John Wayne: Biography Of America's Greatest Star (Warts And All)

By | October 29, 2020

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1969: John Wayne accepts his Best Actor Oscar from singer and actress Barbara Streisand. Wayne won for his role in "True Grit." STAFF/AFP via Getty Images

John Wayne was just... John Wayne. The cowboy, the hero, the soldier -- he played them all in his own particular (and endlessly parodied) way, the heart and soul of movies like Red River, Rio Bravo, The Searchers and True Grit. John Wayne didn't merely portray American western protagonists; he defined them. For many of us, when we think of the archetype of the gunslinger or the sheriff, it's not abstract, and it's barely even fiction. It's not an archetype -- it's literally John Wayne.

The western was the most popular film genre of the '40s, '50s and '60s; westerns ruled movie theaters and John Wayne was the king. Horseback riding, open desert, starry skies, dusty streets cleared for gunfighting, scenery of Monument Valley and the Grand Canyon… all of these elements were characteristics of the Old West, but they don’t quite measure up to the most important western ingredient: John Wayne. Wayne rose to mid-century fame as the ideal American cowboy starring in a multitude of classic western films with his brooding, masculine presence. Despite a few faux paus that fortunately didn’t ruin his career, Wayne is often considered a true symbol of American freedom.

John Wayne Was Supposed To Be A Football Player

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John Wayne was born Marion Morrison in Iowa in 1907, but moved with his family to California in 1914. He was given the nickname “Duke” because he never left the house without his trusty dog also named Duke. Duke’s robust figure made him a natural athlete, and his career in sports seemed promising when he received a football scholarship for the University of Southern California (USC). Sadly, his athletic calling ended after a terrible bodysurfing accident destroyed all of his football dreams. The timing could not have been worse as The Great Depression soon struck leaving Duke desperate for any way to make money. That’s when he found a job as the “Prop Guy” who moved equipment and furniture around Fox Film Corporation. Eventually he was used as extras in small films and his fit physique made him a perfect football player in the silent films Brown of Harvard (1926) and Drop Kick (1927).