Film star John Wayne, known for his work on Westerns like “Stagecoach” (1939) and “The High and the Mighty” (1954) died on this day in 1979. Wayne often played cowboys, airplane pilots, and men of the American frontier. In so doing, he cultivated a classic “Americana” image, and his particular machismo verve made him one of the most sought after actors in his generation. Wayne’s acting chops were critically acclaimed to boot. He earned three Oscar nominations and won an Academy Award in 1969 for “True Grit.”
But the actor is also known for his status as an international war-time icon. Wayne played Sergeant John Stryker in “Sands of Iwo Jima” (1949) and his footprints, memorialized in concrete at the TCL Chinese Theatre, are actually mixed with sand from Iwo Jima. His popularity was so profound that when Emperor Hirohito traveled to the US in 1975 and insisted on meeting with the celebrated actor. The meeting thus signaled a peace-making gesture with a one-time enemy. Nikhita Kruschevev did the same in 1959.
John Wayne was born in Winterset, Iowa, far away from the glamour of the Hollywood studio system. But Wayne made his way to L.A. soon enough, moving to Palmdale, and later Glendale, while still a child. After an excellent academic and athletic high school career, he went on to study law at the University of Southern California. He played football there, but his career ended with an injury sustained during an unfortunate body-surfing accident. John Wayne began his illustrious film career in part due to a favor. His coach at USC gave football tickets to silent film star Tom Mix, and John Ford and Mix returned the good deed by hiring Wayne as an extra and prop boy.
After playing minor roles in films like “Bardelys the Magnificent” (1926) and “The Dropkick” (1927), he earned his first leading movie role in “The Big Trail” (1930). His birth name was Marion Robert Morrison, but he adopted the name “John Wayne” in homage to the Revolutionary War general Anthony Wayne. The war hero tutelage is fitting to Wayne’s family history, since his father was the son of the civil war veteran, Marion Mitchell Morrison. Executives predicted that “The Big Trail” would be an early major commercial hit of the sound era. Although, it proved to be a box office flop because most theaters did not have the capacity to exhibit films in widescreen.
After the film’s commercial loss, Wayne struggled to gain anything other than minor roles. That is, until “Stagecoach;” the John Ford film skyrocketed Wayne to mainstream success. He almost gave up his career, though, by enlisting in the U.S. Army during WWII. However, the acceptance letter was delivered to his estranged wife’s home and she never told him about it.
Throughout his filmography, Wayne acted in dozens of films directed by John Ford, including “The Quiet Man” (1952), and “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” (1962). Wayne directed two films: “Green Berets” (1968), a rare pro-Vietnam War Hollywood film, and “The Alamo” (1960). He won a Cecil B. DeMille Award in 1966, and a posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom.