John Wayne will forever be remembered as the Hollywood legend who symbolized true masculinity and American values, but there’s a side of John Wayne many don’t know.
Widely recognized as one of Hollywood’s hunkiest heartthrobs, John Wayne redefined the definition of an American man and reminded the world of what a true gentleman looks like.
I’ve always loved John Wayne, but after learning more about his humble beginnings and trust in God, my love and respect for him only grew all the more.
Marion Robert Morrison (later known as “Duke” and “John Wayne”) was born to Clyde and Mary Morrison on May 26, 1907, in Winterset, Iowa. Weighing in at a whopping 13 pounds, it’s safe to say that John Wayne was larger-than-life from the start.
A group of local firemen started calling him “Little Duke” at a young age because he never went anywhere without his huge Airedale Terrier, “Duke”. He preferred “Duke” to “Marion”, and the nickname stuck.
Duke’s father was a pharmacist who experienced several failed business ventures. After taking too many hits, the Morrison family finally moved West, eventually settling in Glendale, California, in 1914 where John Wayne’s father opened a drugstore.
From the ripe age of twelve, Duke earned his own living – helping his father at his drugstore in his spare time. Additionally, Duke supported himself with a variety of odd jobs, including stints as a delivery boy, an ice-cream server, a trucker’s helper, and a horseshoe boy for Hollywood Studios.
Not only was Duke a hard-worker, but also a diligent student, and dedicated athlete. In high school, Duke excelled in his classes and in many different activities, including student government and football. He also participated in numerous student theatrical productions.
Duke applied to the U.S. Naval Academy, but he was not accepted. Fortunately, he was a star football player on the Glendale High School team, and he was accepted at the University of Southern California on a football scholarship where he studied pre-law.
Throughout college, Duke supported himself by working at the Fox Studio lots in Los Angeles, California. When he wasn’t studying or training for football, Duke worked grueling hours as a laborer, prop boy, and film extra — appearing as a football player in Brown of Harvard (1926) and Drop Kick (1927).
Duke was six foot four and stood shoulders above the rest, to top things off, his good looks and masculine jawline made him almost impossible to forget. Duke quickly established himself as a star and while picking up as many odd jobs as he could at Fox, Duke met director John Ford, who took an interest in him (and would over the years have a major impact on his career). Duke’s efforts generally went unacknowledged, until he finally received his first credit as “Duke Morrison.”
But tragedy struck in college, when an accident ended Duke’s football playing career. A broken collarbone injury terminated his athletic scholarship; Wayne later noted he was too terrified of his coach’s reaction to reveal the actual cause of his injury — a bodysurfing accident.
Without funds to support himself, the heartbroken and devastated young man left the university in 1927 — throwing away two years of hard work and dedication towards his law degree. But young Duke’s unexpected injury would later prove to be used for his good and God’s glory — like only God can do.
Discouraged without a college degree or any career options, Duke devoted all of his time and energy as an extra and a prop man in the film industry, working long hours with exhausting manual labor. And despite his disappointment, Duke trusted God’s plan. The young man simply refused to give up.
He shared, “When you stop fighting, that’s death.”
Finally in 1930, Duke received his first leading role in The Big Trail, thanks to director Raoul Walsh. The film was the first big-budget outdoor spectacle of the sound era, made at a then-staggering cost of over $2 million, using hundreds of extras and wide vistas of the American southwest, still largely unpopulated at the time.
Sadly, only a handful of theaters were equipped to show the film in its widescreen process and the western was a very disappointing (and costly) box office dud.
But more important than a movie, Walsh gave Duke his legendary screen name — the name he would go by for the rest of his life, “John Wayne.”
The young actor’s legendary alias was born when Walsh suggested the screen name “Anthony Wayne”, after the Revolutionary War general “Mad” Anthony Wayne. Fox Studios chief Winfield Sheehan rejected it because it sounded “too Italian.” Walsh then suggested “John Wayne” which Sheehan agreed, and the name was set.
The irony of it all was that “John Wayne” was not even present for the discussion. It was around this same time that Fox finally raised Wayne’s pay to $105 per week.
For almost a decade, Wayne diligently worked in numerous B movies, mostly westerns for different studios. At his lowest point, Wayne even played a singing cowboy by the name of “Sandy Saunders.”
It’s safe to say that most men would have thrown in the towel or grown depressed, but not John Wayne. Instead of giving in to discouragement, Wayne tirelessly developed his persona, which would later serve as the foundation for many of his beloved roles.
Wayne was often quoted saying, “You can take everything a man has as long as you leave him his dignity.”
Nine years after his first big role (and box office dud), Wayne got his next big break in Stagecoach (1939). In the film, Wayne portrayed the “Ringo Kid”, an escaped outlaw, who joins an unusual assortment of characters on a dangerous journey through frontier lands and falls in love with a prostitute.
According to movie goers and critics alike, the film was an undeniable success — making John Wayne an overnight Hollywood celebrity. The western film went on to earn seven Academy Award nominations.
Cast member Louise Platt once recalled director John Ford’s prediction: “Wayne would become the biggest star ever because of his appeal as the archetypal ‘everyman.'”
America’s entry into World War II sparked a new fire in John Wayne. The world-famous actor desperately wanted to enlist, and repeatedly wrote to John Ford inquiring whether he could get into Ford’s military unit. But Republic Studios threatened him with a lawsuit if he walked away from his contract, forcing him to stay.
But that didn’t stop John Wayne. Instead, the actor toured U.S. bases and hospitals with the United Service Organizations for months at a time, in hopes of bringing cheer to America’s brave military.
John Wayne would often say, “Courage is being scared to death but saddling up anyway.”
By many accounts, Wayne’s failure to serve in the military was the most painful part of his life. John Wayne’s widow later suggested much of his life was riddled with guilt.
Wayne’s wife, Pilar Pallete, revealed, “He would become a ‘superpatriot’ for the rest of his life trying to atone for staying home.”
John Wayne’s commercial success only grew all the more as he went on to star in 142 pictures. An Academy Award-winner for True Grit (1969), John Wayne’s name graced the screens of box office hits for nearly three decades.
Biographer Ronald Davis once said, “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 a cattleman driving his herd north on the Chisholm Trail in Red River (1948), a Civil War veteran whose young niece is abducted by a tribe of Comanches in The Searchers (1956), and a troubled rancher competing with an Eastern lawyer for a woman’s hand in marriage in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962).
Additionally, John Wayne is notorious 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).
By any standard, John Wayne’s successful acting career was unparalleled. But sadly, the handsome young man hid a dark side that wouldn’t subside until later in life. Over the years, Wayne had developed a bad drinking habit. To make matters worse, the young actor struggled to truly settle down and remain faithful to his wife.
Wayne was married three times and divorced twice. He was fluent in Spanish and his three wives were each of Hispanic descent.
John Wayne had four children with his first wife, Josephine Alicia Saenz and three more children with his third wife, Pilar Pallete. In total, John Wayne fathered seven children — who where his pride and joy. And despite John Wayne’s incredible success, his family remained and will remain his true legacy.
John Wayne was one of Hollywood’s wealthiest actors, but instead of blowing his money on dozens of cars and houses, Wayne invested in his children and lived a very modest lifestyle.
To this day, John Wayne is considered one of America’s most famous movie stars, but the actor once revealed it didn’t come without a price. Wayne learned the hard way and lived with many regretted mistakes, but the actor hoped his children would learn from his examples: the good ones — and the bad ones.
John Wayne often told his children, “Life is tough, but it’s tougher if you’re stupid… There are some things a man just can’t run away from. A man’s got to have a code, a creed to live by.”
Wayne always considered his family his greatest priority and took pride in having a close relationship with each of them — which is no easy feat for a man with seven children.
John Wayne once shared, “You know, I hear everybody talking about the generation gap. Frankly, sometimes I don’t know what they’re talking about. Heck, by now I should know a little bit about it, if I’m ever going to. I have seven kids and 18 grandkids and I don’t seem to have any trouble talking to any of them. Never have had, and I don’t intend to start now.”
Many credited Wayne’s changed lifestyle to his newfound faith in God. Wayne would often tell friends how highly he thought of Winston Churchill and had a complete set of the British Prime Minister’s prose on his bookself.
John Wayne’s grandchildren recalled of his Faith, “He wrote beautiful love letters to God, and they were prayers. And they were very childlike, and they were very simple but also very profound at the same time. And sometimes that simplicity was looked at as naivety, but I think there was a profound wisdom in his simplicity.”
The proud patriot embodied what true hope in God and American Spirit was made of. John Wayne was never afraid to shine his light, and there’s no doubt that his conservative efforts helped shaped America to be all that it is today. His grandchildren shared that “the Duke” always lived with “God coming first, then family, then country.”
In light of our nation’s recent events, John Wayne’s grandson encouraged, “My grandfather was a fighter. I think there would be a lot of things he’d be disappointed and saddened over. But I don’t think he would lose hope. I think he would look at the current time as a moment of faith. People are in crisis, and they’re looking for something more meaningful, more real.
So, I think he would look at the situation and say, ‘Don’t get discouraged!’ I think he would say, ‘Get involved. Don’t go hiding in a shell and getting on the defensive from Hollywood. Get involved and be an agent for the good.’ I think he would do that. That’s what he did in his time.”
After beating lung cancer, John Wayne tragically died of stomach cancer on June 11 1979, at the age of 72. His grave, which went unmarked for 20 years, is now marked with his famous quote:
“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.”
“There must be a higher power, or how does all this stuff work?” – John Wayne
John Wayne’s life boasts of what God can do when one man is willing to hold fast to his character, work hard, honor his family, and strive to make a difference in the world. And there’s no doubt that John Wayne’s life has inspired Americans of all ages and will live on forever.
While listening to John Wayne’s inspiring story, I just couldn’t help but think of Proverbs 16:9 and 1 Peter 5:5-7, which read,
“A man’s heart plans his way, but the Lord directs his steps.”
“Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that He may lift you up in due time.”
Thank you John Wayne, for your proud American patriotism and unwavering principles. John Wayne will forever be one of the world’s most beloved actors. America needs more men in Hollywood like John Wayne, please share if you agree.