John Wayne is arguably the most famous movie star in history. In his long and illustrious career, he has played plenty of heroes and villains, but it’s his almost mythical status as America’s favorite cinematic cowboy that has cemented him as an icon for generations. Because of this, it isn’t surprising to learn that John Wayne was once a struggling actor trying to make ends meet by working as a bit-part movie star. But just how did this former prop man go on to become one of the biggest names in Hollywood? This article takes you backstage with John Wayne, exploring his early life, his rise to fame as a movie star, and the personal struggles he endured along the way.
John Wayne’s Biography
John Wayne was born Marion Robert Morrison on May 26, 1907, in Winterset, Iowa. The son of a pharmacist and a Canadian immigrant, as a child he was known as “Duke”, a nickname that would later become his official screen name. When he was still a young boy, the family relocated to California, where they set up a new pharmacy in Glendale. Sadly, just five years later, his father died from an infection after cutting his finger while mixing a prescription. As a teenager, Wayne attended Glendale High School, where he played football, baseball, and basketball, and participated in other sports, including swimming, diving, and track and field.
At the age of 16, Wayne traveled to New York to try his luck as a model. Although he wasn’t successful and didn’t manage to break into the business at the time, the trip and the experience he gained proved invaluable. In the years that followed, Wayne began his career as a contract actor, appearing in low-budget silent films. His first credit was in 1926 when he appeared as an extra in a film called “Widescreen Washed-Out”.
Although Wayne was nothing more than a bit-part actor when he began his career, he quickly demonstrated his potential as a leading man. In the 1930s, he began appearing in bigger-budget features and earned acclaim for his role in the 1936 film “The Trail Beyond”. For the next two decades, he would go on to act in a variety of leading roles in western and war films. Some of his most famous roles from this period include “Stagecoach”, “Red River”, “Fort Apache”, “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon”, and “Sands of Iwo Jima”.
John Wayne becomes a Star
As his acting career took flight, Wayne began to establish a name for himself in Hollywood. In 1939, he began a relationship with actress “Gloria Stuart” that would last for over a decade. He also became involved in politics and became a member of the right-wing organization “Hollywood Independent Citizens Committee of the Arts and Sciences” (HICCAS).
Continued Success and Struggle
With the outbreak of the Second World War, Wayne quickly re-entered the world of politics and even appeared in a propaganda film entitled “Flying Tigers”. In this film, Wayne plays a pilot who is recruited to defend the Chinese against Japanese forces in the early days of the war. The film was a great success and was shown in many theaters across the United States to raise money for war charities. And although Wayne would go on to appear in several other films during this period, he also earned praise for his military service. In 1942, he was given a leave of absence from his acting career and was deployed as a sergeant in the Army Air Forces (AAF).
John Wayne starred in “True Grit” with his friend and fellow actor, Henry Fonda.
Wayne co-starred with his friend Henry Fonda, who played the role of Rooster Cogburn in the film. The two would remain close friends until the death of Wayne in 1979; Fonda even attended the funeral. The two remained close until Wayne died in 1979. It was a difficult shoot. Wayne’s pre-existing lung condition had worsened from the constant smoking on set, and he was frequently in pain. The actors had to shoot most of the film on horseback in the pouring rain, and Wayne was so sick that he could not sit up in the saddle. He had to lie down in a sling.
Wayne co-founded the Motion Picture Association for Preservation
and Development of Western Films (MPA)
Wayne was frustrated at the way the western genre was being treated by Hollywood. In 1956 he formed the Motion Picture Association for Preservation and Development of Western Films (MPA), a lobbying organization that succeeded in ending the practice of “silly and fantastic plots” in B-westerns and increased the number of A-budgeted westerns.
When the war came to an end, Wayne returned to Hollywood and continued to earn success in show business. He was one of the biggest movie stars in the world and was idolized by millions of people. And although he had achieved great fame, Wayne remained grounded and refused to let his success go to his head. As he would say, “Hollywood is like a sewer, and we are the rats.” Still, he remained a leading figure in American culture and was a man who was known and loved by many. Wayne was married twice, and both of his wives, Josephine “Josie” Howard and Pilar “Patsy” McLintock were Hispanic. He had four children with McLintock and one child with Howard. Wayne died on June 11, 1979, after suffering from heart failure due to coronary artery disease.