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Unforgettable John Wayne
biography by Ronald Reagan
courtesy of Readers Digest - October 1979
We called him DUKE, and he was every bit the giant off screen he was on. Everything about him-his stature, his style, his convictions-conveyed enduring strength, and no one who observed his struggle in those final days could doubt that strength was real. Yet there was more. To my wife, Nancy, "Duke Wayne was the most gentle, tender person I ever knew."
In 1960, as president of the Screen Actors' Guild, I was deeply embroiled in a bitter labor dispute between the Guild and the motion picture industry. When we called a strike, the film industry unleashed a series of stinging personal attacks on me - criticism my wife found difficult to take.
At 7:30 one morning the phone rang and Nancy heard Duke's booming voice: "I've been readin' what these damn columnists are saying about Ron. He can take care of himself, but I've been worrying about how all this is affecting you." Virtually every morning until the strike was settled several weeks later, he phoned her. When a mass meeting was called to discuss settlement terms, he left a dinner party so that he could escort Nancy and sit at her side. It was, she said, like being next to a force bigger than life.
Countless others were also touched by his strength. Although it would take the critics 40 years to recognize what John Wayne was, the movie going public knew all along. In this country and around the world, Duke was the most popular box-office star of all time. For an incredible 25 years he was rated at or around the top in box-office appeal. His films grossed $700 million-a record no performer in Hollywood has come close to matching. Yet John Wayne was more than an actor; he was a force around which films were made. As Elizabeth Taylor Warner stated last May when testifying in favor of the special gold medal Congress struck for him: "He gave the whole world the image of what an American should be."
Stagecoach to Stardom
He was born Marion Michael Morrison in Winterset, Iowa. When Marion was six, the family moved to California. There he picked up the nickname Duke - after his Airedale. He rose at 4 a.m. to deliver newspapers, and after school and football practice he made deliveries for local stores. He was an A student, president of the Latin Society, head of his senior class and an all-state guard on a championship football team.
Duke had hoped to attend the U.S. Naval Academy and was named as an alternate selection to Annapolis, but the first choice took the appointment. Instead, he accepted a full scholarship to play football at the University of Southern California. There coach Howard Jones, who often found summer jobs in the movie industry for his players, got Duke work in the summer of 1926 as an assistant prop man on the set of a movie directed by John Ford.
One day, Ford, a notorious taskmaster with a rough-and-ready sense of humor, spotted the tall USC guard on his set and asked Duke to bend over and demonstrate his ball stance. With a deft kick, knocked Duke's arms from his body and the young athlete on his face. Picking himself Duke said in that voice which then commanded attention, "Let's try that once again." This time Duke sent Ford flying. Ford erupted in laughter, and the two began a personal and professional friendship which would last a lifetime.
From his job in props, Duke worked his way into roles on the screen. During the Depression he played in grade-B westerns until John Ford finally convinced United Artists to give him the role of the Ringo Kid in his classic film Stagecoach. John Wayne was on the road to stardom. He quickly established his versatility in a variety of major roles: a young seaman in Eugene O'Neill's - The Long Voyage Home, a tragic captain in Reap the Wild Wind, a rodeo rider in the comedy - A Lady Takes a Chance.
When war broke out, John Wayne tried to enlist but was rejected because of an old football injury to his shoulder, his age (34), and his status as a married father of four. He flew to Washington to plead that he be allowed to join the Navy but was turned down. So he poured himself into the war effort by making inspirational war films - among them The Fighting Seabees, Back to Bataan and They Were Expendable. To those back home and others around the world he became a symbol of the determined American fighting man.
Duke could not be kept from the front lines. In 1944 he spent three months touring forward positions in the Pacific theater. Appropriately, it was a wartime film, Sands of Iwo Jima which turned him into a superstar. Years after the war, when Emperor Hirohito of Japan visited the United States, he sought out John Wayne, paying tribute to the one who represented our nation's success in combat.
As one of the true innovators of the film industry, Duke tossed aside the model of the white-suited cowboy/good guy, creating instead a tougher, deeper-dimensioned western hero. He discovered Monument Valley, the film setting in the Arizona - Utah desert where a host of movie classics were filmed. He perfected the choreographic techniques and stuntman tricks which brought realism to screen fighting. At the same time he decried pornography, and blood, and gore in films. "That's not sex and violence," he would say. "It's filth and bad taste."
"I Sure As Hell Did!"
In the 1940s, Duke was one of the few stars with the courage to expose the determined bid by a band of communists to take control of the film industry. Through a series of violent strikes and systematic blacklisting, these people were at times dangerously close to reaching their goal. With theatrical employee's union leader Brewer, playwright Morrie and others, he formed the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals to challenge this insidious campaign. Subsequent Congressional investigations in I947 clearly proved both the communist plot and the importance of what Duke and his friends did.
In that period, during my first term as president of the Actors' Guild, I was confronted with an attempt by many of these same leftists to assume leadership of the union. At a mass meeting I watched rather helplessly as they filibustered, waiting for our majority to leave so they could gain control. Somewhere in the crowd I heard a call for adjournment, and I seized on this as a means to end the attempted takeover. But the other side demanded I identify the one who moved for adjournment.
I looked over the audience, realizing that there were few willing to be publicly identified as opponents of the far left. Then I saw Duke and said, "Why I believe John Wayne made the motion." I heard his strong voice reply, "I sure as hell did!" The meeting and the radicals' campaign was over.
Later, when such personalities as actor Larry Parks came forward to admit their Communist Party backgrounds, there were those who wanted to see them punished. Not Duke. "It takes courage to admit you're wrong," he said, and he publicly battled attempts to ostracize those who had come clean.
Duke also had the last word over those who warned that his battle against communism in Hollywood would ruin his career. Many times he would proudly boast, "I was 32nd in the box-office polls when I accepted the presidency of the Alliance. When I left office eight years later, somehow the folks who buy tickets had made me number one.
Duke went to Vietnam in the early days of the war. He scorned VIP treatment, insisting that he visit the troops in the field. Once he even had his helicopter land in the midst of a battle. When he returned, he vowed to make a film about the heroism of Special Forces soldiers.
The public jammed theaters to see the resulting film, The Green Berets. The critics, however, delivered some of the harshest reviews ever given a motion picture. The New Yorker bitterly condemned the man who made the film. The New York Times called it "unspeakable ... rotten ... stupid." Yet John Wayne was undaunted. "That little clique back there in the East has taken great personal satisfaction reviewing my politics instead of my pictures," he often said. "But one day those doctrinaire liberals will wake up to find the pendulum has swung the other way.
I never once saw Duke display hatred toward those who scorned him. Oh, he could use some pretty salty language, but he would not tolerate pettiness and hate. He was human all right: he drank enough whiskey to float a PT boat, though he never drank on the job. His work habits were legendary in Hollywood - he was virtually always the first to arrive on the set and the last to leave.
His torturous schedule plus the great personal pleasure he derived from hunting and deep-sea fishing or drinking and card-playing with his friends may have cost him a couple of marriages; but you had only to see his seven children and 21 grandchildren to realize that Duke found time to be a good father. He often said, "I have tried to live my life so that my family would love me and my friends respect me. The others can do whatever the hell they please."
To him, a handshake was a binding contract. When he was in the hospital for the last time and sold his yacht, The Wild Goose, for an amount far below its market value, he learned the engines needed minor repairs. He ordered those engines overhauled at a cost to him of $40,000 because he had told the new owner the boat was in good shape.
Duke's generosity and loyalty stood out in a city rarely known for either. When a friend needed work, that person went on his payroll. When a friend needed help, Duke's wallet was open. He also was loyal to his fans. One writer tells of the night he and Duke were in Dallas for the premiere of Chisum. Returning late to his hotel, Duke found a message from a woman who said her little girl lay critically ill in a local hospital. The woman wrote, "It would mean so much to her if you could pay her just a brief visit." At 3 o'clock in the morning he took off for the hospital where he visited the astonished child and every other patient on the hospital floor who happened to be awake.
I saw his loyalty in action many times. I remember that when Duke and Jimmy Stewart were on their way to my second inauguration as governor of California they encountered a crowd of demonstrators under the banner of the Vietcong flag. Jimmy had just lost a son in Vietnam. Duke excused himself for a moment and walked into the crowd. In a moment there was no Vietcong flag.
Like any good John Wayne film, Duke's career had a gratifying ending. In the 1970s a new era of critics began to recognize the unique quality of his acting. The turning point had been the film True Grit. When the Academy gave him an Oscar for best actor of 1969, many said it was based on the accomplishments of his entire career. Others said it was Hollywood's way of admitting that it had been wrong to deny him Academy Awards for a host of previous films. There is truth, I think, to both these views.
Yet who can forget the climax of the film? The grizzled old marshal confronts the four outlaws and calls out: "I mean to kill you or see you hanged at Judge Parker's convenience. Which will it be?" "Bold talk for a one-eyed fat man," their leader sneers. Then Duke cries, "Fill your hand, you son of a bitch!" and, reins in his teeth, charges at them firing with both guns. Four villains did not live to menace another day.
"Foolishness?" wrote Chicago Sun-Times columnist Mike Royko, describing the thrill this scene gave him. "Maybe. But I hope we never become so programmed that nobody has the damn-the-risk spirit."
Fifteen years ago when Duke lost a lung in his first bout with cancer, studio press agents tried to conceal the nature of his illness. When Duke discovered this, he went before the public and showed us that a man can fight this dread disease. He went on to raise millions of dollars for private cancer research. Typically, he snorted: "We've got too much at stake to give government a monopoly in the fight against cancer."
Earlier this year, when doctors told Duke there was no hope, he urged them to use his body for experimental medical research, to further the search for a cure. He refused painkillers so he could be alert as he spent his last days with his children. When John Wayne died on June 11, a Tokyo newspaper ran the headline,
"Mr. America passes on."
"There's right and there's wrong," Duke said in The Alamo. "You gotta do one or the other. You do the one and you're living. You do the other and you may be walking around but in reality you're dead."
Duke Wayne symbolized just this, the force of the American will to do what is right in the world. He could have left no greater legacy.
R.W. "Dick" Gaines
GySgt USMC (Ret.)
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