The life and legend of Marion Morrison

Published 5:04 pm Tuesday, September 15, 2015

I like to read. Most of my reading is for sermon development but I also like to read for pleasure. I like biographies and am currently reading a very extensive and long one on the life and legend of Marion Robert Morrison, much better known as John Wayne.

John Wayne! For my generation and the previous one, there is no larger Hollywood icon than John Wayne.

Even as a baby, born in Winterset, Iowa, Marion Morrison looked like John Wayne. Same facial expression when he smiled. The old photographs that accompany biographies could not have shown him walking or talking, but in my own thoughts, I could see him walking to school with his hands and arms swinging from side to side. I could hear him, as the bell rang to go in from recess, saying to his classmates, “Saddle up pilgrim, time to go in.”

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John Wayne, if still living, would be 108 years old. And still making movies! The Duke was “money in the bank” for most of his movies, even the bad ones and there were plenty of those. He made movies until he died in 1979.

He was a physically big man and his birth notice in the Winterset Madisonian listed his birth weight as 13 pounds. Ouch!
His nickname, Duke, was not given to him by fellow actors as a matter of respect. It was not a Hollywood creation, but came early as his dog, named Duke, followed him around town and the fire station fellows called him Duke.

Marion Morrison, after moving with his family to Glendale, California, was a good enough athlete to receive a football scholarship to the University of Southern California. He was good and popular and, if not for a surfing accident, might have never become an actor.

He was a very well-read and intelligent man who loved to play bridge and chess.

As a football player at USC, he earned extra money as a prop man on movie sets. That’s how he was discovered by a young director named John Ford. Ford would become a “father figure” to Wayne for the rest of his life, giving him his second shot at the big-time in a movie named Stagecoach (1939).

His first shot at the big time came in 1930 (The Big Trail) and was a dismal failure. It was also the movie in which Marion Morrison became John Wayne. After than failed try, Wayne spent almost ten years in the wilderness of “B Westerns,” making forgettable movies at a pace of just about one a week.

As with many people, John Wayne used the wilderness to grow and learn. After the wilderness, he became the star we know. He was no overnight success.

“Saddle up,” perhaps his most iconic phrase did not occur in a western, but in the World War II movie, The Sands of Iwo Jima. John Wayne, the most popular actor in

Hollywood, out of his leading roles in over 140 movies, received only two Academy Award nominations. One was for this movie.

The other was for his role as Rooster Cogburn, the one-eyed law officer in True Grit. He won that year.

Unlike many Hollywood figures, Wayne loved family life. He wasn’t tremendously successful at marriage (3 times), but spent as much of his time as he could spare with his children.

He worked and played hard. Thirty-five years after his death, John Wayne movies still play. I wonder if that will be said for today’s stars?