John Wayne Biography


Welcome to the John Wayne Biography page.  Below we give an insight into the Life and times of John Wayne from his childhood through to his death in 1979

John Wayne Biography

The Young Michael Morrison (John Wayne-left) with his younger brother Robert

John Wayne was born on May 26, 1907, in Winterset, Iowa. Originally named Marion Robert Morrison, he was the older of two children born to Clyde and Mary "Molly Morrison -  His middle name was soon changed from Robert to Mitchell when his parents decided to name their next son Robert. (Some sources also list him as Marion Michael Morrison.) He was already a sizable presence when he was born, weighing around 13 pounds. The family moved to Lancester, California, when the young Wayne was around the age of seven. The family moved again a few years later after Clyde failed in his attempt to become a farmer. Settling in Glendale, California, Wayne received his distinctive nickname "Duke" while living there. He had a dog by that name, and he spent so much time with his pet that the pair became known as "Little Duke" and "Big Duke,".

In high school, Wayne excelled in his classes and in many different activities, including student government and football. He also participated in numerous student theatrical productions.He won a football scholarship to The University of Southern California (USC), Wayne started college in the fall of 1925. He joined the Sigma Chi fraternity and continued to be a strong student. Unfortunately, after two years, an injury took him off the football field and ended his scholarship. John Wayne played College Football for U.S.C. in the 1920s. He is shown (Right) in a picture from the Original 1926 Football Programme for the match between Stanford v. U.S.C.

John Wayne U.S.C. 1926

Duke Morrison often worked, as did many Southern California college students, for filmmakers as extras and/or grips. He can be spotted in several late 1920's silent’s, including Brown of Harvard (1926), The Drop Kick, Mother Macree (both 1927), Hangman's House and Four Sons (both 1928). Several of those were directed by John Ford, who gave Duke and his football pal Wardell Bond bit parts in his 1929 talkie Salute.

The Big Trail 1930

Ford also recommended he be tested for the lead in Fox's upcoming Western epic The Big Trail (Pictured Left) to be directed by Raoul Walsh. Duke won the role, and his name was changed to John Wayne. Making the rugged frontier drama The Big Trail (1930) was an arduous experience for everybody, especially novice stars Wayne and Marguerite Churchill. It was also a flop at the box office, prompting Fox to drop him after he did a few minor programmes.

He took bits wherever he could, supporting Western stars Buck Jones in 1931's Range Feud and Tim McCoy 1931's Texas Cyclone and 1932's Two Fisted Law and starring in three cheap but action-packed serials, The Shadow of the Eagle, The Hurricane Express (both 1932), and The Three Musketeers (1933).By the time those serials hit theatres, Duke had already landed a contract with Warner Bros., where he starred in six low budget Westerns, and got bit parts in such A-level features as The Life of Jimmy Dolan, Central Airport, College Coach and Baby Face (all 1933).

Range Feud with Buck Jones

Out in the cold again, he won the lead in a Poverty Row quickie, His Private Secretary then spent the next two years starring in B Westerns for Monogram Pictures. (The first, 1933's Riders of Destiny cast him as "Singin' Sandy," although his warbling was dubbed by the son of director Robert N. Bradbury.) He spent the rest of the 1930's headlining Westerns and grade-B action features, first for Republic and then for Universal. He returned to Republic in 1938 to replace Bob Livingston as Stony Burke in eight entries of the long-running "Three Mesquiteers" series, including Pals of the Saddle, Overland Stage Raiders (both 1938),The Night Riders, Wyoming Outlaw and New Frontier (all 1939).


Between "Mesquiteer" shoots, Wayne was called by his old friend John Ford to test for the leading role in his groundbreaking "adult" Western Stagecoach (1939). Wayne portrayed the Ringo Kid, an escaped outlaw, who joins an unusual assortment of characters on a dangerous journey through frontier lands. During the trip, the Kid falls for a dance hall prostitute named Dallas (Claire Trevor). The film was well received by movie goers and critics alike and earned seven Academy Award nominations, including one for Ford's direction. In the end, it took home the awards for Music and for Actor in a Supporting Role for Thomas Mitchell.

Reunited with Ford and Mitchell, Wayne stepped away from his usual Western roles to become a Swedish seaman in The Long Voyage Home (1940). The film was adapted from a play by Eugene O'Neill and follows the crew of a steamer ship as they move a shipment of explosives. Along with many positive reviews, the movie earned several Academy Award nominations. He continued to work out his contract at Republic, starring in B-plus vehicles at the studio, but he was also in demand, for the first time, as a leading man in Hollywood.

Around this time, Wayne made the first of several movies with German actress and famous sex symbol Marlene Dietrich. The two appeared together in Seven Sinners (1940) with Wayne playing a naval officer and Dietrich as a woman who sets out to seduce him. Off-screen, they became romantically involved, though Wayne was married at the time. There had been rumors about Wayne having other affairs, but nothing as substantial as his connection to Dietrich. Even after their physical relationship ended, the pair remained good friends and co-starred in two more films, Pittsburgh (1942) and The Spoilers (1942).

Marlene Dietrich and John Wayne enjoy a game of chess during a break in filming PITTSBURGH 1942

Wayne then went on to share starring honors with Ray Milland and Paulette Goddard in Cecil B. DeMille's Reap the Wild Wind (all 1942), romanced Joan Crawford in Reunion in France (also 1942), Jean Arthur in A Lady Takes a Chance (1943), and Claudette Colbert in Without Reservations (1946).He also forged a lifelong association with war movies by starring in Flying Tigers (1942), The Fighting Seabees (1944), Back to Bataan and John Ford's They Were Expendable (both 1945).Ironically, he was exempt from military service in real life because of an ear infection developed during underwater shooting on Reap the Wild Wind.

Red River 1948

In 1948 Duke starred in Howard Hawks' Red River delivering an eye-opening performance as an unforgiving cattle baron who squares off against his adopted son (Montgomery Clift).For the first time, critics sat up and took notice. He continued to do impressive work in Ford's 3 Godfathers and Fort Apache (both 1948), the first of the director's cavalry trilogy. In 1949 Ford gave him one of his best roles, in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon as aged Capt. Nathan Brittles, who's slated to retire just as an Indian war is looming. Mustached and bespectacled, Wayne convinced audiences that his bones creaked every time he moved.

That same year he made war movie history as the tough-as-nails Marine drill instructor (who has a heart, after all) in Sands of Iwo Jima (1949), which earned him his first Academy Award nomination. Ford and Wayne made one more Cavalry film, Rio Grande (1950), as a payback to Republic boss Herbert J. Yates; by turning out this sure-fire box-office film, they earned the right to make Ford's pet project, The Quiet Man.

 Wayne first encountered Maureen O'Hara onscreen in Rio Grande and it was immediately clear that they had a special chemistry. They reunited in The Quiet Man (1952), a charming, romanticised view of Ireland as seen by an American. It was one of Wayne's most endearing performances, and one of the first that allowed audiences to enjoy his lighter side. When Wayne brought Ford to Republic, the star secured a promise from Yates to let him film the story of the Alamo, a long time dream. Yates later reneged, and Wayne never worked on a Republic film again.

The Quiet Man 1952

Wayne formed his own production company, Batjac (the name of the shipping company in 1948's Wake of the Red Witch to develop projects both for him and for other stars. Having produced Budd Boetticher's Bullfighter and the Lady (1951) at Republic, he hired the director again for the Randolph Scott Western Seven Men From Now (1956).He also put strapping James Arness under personal contract, and recommended him to CBS for the lead in the "Gunsmoke" TV series, even introducing the first episode on camera. Wayne co-produced and starred in Big Jim McLain (1952), Island in the Sky, Hondo (both 1953), The High and the Mighty (1954), Blood Alley (1955), and Legend of the Lost (1957).

The Searchers

He worked again with Ford on what many consider to be the finest of their collaborations, The Searchers (1956), with Duke as an avenging angel in pursuit of Indians who had murdered his family and kidnapped his niece. The two friends also teamed for The Wings of Eagles (1957), which cast Wayne as Navy aviator turned screenwriter "Spig" Wead, and The Horse Soldiers (1959), a Civil War story.

Often accused of simply "playing himself" on screen, Wayne tried to stretch in the 1950's, but his choices were ill advised, to say the least, and both The Conqueror (1956, in which he played Genghis Khan) and The Barbarian and the Geisha (1958, in which he played 19th-century American ambassador Townsend Harris) were major fiascos. In the years to follow he stuck to the tried-and-true, and who can blame him? Audiences lined up to see a "John Wayne movie" and he gave them what they wanted. His last "personal" projects, which he directed and starred in, were the sprawling, extravagant super-production The Alamo (1960), in which he played Davy Crockett, and The Green Berets (1968), which reinforced his real-life image as a Hawk during the Vietnam era. These aside, Wayne continued working with Howard Hawks, in Rio Bravo (1959), the terrific African adventure Hatari! (1962), the Rio Bravo paraphrase El Dorado (1967), and Rio Lobo (1970), and John Ford in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance one segment of How the West Was Won (both 1962, in the latter as Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman), and Donovan's Reef (1963).

His son Michael took the producer's reins on McLintock! (1963), directed by onetime Ford assistant Andrew McLaglen, which reunited Wayne with Maureen O'Hara.He repeatedly surrounded himself with such friends and colleagues in his remaining films, giving such Westerns as The Sons of Katie Elder (1965), The War Wagon (1967), Chisum (1970), Big Jake (1971), The Train Robbers and Cahill United States Marshal (both 1973) a welcome feeling of continuity for his fans.

Wayne won the Academy Award for Best Actor for True Grit (1969). He played Rooster Cogburn, an eye-patched drunkard and lawman, who helps a young woman named Mattie (Kim Darby) track down her father's killer. A young Glen Campbell joined the pair on their mission. Rounding out the cast, Robert Duvall and Dennis Hopper were among the bad guys the trio had to defeat. He reprised the character in Rooster Cogburn (1975), the film was distinguished by his genial performance opposite Katharine Hepburn, in an "odd couple" teaming meant to kindle thoughts of The African Queen.

True Grit 1969

In later years Wayne appeared in a few non Western movies, even trying his hand at a more contemporary cop story (a la Clint Eastwood):In McQ (1974) Wayne was cast as a Seattle Police Lieutenant Lon McQ investigating the killing of his best friend who uncovers corrupt elements of the police department dealing in confiscated drugs, After McQ he made Brannigan (1975) a "cop out of water" film in the same vein as Clint Eastwood's Coogan's Bluff. The British action film set in London starred Wayne and Richard Attenborough, directed by Douglas Hickox. It tells the story of a Chicago detective sent to Britain to organise the extradition of an American mobster (John Vernon).

John Wayne in THE SHOOTIST 1976

John Wayne’s final film The Shootist (1976) (pictured left)  was a fitting valedictory to his career. The story of an aging gunfighter who learns he's dying of cancer, it featured a thoughtful, mature lead performance that suggested Wayne knew all too well the parallels between himself and his character. His last public appearance, at the 1979 Oscar ceremony, was itself an act of courage for the cancer-ridden star, who died just a few months later.

Wayne died on June 11, 1979, in Los Angeles, California. He was survived by his seven children from two of his three marriages. During his marriage to Josephine Saenz from 1933 to 1945, the couple had four children, two daughters Antonia and Melinda and two sons Michael and Patrick. Both Michael and Patrick followed in their father's footsteps-Michael as a producer and Patrick as an actor. With his third wife, Pilar Palette, he had three more children, Ethan, Aissa, and Marisa. Ethan has also worked as an actor over the years.

Shortly before his death, the U.S. Congress approved a congressional gold medal for Wayne. It was given to his family in 1980. In the same month as the Duke's passing, the Orange County Airport was renamed after him. He was later featured on a postage stamp in 1990 and again in 2004 and was inducted into the California Hall of Fame in 2007. In 1999, the American Film Institute named Wayne 13th among the Greatest Male Stars of All Time. Pictured right; the engraved plaque at John Wayne’s grave.

The engraved plaque at John Wayne's grave

A Harris Poll, released in January 2011, placed Wayne third among America's favourite film stars, the only deceased star on the list and the only one who has appeared on the poll every year since it first began in 1994.

In honour of his charitable work in the fight against cancer, Wayne's children established the John Wayne Cancer Foundation in 1985. The organization provides support to numerous cancer-related programs and to the John Wayne Cancer Institute at Saint John's Health Center in Santa Monica, California.

The John Wayne Cancer Institute -

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