John Wayne, nicknamed “the Duke,” was an American actor who became one of the best known faces in western films. His real name was Marion Michael Morrison. He was born on May 26, 1907 in Winterset, Iowa. A few years later he moved with his family to California. By age 16 he was 1.9 meters tall and a promising talent in American football. An injury prematurely ended his athletic career. Young Marion started working as an extra in Hollywood. During time spent at the studios, he befriended a young up-and-coming director named John Ford, a future master of the western genre. In 1930, the actor landed the lead part in Raoul Walsh’s The Big Trail, adopting the stage name “John Wayne” for the occasion. The movie was a box office disappointment.
Wayne’s big break came in 1939, when his friend John Ford offered him a part in Stagecoach. In the movie, authorities persecuted Wayne’s character for a crime he did not commit. The innocent man seeks justice by killing the real culprits. Stagecoach was a hit with critics and the public. Wayne became a celebrity. Western movies, which celebrated the epic story of America’s birth and expansion, found a charismatic hero in Wayne. With his imposing physique and proud stare, he personified the values of patriotism and honor.Wayne worked with important directors including Howard Hawks, Henry Hathaway and John Ford. Wayne's movies became western classics: Fort Apache, The Searchers, Rio Bravo, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Red River, How The West Was Won. The star rarely worked in other genres, but exceptions included several war movies. In Allan Dwan’s Sands of Iwo Jima, Wayne played a harsh sergeant in charge of training a squad of soldiers. In 1952, Ford directed Wayne again in a comedy called The Quiet Man. The part brought out Wayne’s sentimental side for the first time.
His popularity declined in the 60s when student protests broke out. Young people came to view Wayne as a symbol of conservative values and shunned his work. The movie industry, however, awarded him an Oscar for his performance in True Grit. After acting in more than 160 films, it was his first Academy Award. Wayne, however, had been ill for some time. In 1964, doctors had diagnosed him with stomach cancer. After a long battle with the illness, John Wayne died in Los Angeles on June 11, 1979. He was 72. A year later, Jimmy Carter awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor for an American civilian.