Part Seven: The Duke

Nobody in Western movies had a career like John Wayne. No one equaled his longevity or popularity. He was a star of both cheap B-westerns and high-budget A’s; and he won an Academy Award as Best Actor.

Born Marion Michael Morrison in Winterset, Iowa in 1908, he grew up in Glendale, Calif., where some local firemen nicknamed him "Big Duke" after "Duke" the family dog. At Glendale High, he was a football star and also appeared in school plays. After graduation, he worked at such jobs as fruit picker, ice man and truck driver. Offered a football scholarship to the University of Southern California, he excelled as a lineman and worked summers with his gridiron pal Ward Bond as prop boys for the Tom Mix unit at Fox and later for director John Ford. Eventually, both were given bit parts in various Ford pictures, and Duke was suggested by Ford for the lead in Raoul Walsh’s "The Big Trail" (1930).

Newly renamed John Wayne, Duke got the part. "The Big Trail" was shot in 70 mm. (twice the standard 35 mm.) and budgeted at $2 million, but the Depression was deepening and not many theaters were willing to put in the equipment necessary to show the epic. However, Wayne did well and was building a career until he incurred the wrath of Columbia Studio head Harry Cohn over an actress both fancied; and Cohn confined him to minor parts and spread a rumor that Wayne was a heavy drinker.

When his Columbia contract ended, John could get no work for over a year. Finally, Poverty Row independent Mascot Pictures offered him $100 a week for nine weeks making three serials. His success in them led to a contract at Warner Bros. to make six B-westerns. Then he made 16 B’s for Monogram. In "Riders of Destiny" (1933), he even played the part of "Singin’ Sandy," but his voice was dubbed. In this series at Monogram, he met stuntman Yakima Canutt from whom he borrowed his distinctive walk. Together they also developed a technique of screen fights which revolutionized cinema fisticuffs. Wayne rode a white horse called Duke; and George (later Gabby) Hayes played both villains and comic parts.

When Republic Pictures was formed out of Mascot and the Lone Star unit of Monogram, Wayne was one of the major assets. He appeared solo and as "Stoney Brooke" in the Three Mesquiteers series with Ray (Crash) Corrigan and Max Terhune.

It was John Ford who got the Duke out of B-westerns. The director gave him the major role of the Ringo Kid in "Stagecoach" (1939) – a picture most consider a classic. Wayne made a few more B-westerns for Republic, but soon appeared in their best, big budget films. He also co-starred in Cecil B. DeMille’s "Reap the Wild Wind" (1942) at Paramount and in two features for Universal.

During World Two, he made war pictures and continued to appear in them until 1968’s "The Green Berets." He was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for "The Sands of Iwo Jima" (1949).

After the war, he made some of his finest westerns. Particularly notable were a cavalry trilogy with John Ford (1948-50), "Red River" (1948) with Howard Hawks, and "The Searchers" (1956), again with Ford. He also produced his own films such as "The Alamo" (1960). Despite losing a lung to cancer, he continued a career of box-office winners and finally won a Best Actor Oscar for "True Grit" in 1969. The cancer returned, and Wayne’s last film was the elegiac "The Shootist" (1976). His movies continue popular on TV, however.

John Wayne’s death in 1979 left a tremendous void. Few companies were making westerns, and there was only one star with a strong box-office draw. That star’s view of the western, however, would eventually prove potentially fatal to the whole genre.

NEXT: The Man Who Killed the Western