By Sue Rochman
The Duke's Final Showdown
American icon John Wayne stared down his biggest foe—"the big C"—more than once
By Sue Rochman
If the American cowboy didn’t already exist, he would have been the perfect Hollywood creation. He was the rugged Western hero who might gamble with his life but would always protect yours. He had common sense, and a code of honor. Measured in both his speech and his actions, he was a man who hid more than he showed. His way of life made him bigger than life, and gave him a story to tell. And no one told that tale better than John Wayne, who at 6 feet 4 inches and 220 pounds, with a walk as solid as his physique, embodied the quintessential cowboy more fully than anyone who ever rode across the silver screen.
Born Marion Robert Morrison, in the city of Winterset, in Madison County, Iowa, on May 26, 1907, Wayne was a young child when his family headed west to make a home in Glendale, Calif., in the northern region of Los Angeles County. It was there that the local firefighters bestowed upon him the nickname “Little Duke,” because they never saw the little boy go anywhere without Duke, the Airedale terrier who lived at the station.
Over the years, “little” was dropped, but “The Duke” stuck, a perfect moniker for the high school senior who was both a football star and class president, and also the recipient of an athletic scholarship to the University of Southern California. He might have continued on an academic path, were it not for a bodysurfing injury that left him unable to play football and without the scholarship he needed to attend school. With an eye on becoming an actor, he found work in the prop department of Hollywood film studios and then as a movie extra, and began to pay his dues. Gradually, Wayne’s meager salary as an extra grew slightly larger, as did his speaking roles, though they were still sometimes left on the cutting room floor.
In 1930, Fox Studio chiefs christened The Duke with the screen name John Wayne and offered him his first starring role. The movie, The Big Trail, was a box office bomb. But it pulled Wayne out of the shadows of larger stars, and he began to get bigger and better roles. In 1939, he appeared as the Ringo Kid in Stagecoach, a breakout role that marked his arrival as a screen presence to be reckoned with. Over the next 10 years, he made the film classics Red River, Fort Apache and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and garnered his first Academy Award nomination for best actor for his role as Sgt. John M. Stryker in Sands of Iwo Jima.
An Era of Social Change
Wayne’s superstar status made him one of the top box office draws between 1949 and 1974. During those 25 years, on-screen and off, the actor, a staunchly conservative Republican and a steadfast supporter of his beloved country, personified and never lost faith in the greatness of America. But throughout the nation, change was in the air.
On their new color televisions, Americans were watching the McCarthy witch hunts and anti-communist hysteria of the 1950s with dismay and alarm. And in the decade that followed, Wayne’s strong, rugged face would look out from movie posters in front of theaters that were as likely to see lines of moviegoers as civil-rights and anti-war marches, or to be leaned against by hippies and beats listening to Bob Dylan and Jack Kerouac. His gaze would bear witness to the shock and grief of those walking past and mourning the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy, his brother Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr.