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Historically Speaking

Historically Speaking: An Iowa boy who was bigger than life

By Tom Morrow

A friend of mine recently traveled to Orange County to meet his 24-year-old nephew who had arrived at John Wayne Airport. As they were walking to the parking lot, the young man looked up at the sign and asked in some puzzlement, “Who’s John Wayne?”

If the young man wasn’t a fan of old movies, then it wasn’t an unreasonable question – after all, it’s been 35 years since the film icon died.

Wayne was born Marion Robert Morrison on May 26, 1907, in Winterset, Iowa. He was an American film actor, director and producer and an avid advocate of American patriotism. An Academy Award-winner, Wayne was among the “top 10” box office draws for three decades. Wayne epitomized rugged masculinity and was famous for his demeanor, including his distinctive calm voice, walk, and height (6’2”). He made more than 140 films, arguably a greater number than any other major movie star.

His family relocated to the greater Los Angeles area when he was nine years old. He found work at local film studios when he lost his football scholarship to USC as a result of a bodysurfing accident. Initially working for the Fox Film Corporation, he mostly appeared in small bit parts. His first leading role came in history’s first widescreen epic, The Big Trail (1930), which led to leading roles throughout the 1930s, many of them in the westerns. His career rose to further heights in 1939, with John Ford’s Stagecoach making him an instant superstar. Wayne would go on to star in a film nearly every year until his death.

I once had the privilege of attending a mock press conference at Cal State Fullerton. We in the press weren’t allowed to ask questions – it was an exercise for the students. Their live subject: John “Duke” Wayne.

As the session proceeded, students asked a variety of questions like, “Where did you get the name, ‘Duke?’” The answer: “He was my dog when I was a youngster.” Then, a be-speckled young woman on the front row asked in a somewhat snooty fashion, “Mr. Wayne, why is it the critics never like your films?” The Duke smiled, then calmly replied, “Little lady, nobody likes my movies ‘cept the public.”

Wayne was a passionate American noted in Hollywood for his many World War II “propaganda-style” films, (a football injury kept him from military service), and for supporting anti-communist positions.

‘The Duke’ made so many memorable films, listing them would not fit this small space. He won the Oscar for “True Grit” (1969), and was nominated for “The Searchers,” but snubbed for two movies in which he turned in far-better performances: “The Cowboys” (1973) and “The Shootist,” which was his final film (1976). That last film was of an aging gunfighter dying of cancer. The story was prophetic. Wayne was surrounded by a stellar cast of friends, many of whom had starred with him in previous movies: James Stewart, Lauren Bacall, Ron Howard, Richard Boone, Hugh O’Brien, Harry Morgan, ‘Scatman’ Crothers, and Bill McKinney.

Wayne died of stomach cancer in 1979. In June 1999, the American Film Institute named Wayne 13th among the “Greatest Male Screen Legends of All Time.”

An NBC TV reporter doing a biographical feature on Wayne’s life referred to a European survey asking: “What does an American look like?” The answer: “An American looks like John Wayne.”


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