team under legendary coach Howard Jones. An injury curtailed his athletic career.
After two years working as a prop man at the Fox Film Corporation for $75 a week, his first starring role was in the 1930 movie The Big Trail. The first western epic sound motion picture established his screen credentials, although it was a commercial failure. The director Raoul Walsh, who “discovered” Wayne, suggested giving him the stage name “Anthony Wayne,” after Revolutionary War general “Mad Anthony” Wayne. Fox Studios chief Winfield Sheehan rejected “Anthony Wayne” as sounding “too Italian.” Walsh then suggested “John Wayne.” Sheehan agreed and the name was set. Wayne himself was not even present for the discussion. His pay was raised to $105 a week.
Wayne continued making westerns, most notably at Monogram Pictures, and serials for Mascot Pictures Corporation, including The Three Musketeers (1933), a French Foreign Legion tale with no resemblance to the novel which inspired its title. He was tutored by stuntmen in riding and other western skills. He and famed stuntman Yakima Canutt developed and perfected stunts still used today.
Beginning in 1928 and extending over the next 35 years, Wayne appeared in more than twenty of John Ford’s films, including Stagecoach (1939), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), The Quiet Man (1952), The Searchers (1956), The Wings of Eagles (1957), and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). His performance in Stagecoach made him a star.
John Wayne rose beyond the typical recognition for a famous actor to that of an enduring icon who symbolized and communicated American values and ideals. By the middle of his career, Wayne had developed a larger-than-life image, and as his career progressed, he selected roles that would not compromise his off-screen image. By the time of his last film The Shootist (1976), Wayne refused to allow his character to shoot a man in the back as was originally scripted.
Wayne’s rise to being the quintessential movie war hero began to take shape four years after World War II when Sands of Iwo Jima (1949) was released. His footprints at Grauman’s Chinese theater in Hollywood were laid in cement that contained sand from Iwo Jima. His status grew so large and legendary that when Japanese Emperor Hirohito visited the United States in 1975, he asked to meet John Wayne, the symbolic representation of his country’s former enemy.
He epitomized ruggedly individualistic masculinity, and has become an enduring American icon. He is famous for his distinctive voice, walk and height.
In 1999, the American Film Institute named Wayne thirteenth among the Greatest Male Stars of All Time. A Harris Poll released in 2007 placed Wayne third among America’s favorite film stars, the only deceased star on the list and the only one who has appeared on the poll every year. Happy Birthday Mr. Wayne