Actor. Born Marion Robert Morrison on May 26, 1907, in Winterset, Iowa. (Some sources also list him as Marion Michael Morrison and Marion Mitchell Morrison.) One of the most popular film actors of the twentieth century, John Wayne remains a popular American icon to this day. He was already a sizable presence when he was born, weighing around 13 pounds.
The oldest of two children born to Clyde and Mary “Molly” Morrison, Wayne moved to Lancester, California, around the age of seven. The family moved again a few years later after Clyde failed in his attempt to become a farmer.
Settling in Glendale, California, Wayne received his distinctive nickname “Duke” while living there. He had a dog by that name, and he spent so much time with his pet that the pair became known as “Little Duke” and “Big Duke,” according to the official John Wayne website. In high school, Wayne excelled in his classes and in many different activities, including student government and football. He also participated in numerous student theatrical productions.
Winning a football scholarship to University of Southern California (USC), Wayne started college in the fall of 1925. He joined the Sigma Chi fraternity and continued to be a strong student. Unfortunately, after two years, an injury took him off the football field and ended his scholarship. While in college, Wayne had done some work as a film extra, appearing as a football player in Brown of Harvard (1926) and Drop Kick (1927).
Out of school, Wayne worked as an extra and a prop man in the film industry. He first met director John Ford while working as an extra on Mother Machree (1928). With The Big Trail (1930), Wayne received his first leading role, thanks to director Raoul Walsh. Walsh is often credited with helping him create his now legendary screen name, John Wayne. Unfortunately, the western was a box office dud.
For nearly a decade, Wayne toiled in numerous B moviesmostly westernsfor different studios. He even played a singing cowboy named Sandy Saunders among his many roles. During this time period, however, Wayne started developing his man of action persona, which would serve as the basis of many popular characters later on.
Working with Ford, he got his next big break in Stagecoach (1939). Wayne portrayed the Ringo Kid, an escaped outlaw, who joins an unusual assortment of characters on a dangerous journey through frontier lands. During the trip, the Kid falls for a dance hall prostitute named Dallas (Claire Trevor). The film was well received by movie goers and critics alike and earned seven Academy Award nominations, including one for Ford’s direction. In the end, it took home the awards for Music and for Actor in a Supporting Role for Thomas Mitchell.
Reunited with Ford and Mitchell, Wayne stepped away from his usual Western roles to become a Swedish seaman in The Long Voyage Home (1940). The film was adapted from a play by Eugene O’Neill and follows the crew of a steamer ship as they move a shipment of explosives. Along with many positive reviews, the movie earned several Academy Award nominations.
Around this time, Wayne made the first of several movies with German actress and famous sex symbol Marlene Dietrich. The two appeared together in Seven Sinners (1940) with Wayne playing a naval officer and Dietrich as a woman who sets out to seduce him. Off-screen, they became romantically involved, though Wayne was married at the time. There had been rumors about Wayne having other affairs, but nothing as substantial as his connection to Dietrich. Even after their physical relationship ended, the pair remained good friends and co-starred in two more films, Pittsburgh (1942) and The Spoilers (1942).
Wayne started working behind the scenes as a producer in the late 1940s. The first film he produced was Angel and the Badman (1947). Over the years, he operated several different production companies, including John Wayne Productions, Wayne-Fellows Productions, and Batjac Productions.
Wayne’s career as an actor took another leap forward when he worked with director Howard Hawks in Red River (1948). The western drama provided Wayne with an opportunity to show his talents as an actor, not just an action hero. Playing the conflicted cattleman Tom Dunson, he took on a darker sort of character. He deftly handled his character’s slow collapse and difficult relationship with his adopted son played by Montgomery Clift. Also around this time, Wayne also received praise for his work in John Ford’s Fort Apache (1948) with Henry Fonda and Shirley Temple.
Taking on a war drama, Wayne gave a strong performance in Sands of Iwo Jima (1949), which garnered him his first Academy Award nomination for Best Actor. He also appeared in more two westerns by Ford now considered classics: She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) and Rio Grande (1950) with Maureen O’Hara.