“When you come to see a picture of mine, I want you to know that I’m not going to do anything that will make you uncomfortable. I want you to know that you won’t be disappointed in me.” So said John “Duke” Wayne (1907-1979), star of 142 patriotic 20th-century “War and Western” Hollywood movies. Only Clark Gable beat Wayne at the box office. His languid, low, testosterone-fuelled drawl, rolling gait and weather-beaten face as chiselled as Mount Rushmore made Wayne America’s most iconic hero of the Wild West.
Born Marion Morrison, he earned he nickname “Duke” as a child. The family had a dog called Big Duke, and when local firefighters saw a young Wayne running after the dog, they named them Big Duke and Little Duke.
Wayne won a football scholarship to the University of Southern California and, when a bodysurfing injury forced him to leave, took up work as a props man for the Fox Film Corporation. Befriending director John Ford, Wayne was put in front of the camera playing bit parts. Director Raoul Walsh cast him in his first leading role in the 1930 film The Big Trail, but it was Ford who directed his friend to a starring role as the Ringo Kid in Stagecoach (1939). Ford predicted: “He’ll be the biggest star ever.”
Wayne was self-depreciating about the craft of film acting. In later life, he gave Michael Caine this advice: “Talk low, talk slow and don’t say too fucking much.” When he finally won his only Academy Award for True Grit (1969), Wayne whispered to Barbra Streisand: “Beginner’s luck.” He later got drunk with Richard Burton who, he declared, should have won Best Actor for Anne of the Thousand Days.
He even found humour in Howard Hughes’s prize turkey The Conqueror (1956) for which Wayne’s skin was yellowed and eyes scotch taped into a slant to play Genghis Khan, quoting a reviewer who said: “Not even a dental hygienist could find authentic Tartar in this movie.”