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John Wayne

John Wayne was born Marion Michael Morrison in 1907, the son of an Iowa chemist. At school in California, he emerged as a prominent football player but a promising career was cut short when he broke his leg while tackling an opponent.

Finding odd jobs at local film studios, he made a friend of Tom Mix, the top cowboy star at 20th Century Fox at the time, who found him a job shifting scenery. One day in 1928, he was spotted going about his work by a studio executive who offered him a small part in a silent film, Hangman’s House.

Nicknamed “Duke” as a student on vacation, he went on to appear in dozens of westerns before winning a starring role in The Big Trail in 1930. Nine years later came fame and success as an “overnight star” when he played the Ringo Kid in Stagecoach (1939).

His approach to filmmaking was characteristically straightforward: “I play John Wayne in every picture regardless of the character, and I’ve been doing alright, haven’t I?”.

In his 50-year career, he starred in more classic Hollywood films than almost anyone else, proving to be the world’s best known Western star, bringing in box office receipts in excess of £300 million.


He rode every famous trail in the West during his film career, leaving them occasionally to don a soldier’s helmet, a cavalry cap or the sharp suit of a detective. He even played a Roman centurion in The Greatest Story Ever Told.

John Wayne lost his long and painfully fought battle against cancer on 11 June 1979, at the age of 72.

He made his last film, The Shootist (1976), three years before – playing an ageing gunfighter who is dying of the same affliction. Later he appeared in TV advertisements for cancer research funds.

He left behind a number of imperishable performances, notably as abrasive and solitary men, in Red River (1948), Rio Bravo (1959) and – unforgettably – in The Searchers (1956), where the character of Ethan Edwards was mapped so closely to Wayne’s own gestures that he hardly seemed to be acting at all.

In his later years his right-wing views often stirred controversy, but his death – and the brave manner of his departing – moved the film world and his fans.

Wayne was married three times and had seven children.