John Wayne (1907-1979) was an American actor who helped cement the Western as a glamorous Hollywood film genre. But he was also so much more: A top box-office draw for three decades, Wayne helped cement both the cowboy and the film star in the collective American imagination. Later, when a few of his more unsavoury views came to light, he would also serve as the lightening rod for a national debate over the role of celebrity in our discourse. In any case, it’s hard to deny that John Wayne was a larger-than-life figure, unlike any Hollywood has seen before or since.
So, pilgrims, giddy on up for these 43 facts about the Duke himself.
43. The Duke: Redubbed
The head of Fox Studios was a huge Revolutionary War fan, so when it came time to rebrand “Marion ‘Duke’ Morrison” into someone who belonged in front of the camera, they chose the surname “Wayne,” after Revolutionary War General Anthony Wayne, and the first name “John” simply because of its syllabic symmetry to “Wayne.” It’s that simple.
42. Don’t Call Me By My Name
Wayne always preferred his childhood name, “Duke Morrison,” to his eventual stage name. He once said, “”I’m Duke Morrison, and I never was and never will be a film personality like John Wayne.”
41. Surf’s Down
A serious bodysurfing injury flung Wayne out of the ocean and into show business. Wrecking his shoulder, Wayne (then Marion Morrison) lost his place on the University of Southern California football team, along with his athletic scholarship! He had no choice but to leave school and take a job working on movie sets.
40. Hot Property
Before he was saddling horses, one of Wayne’s first post-school jobs was saddling furniture as a prop guy at Fox Studios in 1927.
39. Chess Nut
As a lifelong chess enthusiast, Wayne had a star-studded list of chess partners: Marlene Dietrich, Rock Hudson, and Robert Mitchum were just some of the people who went check-to-check with the Duke.
38. C for Cover Up
John Wayne was the first person to publicly refer to cancer as “The Big C.” He came up with the idiom to make his struggle with the illness less “scary” to studio executives in the early 60s.
37. Keeping Up Appearances
In his first battle with cancer, Wayne lost a rib and half of one lung, and yet he still managed to hold press conference in his own living room shortly after in order maintain his strong public image.
36. Communists Need Not Apply
John Wayne famously walked away from the lead role in High Noon because he felt the movie was an allegory against blacklisting—an activity which, as a staunch conservative, Wayne supported. Later in life, Wayne had zero regrets about helping get the movie’s screenwriter, Carl Foreman, blacklisted and run out of the country.
35. Duking It Out
Don’t ask the Duke about Duke University. When John Wayne Enterprises tried to register a Kentucky bourbon based on John “the Duke” Wayne, it was Duke University who tried to stop them, saying that they are “committed to protecting the integrity of Duke University’s trademarks.”
34. A Career-Making Meet-Cute
Wayne got his first leading role in The Big Trail (1930), after director Raoul Walsh spotted him when he was a handsome young prop boy moving furniture on the set of another film.
33. From B to A
After the first picture he starred in flopped financially, Wayne was relegated to smaller roles…until 1939’s Stagecoach, that is. The western was a smash hit, but initially, Wayne’s history as a B-movie regular made it hard for director John Ford to secure funding for the film.
32. Missing the Action
Wayne’s guilt over not serving in World War II haunted him for life. Although many of his Hollywood peers volunteered to fight, Wayne himself did not make particularly great efforts to change his own draft exemption. Although he wrote to his friend about wanting to enlist, he kept postponing until he “finished just one or two pictures.” Part of this procrastination might have been because Republic Studios was very resistant to losing their only A-list actor under contract.
31. Lost Encounters of the Oscar Kind
Wayne rejected the starring role in All the King’s Men (1949) because he thought the script was un-American. Broderick Crawford eventually took the role, winning the 1949 Academy Award for Best Actor…incidentally beating out Wayne who was nominated for Sands of Iwo Jima (1949).
30. Seeing Gold
Despite a long and critically acclaimed career, Wayne was only nominated for Best Actor at the Oscars twice: once for Sands of Iwo Jima (1949), then winning 20 years later for True Grit (1969).
29. The Duke Had a Type
Wayne was fluent in Spanish and all of this of his wives were of Hispanic or Latin descent.
28. Wayne Wigs out
Towards the end of the 1940s, Wayne’s hair began to thin, so he started wearing hairpieces. However, he wasn’t overly insecure about it, and he often showed up in public without it, such as at Gary Cooper’s funeral.
27. He’s a Society Cowboy
Wayne was a registered Freemason, ranking as a Master Mason in Marion McDaniel Lodge No. 56 F&AM, in Tucson, Arizona.
26. Riding the Joke Out
In 1974, with the Vietnam War still ongoing, the conservative, pro-Vietnam War actor was invited by The Harvard Lampoon to accept the “Brass Balls Award” for his “Outstanding machismo and penchant for punching people.” Wayne graciously accepted in person at The Harvard Square Theater, riding out on an armored personnel carrier manned by the “Black Knights” of Troop D, Fifth Regiment. Wayne graced his way through a series of derogatory questions and apparently won over his audience. No pulling one over John Wayne’s eyes, I’ll give him that.
25. Right-Winged Flight
Because of Wayne’s star power and conservative views, Republican party backers frequently approached Wayne about a stab at public office. Wayne would always decline, joking that the people would never take an actor seriously in the White House. This didn’t stop him from supporting his friend Ronald Reagan’s bid for Governor of California in 1966 and 1970.
24. Can’t Please ‘Em All
For the first time in his life, Wayne got hate mail from Republicans after he sided with President Jimmy Carter and the Democrats over the Panama Canal. Wayne’s first wife, Josephine, was a native of Panama, and he himself was close friends with the late Panamanian leader Omar Torrijos Herrera. Perhaps unsurprisingly then, he supported the Panamanian people’s right to control the precious territory.
23. Left Behind in School
Contrary to pretty much everything he did/said in his later life, Wayne identified as a Socialist during his college days at USC.
22. A Beautiful Way to Say Ugly
Wayne converted to Roman Catholicism shortly before his death by stomach cancer at the age of 72. He requested that his tombstone read, “Feo, Fuerte y Formal,” a Spanish epitaph Wayne described as meaning “ugly, strong, and dignified.”
21. Last Words
His grave went unmarked for 20 years. Today, it’s actually marked with a quotation from his controversially racist 1971 Playboy interview (of all things!). Thankfully, the chosen quote is a little more pacific than the rest of the article: “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.”
20. Meating His End?
There’s an urban legend that John Wayne died with 40 pounds of red meat lodged in his digestive tract. However, many are quick to point out that since Wayne died naturally of cancer, he didn’t receive an autopsy, ergo, no opportunity for meat discovery. This is one tall tale that’s probably getting put in the “baloney” pile (no pun intended).
19. Harmony or Hypocrisy?
John Wayne publicly made numerous anti-gay remarks over his life, denouncing homosexual themes in films such as Suddenly, Last Summer (1959) and They Came to Condura (1959). Despite his prejudice, Wayne costarred in films and played chess with Rock Hudson, even though he knew about the latter actor’s sexuality. The two remained good friends until Wayne’s death in 1979.
18. The Conqueror’s Curse
Nearly half of people who were involved in John Wayne’s The Conqueror (1956) would end up dying of cancer. Specifically, 91 out of the 220 people—including the director, every main supporting cast member, and Wayne himself—would succumb to the illness, though these numbers don’t include extras or people involved in filming the movie.
17. Leading the Way
John Wayne has been in more leading roles than any other actor. He starred in 175 movies and out of those, he was the lead in 142 of them.
16. Better Safe Than Sorry
The Duke was very superstitious. He didn’t even like people passing salt to him or leaving a hat on the bed. To his credit, you must be some kind of psychopath to leave a hat on the bed.
15. A Decorated Duke
The United States government awarded Wayne with two medals. First, in 1979, he won the Congressional Gold Medal and then, in 1980, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
14. Transference of Property
Wayne “lost” his own middle name to a sibling. The actor was born “Marion Robert Morrison,” but after the birth of his little brother in 1911, his parents named the baby Robert Emmett Morison and changed the man who would be John Wayne’s name to “Marion Michael Morrison.” Needless to say, these birth certificate revisions made things confusing for Wayne’s future biographers.
13. Before Microsoft Spellcheck
Thanks to a secretary’s typo, Wayne’s production company was called “Batjac” when it was supposed to be called “Batjak,” after the shipping company owned by Luther Adler’s character in the Wayne film Wake of the Red Witch (1948). Not wanting to hurt the typist’s feelings, Wayne kept her spelling.
12. That’s What I Call Hard News!
John Wayne and his friend Ward Bond would get often drunk and play practical jokes on each other. In one incident, Bond bet Wayne that the two could stand on opposite ends of a newspaper, and Wayne wouldn’t be able to hit him. Setting a sheet of newspaper down in a doorway, Bond stood on one side and slammed the door on Wayne’s face, shouting “Try and hit me now!” Wayne subsequently punched his fist through the door, knocking down Bond, and winning the bet. Don’t try playin’ games with the Duke.
11. $oothing Word$
In the aftermath of 9/11, Wayne’s 1973 spoken album “America: Why I Love Her” was re-released on CD. It became a best-seller for the second time.
10. A Hard (Liquor) Bargain
In 1967, Wayne requested to be paid “a fifth of bourbon” in exchange for his cameo on The Beverly Hillbillies.
9. Bros Before Blacklisting
Although he complained that High Noon (1952) was “un-American,” Wayne graciously accepted the Best Actor Oscar on behalf of the film’s star (and Wayne’s good friend), Gary Cooper, because he was afraid that the movie would hurt Cooper’s career. A few years later, he would team up with director Howard Hawks to make Rio Bravo (1959), a movie that Wayne saw as telling the story of High Noon “his way.”
8. Angling for a Good Performance
Wayne fell off his horse and fractured three ribs on the set of The Undefeated (1969). The accident also tore a ligament in his shoulder, which kept him from working for two weeks. As a result, the film’s director, Andrew V. McLaglen, was forced to only film Wayne from an angle for the rest of the production.
7. (Yellow) Facing Your Limitations
One of Wayne’s biggest regrets was playing Temujin, the future Genghis Kahan, in The Conqueror (1969). He would visibly shudder if someone even mentioned the film’s name and once remarked that the moral of this movie is “not to make an ass of yourself trying to play parts you’re not suited for.” (Take a look at screenshots of the movie—it ain’t pretty).
6. To Kill or Not to Kill
Joseph Stalin was a huge John Wayne fan! Unfortunately, his fanboyism didn’t stop the Soviet leader from contemplating assassinating Wayne because of his loud, anti-communist views.
5. When Fan Mail Backfires
Clint Eastwood once sent Wayne a letter which suggested they star in a western together. Unfortunately, Wayne was not an Eastwood fan and especially hated the revisionist style and violence of Eastwood’s latest western, High Plains Drifter (1973). He sent the younger actor-director an angry letter telling him all this. To no one’s surprise, the Eastwood/Wayne co-star vehicle never came to fruition.
4. A Voice That Shouldn’t Sing
The most popular early Westerns were “Singing Cowboy” movies, featuring the likes of Gene Autry and Roy Rogers. They’d round up cattle rustlers, then sing a song about it. In some of John Wayne’s earlier roles even he appeared as “Singin’ Sandy Saunders;” Wayne had a terrible voice, and his songs were dubbed in by the director’s son.
3. When the Dog Names You
As a boy, Wayne was given a hard time for his feminine-sounding birth name, “Marion Morrison.” Thus, he rebranded himself as “Duke,” after his Airedale Terrier. His family took to calling the dog “Big Duke” and Marion “Little Duke,” a practice which Wayne loved.
2. Long-Barrelled Love
Married three times, Wayne’s most acrimonious divorce was with his second wife, the Mexican actress Esperanza Baur. She was utterly convinced that Wayne was cheating on her with his co-star in Angel and the Badman (1947), Gail Russell. After Wayne came home very late from the wrap party, a drunken Esperanza greeted her soon-to-be-ex with a shotgun, attempting to shoot him as he walked through the door.
1. A Series of Unfortunate Opinions
In May 1971, Playboy published an interview with Wayne which resulted in an uproar. He told Playboy that he “believed in white supremacy until the blacks are educated to the point of responsibility” and felt that America did no wrong in “taking this country away from [the Native Americans]” who were “selfishly trying to keep it for themselves.” Yeesh…