Marion Robert Morrison first came to Hollywood as a prop boy. He needed a job to pay his way through school after a shoulder injury ended his football career. Getting a job at William-Fox Studios proved to be steady work, leading to a string of bit parts before he was cast as the lead in Raoul Walsh’s “The Big Trail” in 1930. This was also the film that introduced “John Wayne” to the world, a name-change that producers felt was more appropriate for a star.
While most found themselves in unemployment lines during the 1930s, Wayne had steady work. He cut his teeth in B Westerns before getting the attention of Director John Ford. Ford cast him as The Ringo Kid in his 1939 western “Stagecoach.” Known as a brutal task master, Ford helped create the signature Wayne persona now familiar to movie fans.
Then there’s “Angel & the Badman” in 1947. Here, Wayne returns to the western genre after several successful war films. This picture, though not a huge success at the box-office, gave Wayne his first experience as a Producer. This was the catalyst for a business partnership that ultimately became Wayne’s production company, Batjac Productions.
Two years later, Wayne portrayed a tough-as-nails, no-nonsense drill sergeant trying to whip his squadron into shape in the WWII drama “Sands of Iwo Jima.” It impressed audiences enough to win him an oscar nomination.
In 1956, John Ford directed Wayne in a film that became one of Wayne’s most memorable. In “The Searchers,” Wayne is Ethan Edwards, a hardened Civil War Veteran on a journey to rescue his niece from an indian tribe. Though it was a darker portrayal than audiences had seen, movie-goers loved it. It was Wayne’s biggest hit in four years, and a welcome relief from his biggest flop the previous year.
In 1960, the Duke released a project he’d wanted to bring to the screen for 12 years. “The Alamo” was his directorial debut. Budgeted at $12 million, the picture only brought in $7.9 million. An Oscar campaign did little to garner any attention for the struggling film, and it quickly put an end to Wayne’s directing career.
1963’s “McClintock” became one of Wayne’s most successful westerns and reunited him with co-star Maureen O’Hara. Produced under the Batjac banner, this movie was a family affair for the Duke. It featured his son Patrick in a supporting role. His son Michael produced and family friend, Andrew McLaglen, directed. The Batjac film library was used as collateral for a loan to finish “The Alamo.” “McClintock’s” success once again put Wayne on solid financial footing, and allowed him to reclaim control of the company.
Finally, Wayne was chomping at the bit when offered the part of Rooster Cogburn in ‘True Grit.” His signature role as a grisly, cantankerous lawman was a new kind of western that for him, made a statement on the american spirit during a rocky time for the country he knew and loved. Having had a lung removed four years earlier due to cancer, maintaining his weight was not as easy as it had once been. A chance to get “fat and ugly,” as director Henry Hathaway phrased it in his offer, made this a pure joy for the Duke. Critics also agreed. This became the Duke’s first and only oscar winning performance.