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John Wayne: Classic Films, Family Memories 30 Years After His Death

On the 30th anniversary of the icon's death, C&I revisits some of his classic films and talks tohis children about their famous father.

John Wayne in Stagecoach

John Wayne in Stagecoach

Associated Press

John Wayne remains such an icon that you don't need much of an excuse to celebrate his life and career, but we couldn't help noticing a slew of John Wayne milestones this year, the 30th anniversary of the actor's death.

Start with Wayne's first credited screen role, as Pete Donahue in the 1929 musical comedy Words and Music. Fast forward by decade to four of his most popular films: Stagecoach (1939), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), Rio Bravo (1959), and True Grit (1969). "If I had known this, I would have put that patch on 35 years ago," Wayne said in his acceptance speech for the best actor Oscar for his role as Rooster Cogburn in True Grit.

We'll start with a tribute to the movies, and then we'll remember the man with fond reminiscences and anecdotes from Wayne's family.


The disreputable doctor who cracks wise and drinks heavily but sobers up when the chips are down. The golden-haired prostitute who brightens incandescently when a naive cowpoke calls her "a lady." The shifty-eyed gambler with a gun at his side and, presumably, an ace up his sleeve.

And, of course: The square-jawed, slow-talking gunfighter who's willing to hang up his shootin' irons — who's even agreeable to mending his ways and settling down on a small farm with a good woman — but not before he settles some unfinished business with the outlaws who terminated his loved ones. Why? Because, as the gunfighter tersely notes, "There are some things a man can't run away from."

These and other familiar figures had already established themselves as archetypes by 1939, that magical movie year in which Stagecoach premiered. Even so, director John Ford's must-see masterwork is arguably the first significant western of the talking-pictures era, the paradigm that cast the mold, set the rules, and firmly established the dramatis personae for all later movies of its kind.

Jump to: What horse did John Wayne ride?

Indeed, it single-handedly revived the genre after a long period of box-office doldrums, elevating the western to a new level of critical and popular acceptance.

Better still, it launched the superstardom of The Duke. As the boyish gunfighter known as The Ringo Kid — the role that saved him from the professional purgatory of B-movies — Wayne makes one of the greatest entrances in movie history: While he spins a rifle like a six-gun, the camera rapidly tracks toward him, then frames him heroically, almost worshipfully, in a flattering close-up.

Ringo is a friendly and forthcoming fellow, even when dealing with a sheriff determined to ship him back to jail after their stagecoach journey through hostile territory. But Wayne leaves little room for doubt that when push comes to shove, Ringo will outwit and outshoot his adversaries at the end of the line. (Release date: March 2, 1939.)

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon

Just 10 years after strutting his stuff in the star-making role of a studly young gunfighter, Wayne already had sufficient gravitas to persuasively play a veteran Army officer on the verge of retirement in John Ford's classic 1949 western, the second (after 1948's Fort Apache, before 1950's Rio Grande) of the director's so-called Cavalry Trilogy.

Sunset Boulevard/Corbis
She Wore a Yellow Ribbon

Mere days before the end of his tour of duty at a remote cavalry post, Capt. Nathan Brittles (Wayne) receives orders for a final mission: Contain an uprising by Cheyenne and Arapaho warriors in the wake of the massacre at Little Big Horn. Genre fans unfamiliar with She Wore a Yellow Ribbon might expect an outcome involving a blood-and-thunder battle.

But no: As filmmaker/film historian Lindsay Anderson pointedly notes in About John Ford, the film "turns generally on the necessity for avoiding war: Captain Brittles' triumph is to have won his victory without a shot fired and without a man lost on either side."

For all its epic sweep and outbursts of rowdy humor, this is a surprisingly pensive and affectingly autumnal film, focusing on rituals and rites of passage as an old guard reluctantly, but inevitably, gives way to the new. Brittles is an aging warrior with a sentimental streak — occasionally he visits the grave of his beloved wife to affectionately describe the day's events — but a fierce devotion to duty.

Wayne's career-highlight performance is a shrewd and subtle balance of grizzled professionalism and wistful melancholy, ready-for-the-worst determination and against-all-odds optimism. "We are too old for war," the captain tells an aged Indian chief. "But old men should stop wars." (Release date: October 22, 1949.)

Rio Bravo

Howard Hawks directed dozens of diverse movies throughout a prodigious and prolific career that spanned from the silent era to the early '70s. But Rio Bravo stands apart from his other certifiable masterpieces as a uniquely revered cult favorite.

And as its fervent fans will tell you, its stature has relatively little to do with its simple but serviceable storyline — which Hawks and co-screenwriter Leigh Bracket later recycled for two other John Wayne vehicles, El Dorado (1967) and Rio Lobo (1970) — and almost everything to do with its being a triumph of distinctive style over commonplace substance.

Sunset Boulevard/Corbis
Rio Bravo

In Rio Bravo, action is not nearly as important as reaction and interaction. The movie is propelled by behavioral detail, not plot mechanics, as we savor a typically Hawksian scenario about isolated professionals — a middle-aged sheriff (Wayne), his drunken deputy (Dean Martin), a cocky young cowboy (Ricky Nelson), and a cantankerous, crippled old coot (Walter Brennan) — who rise above their limitations and remain true to their personal codes while bound together for a common purpose (keeping a killer behind bars while trying to avoid being killed).

Rio Bravo was released in 1959, just as Wayne was making a smooth, self-assured transition into what might be described as his gray eminence period. He gives a wonderfully generous performance — note the way he turns over entire scenes to Martin and Brennan — but there's never any real doubt about who's first among equals here. His effortless authority remains undiminished, and his megawatt charisma still serves him well in both violent confrontations and comical conversations. (Release date: April 4, 1959.)

True Grit

After 30 years of riding tall as Living Legend, Wayne finally found a way to grab long-elusive Oscar gold: He donned an eye patch, expanded his waistline, and gave his familiar on-screen persona a tongue-in-cheek twist while playing a gone-to-seed but not yet over-the-hill lawman, Rooster Cogburn, the "one-eyed fat man" who looms large in director Henry Hathaway's adaptation of Charles Portis' picaresque western novel.

It could be argued, of course, that Wayne was more deserving of a Best Actor accolade in other, better movies. (Did somebody say She Wore a Yellow Ribbon? The Quiet Man? The Shootist?) But it's hard not to get swept up in the story about a feisty young woman (Kim Darby) who seeks justice for her murdered father with the aid of a clean-cut Texas Ranger (Glen Campbell) and hard-drinking lawman (Wayne).

And it's practically impossible not to smile approvingly, and laugh out loud frequently, as Wayne boldly gallops into heretofore uncharted realms of self-parody, robustly playing Cogburn as an only slightly exaggerated and uproariously funny version of the Western heroes that were his stock in trade throughout his illustrious career. (Release date: June 11, 1969.)

Just as important as the film roles for which he is most beloved, Wayne continues to be widely admired as a real-life hero because of the grace-under-pressure courageousness he displayed in his battle against cancer and for his legacy John Wayne Cancer Institute.

Indeed, even Wayne's sons and daughters express grateful surprise at the degree to which their father's legacy continues to survive and thrive.

"Here it is, 30 years since my father passed away, and he still has the popularity, celebrity, and visibility of a living person," Patrick Wayne marvels. "That's a phenomenal feat in the entertainment business. It's something I can't really explain — it's just a fact of life, like he's a force of nature."

"I think that even while he was alive, he had no idea how popular he was and how beloved he was," says daughter Marisa Wayne. "And I think he'd have no clue that, even after being gone 30 years, he'd still be so popular and so beloved. I think that would mean a lot to him."

While growing up, Melinda Wayne remembers that she and her siblings were aware that their father was some kind of celebrity. "But it wasn't until after he died," she says, "that I really realized the magnitude of his popularity. I mean, sure, I used to hear things like 'Oh, she's John Wayne's daughter.' But I wouldn't think anything of it, because, you know, we hung around with the children of other stars, like Bob Hope's kids. And Ray Milland's son Danny was a friend of ours. We used to tease back and forth over who was the better actor — my father or his."

Courtesy Wayne Enterprises
John Wayne with his children Ethan and Marisa

Watching their father's films was often the equivalent of viewing home movies — the screenings became routine family events in comfortably familiar surroundings. "My all-time favorite of my father's movies is The Quiet Man," says Marisa. "And I have really happy memories of watching it with him again and again while we were growing up. We had a screening room at our house, of course. But we also used to watch them on the Wild Goose," a converted minesweeper that often served as the family's floating vacation home.

(For the benefit of those who tuned in late: Wayne fathered four children with his first wife, Josephine Alicia Saenz — Michael, Toni, Patrick, and Melinda — and three with his third wife, Pilar Pallete — Aissa, Ethan, and Marisa. Toni died of lung cancer in 2000; Michael died of heart failure in 2003.)

Following the Duke's death in 1979, Wayne's children established Wayne Enterprises with the goal of preserving and controlling the name, image, and likeness of their late father.

Ethan, who took over as manager following the death of his brother Michael, explains that the company "protects the name through trademarks and by policing infringements in the marketplace" with the goal of "associating the John Wayne brand with quality and timeless products and experiences that embody the spirit of John Wayne."

Licensing fees for items such as clothing, collectibles, and action figures help fund the ongoing work of the John Wayne Cancer Institute, which has been affiliated with Saint John's Health Center in Santa Monica, California, since 1991.

"I think we've been able to maintain his presence in the public eye, in terms of who he was, without cheapening it in any way," says Melinda.

Wayne Enterprises also markets products of its own. "I'm particularly proud of our John Wayne Stock and Supply Beef Jerky," says Marisa, "which I've been happy to promote at various events this year. We're using only grass-fed beef, with no nitrates, no hormones, no MSG. And all proceeds go to the John Wayne Cancer Foundation," which supports cancer-awareness programs, educational campaigns, and support groups.

Other funding for these efforts comes through Team Duke, which encourages fundraising though the sponsorship of participants in everything from rodeos to surfing tournaments. "It's a grassroots effort," Ethan says, "that allows anyone, no matter what their sport or hobby, to be involved in the fight against cancer."

In addition to overseeing name and likeness licensing, Wayne Enterprises handles what Ethan describes as "fan relations." Decades after his father's death, Ethan notes: "People are still calling and writing and need this or want that. And we're also still going through the many sacks of mail my father received from fans during his final battle with cancer. We ultimately want to publish collections of those letters to share with the public just how much he inspired people."

Courtesy Wayne Enterprises
John Wayne playing with Marisa on a movie set

There's also a large memorabilia project, the scope of which Ethan didn't fully appreciate until he signed on as manager of Wayne Enterprises.

"When I took over," he says, "I found that we had this huge inventory of stuff — wardrobe, props, scripts, correspondence, you name it — that had never been catalogued, inventoried, or appraised. All of it was packed away in boxes, in no particular order. You open one box, and it might have plastic cups and Kleenex and old towels — and a People's Choice Award, or something like that. Not organized at all."

The long-range goal of Wayne Enterprises is to establish a museum to display the memorabilia. "We want this to be open to the public," Ethan says. "Just as my father was open to the public. He was very engaged in life — very approachable and personable and giving of himself.

"Really, when he was alive, if the Boy Scouts called and they needed him to show up, he'd show up. If the local hospital needed him to attend a dinner to get other people to come, he went to it. He was very giving of his time."

In his final days, John Wayne was extraordinarily giving of himself. While undergoing treatment for the stomach cancer that ultimately killed him, he was told by doctors that, considering the advanced stage of his disease, he might do better to simply go home and spend time with loved ones. Instead, he volunteered to allow the doctors to test experimental drugs on him.

"He just turned himself over as a sort of human guinea pig," Ethan says. "It wasn't fun, it wasn't comfortable — it was very difficult for him. But that's what he wanted to do.

"And he told me that he wanted me to support and encourage the doctors who were trying to find a cure for this terrible disease. He said, 'Please help these people. Use my name if you think that will help.'"

The John Wayne Cancer Institute, The Duke's living legacy, is the end result of his dying wish. "Unfortunately, there are no cures for cancer at this time," says Patrick, who serves as the institute's chairman. "But the fight goes on — in my father's name."

"If he could see the quality of doctors and scientists who are involved with the organization that bears his name," Ethan says, "and he could see the quality of the technology and the research that has come out of that relationship, he'd be really thrilled.

"And the fact that the whole family is behind it — I think that would make him very, very happy."


What horse did John Wayne ride?

Roy Rogers and Trigger. Gene Autry and Champion. John Wayne and ...

Though the movies' most popular cowboy star spent 50 years on horseback, John Wayne was never prominently linked to just one horse. According to Petrine Day Mitchum, author of the book Hollywood Hoofbeats, that may have been by choice. "It's possible that John Wayne was so shattered when his childhood mare Jenny died, he never wanted to get that close to another horse," Mitchum says.

Associated Press
John Wayne rides Dollor in True Grit

Jenny carried young Marion Michael Morrison to school every day in Lancaster, California. By the time Marion Morrison became John Wayne, he was an experienced rider who once said that riding a horse "came as naturally to me as breathing."

"He was surprisingly skilled, considering his size. For a big guy, he looks graceful on a horse," Mitchum says. "But he also had the advantage of working with Yakima Canutt, the famous stuntman, who gave him a lot of coaching."

In the 1930s when horses frequently received their own billing on cowboy movie posters, Wayne was paired with a majestic white parade horse with a long, flowing mane and tail. The horse was called Duke, after the actor's nickname. "It was kind of an inside joke," Mitchum says.

During the glory years of the Wayne-Ford collaboration, The Duke's favorite mount was a large bay horse named Banner, supplied by the famed Fat Jones stables. "He was intelligent and had an instinct for this business," Wayne once said of Banner, whom he rode from the early 1940s through the mid-1950s. However, sharp-eyed fans may also spot the actor riding another Fat Jones horse named Henry.

In such films as Tall in the Saddle and The Conqueror, Wayne rode a stallion named Steel, one of the most famous horses of his era. Occasionally Wayne would also take the reins of Cocaine, the stunt horse used by Chuck Roberson, who was Wayne's double in more than 30 movies.

As if all these changing mounts weren't confusing enough, there is also the case of Dollor and Dollar. "The horses are often confused, but they had quite different markings," Mitchum explains. "Dollor had a much wider blaze on his face and different stockings on his legs than Dollar. But I've still seen the horses misidentified in publications."

For the record, it's Dollor that carries Wayne when he makes his famous charge, reins in his teeth, in his Oscar-winning portrayal of Rooster Cogburn in True Grit. And it's Dollar that Wayne rides in the sequel, Rooster Cogburn, as well as in his final film, The Shootist.

Through in different movies and on different horses, John Wayne always looked confident and at ease on horseback — with one exception. In El Dorado The Duke rides Zip Cochise, an Appaloosa that is so small it looks as if The Duke paid 25 cents for a pony ride at the amusement park. But even here the actor's respect for his four-legged costars still shines through.

"Some actors treat horses like motorcycles," Mitchum observes. "John Wayne was not one of them."

— David Hofstede


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