Monday, August 25, 2014

John Wayne

Newport Beach, California.  Visited June 2013

There are actors and there are movie stars.  John Wayne was a movie star, and he knew it.  When you see a John Wayne movie, that’s exactly what you see.  Whether it’s in the Old West, the Irish countryside, the sands of Iwo Jima – no matter where he was or who he was, he was John Wayne. 

Young Marion

The actor we know as John Wayne was born Marion Morrison on May 27, 1907 in Winterset, Iowa.  His father’s poor health necessitated a family move to California where young Marion worked for his dad’s farming and pharmacy practice.  “Duke” Morrison (a nickname his family gave him after a favorite dog) was a good athlete and student who, upon graduation from high school, sought admission to the Naval Academy.  


Marion Morrison at USC

When he didn’t receive an appointment, the strapping 6’4” Morrison enrolled at the University of Southern California with the intent to play football.  In a Hollywood-worthy twist, Marion hurt his back body surfing, ending his football career before it got started. With the help of his USC coach who pulled some strings, Morrison was able get a job working on a movie studio back lot. 

1930's "B" star John Wayne

In another classic Hollywood twist, Duke Morrison was moving scenery when he was noticed by a director who cast him in a small part in a minor movie.  This role was the beginning of a ten-year stretch of starring and support roles in B pictures.  But the experience allowed the accidental actor a chance to hone his craft.  Somewhere along the line his name was changed to John Wayne – though the exact story of when and how this happened is unclear.  

Perhaps most significantly, the actor made the acquaintance of prominent filmmaker John Ford.  In 1939, Ford cast John Wayne in the role of the Ringo Kid in “Stagecoach”.  The movie was a hit and the Duke emerged from it as a bona fide Hollywood star. He would go on to do some of his best work with Ford.

As Sgt. Stryker in "Sands of Iwo Jima"

With the onset of World War II in 1940, a number of Hollywood actors enlisted in the armed forces.  Wayne was assigned a draft deferment due to his age (34).  At various times he sought a higher draft classification but his studio tried to block his attempts to join up.  In later years it was revealed that the Duke had been accepted into the the O.S.S (precursor to the C.I.A), but he never received the notice letter and therefore did not enlist.  It is interesting to consider what the most famous actor in the world would have done in military espionage.  While he never served in the military, Wayne did support the war effort through visiting troops and fund-raising.   

There was no one bigger in the movies during the fifties and sixties than John Wayne.  The Duke was larger than the movies – he was becoming an American icon.  And a polarizing political figure as well.  Wayne was a self-described socialist in college but became a life-long politically conservative Republican and anti-communist.  Declassified documents reveal that Joseph Stalin thought him enough of a concern that he was considered for possible assassination by the KGB.  Wayne’s political opinions were well known and occasionally controversial; such as his support of the Hollywood blacklist in the 1950’s and his stated views on race in the late sixties.  The Duke was a significant fundraiser for the Republican Party through the 1960’s and was a prominent backer of Richard Nixon’s presidency and Ronald Reagan’s governorship of California.  Interestingly however, as he reached his later years Wayne befriended Jimmy Carter and became less contentious in his political statements. 

The Duke with President Nixon and Henry Kissinger

John Wayne was a mid-century man’s man.  He described himself as “an old-fashioned, honest-to-goodness, flag-waving patriot.”  He also smoked heavily, drank excessively (though apparently never in a way that undermined his work), spoke his mind and could be ornery and vindictive if he felt he’d been wronged.  In addition to three marriages, the Duke also carried on affairs with a number of actresses and had left his third wife for his secretary at the time of his death.  But friends also described him as loyal and generous, and surprisingly self-effacing for a film star. 

Late Sixties on "Rowan and Martin's Laugh-in"

The Duke in a cameo role on "I Love Lucy" in the Fifties

Probably the most significant insight into John Wayne’s character is portrayed in his acting.  Over time, the Duke began to see his screen persona as an extension of his better self.  He protected and cultivated the roles he accepted as a stewardship of the icon he had created.  What John Wayne wanted to do was embody his sense of the American spirit – independent, strong, protective and motivated by duty to principle – on the big screen.  As he once remarked,

“I want to play a real man in all my films, and I define manhood simply: men should be tough, fair, and courageous, never petty, never looking for a fight, but never backing down from one either."
Friend and fellow actor Jimmy Stewart noted:  "I can't imagine there's anyone in the country who doesn't know who he is. Kids will be talking about him long after the rest of us are gone. John will make the history books, as Will Rogers did, because he lived his life to reflect the ideals of his country."

Statue of the Duke at John Wayne Airport in California

He didn’t always live up to those ideals, but in a way that is perhaps unique in film history, John Wayne cast himself in larger than life roles and then tried to live up to them as best he could.  

John Wayne with his best actor Oscar for "True Grit"

John Wayne’s last film role was in 1976 as the aging gunfighter John Book in “The Shootist”.  The story of a western legend who is watching his world pass him by was an appropriate valedictory to a 46 year film career which included 142 starring roles, an Academy Award (for best actor in “True Grit” - check out his acceptance speech here) and a perennial place in the top box office draws.  Three years after his performance in “The Shootist”, the Duke was diagnosed with stomach cancer.  He had lost a lung to cancer in the 1960’s but had seen the cancer go into remission.  Within a few months, the new cancer had spread and on June 11, 1979 John Wayne passed away at the age of 72.  

My son Grant at the Duke's spot at Grauman's Chinese Theater - 2004

I actually had the chance to see John Wayne in person – sort of.  In 1968, he directed the pro-Vietnam War film, “The Green Berets’.  The film premiered in Atlanta and Wayne was named honorary grand marshal at the annual Fourth of July parade. I was a nine-year-old boy standing in the crowd along Peachtree Street as the Duke road by waving to the crowd.  Not exactly a face time moment, but seeing John Wayne in person is something I’ve never forgotten.  

The Duke as Grand Marshal of the Atlanta 4th of July Parade 1968

This is a picture I took with my little polaroid camera standing in the parade crowd

John Wayne was buried on the side of a hill at Pacific View Memorial Park near his home in Newport Beach, California.    I did my pilgrimage to the Duke’s final resting place on a trip to California with my son Grant.  His small marker is virtually indistinguishable from any of the other graves in the cemetery.  The epitaph comes from an interview he gave late in life,

"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."

My Personal Top Five John Wayne Films:

Five:  Rio Bravo – 1959.  This isn’t a classic like “The Searchers” but it is an enjoyable “Duke and misfits against the bad guys” story with a surprisingly good Dean Martin and classic Walter Brennan. (Trailer)

Four:  McClintock – 1963.  I think this is a funny movie, with Wayne and Maureen O’Hara and a bunch of character actors having a blast out west.  Some of his best lines are in this movie.  (Trailer)

Three:  True Grit – 1969.  This is the Duke’s Oscar performance with the memorable horse-riding shootout.  Curmudgeonly Rooster Cogburn and astounding scenery. (Trailer) 

Two:  The Shootist – 1976.  His final movie is a low key, poignant performance where Wayne makes way for a wonderful supporting cast including Lauren Bacall, Ron Howard and an aging Jimmy Stewart. (Trailer)

One:  The Quiet Man – 1952.  The role of a retired boxer trying to find his roots in Ireland doesn’t seem like a Wayne project, but it’s a witty and heart-warming movie with a great supporting cast including Maureen O'Hara and a hilarious Barry Fitzgerald and Michaleen Flynn. (Trailer)

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