Throughout his life and career, time and time again, John Wayne reached milestone after milestone. Whether triumphant, challenging, cathartic or heartbreaking, each of these events significantly shaped John Wayne into the icon we remember today. In the latest volume of The Official John Wayne Collector’s Edition, you’ll journey through a timeline of Duke’s life structured around these catalyzing events. By looking back on some of his most memorable moments, both on screen and off, we see a clearer image of the man behind the legend, and the reasons why John Wayne remains—in the words of Johnny Carson—“an American institution.” Get your own copy of The Official John Wayne Collector’s Edition, Volume 36 delivered right to your door by clicking HERE.
1939: Landing the Lead in Stagecoach
After spending nearly a decade honing his craft in ill-fitting roles and rapidly-produced B-Westerns, John Wayne landed the role that would finally reveal him as a bona fide star. With his mentor John Ford at the helm, Duke would take the lead in the epic Western film Stagecoach, giving moviegoers, critics and Hollywood executives a clear look into the very bright future of American cinema.
As Ringo Kid, John Wayne makes a memorable arrival in the film that still stands tall against any character introduction in the history of cinema. Twirling his Winchester rifle as the camera comes in for a closeup, the young actor displays all the confidence and charisma of an elder statesman of the screen. The challenge of leading a film as grandiose as Stagecoach would not have been an easy feat, even for a more seasoned actor. But Duke’s readiness for the task was apparent, as the Hollywood Spectator wrote in its review, “John Wayne seemed born for the part he plays.” In hindsight, the role certainly does seem like destiny—as Ringo Kid himself says, “There are some things a man just can’t run away from.”
1954: Marrying the Love of His Life
While filming the World War II film The Sea Chase in Hawaii in 1954, John Wayne woke up one morning and decided the tropical paradise would be the perfect place to marry the woman of his dreams, Pilar Pallete. Though it was not on the agenda when the couple landed on the Big Island, Duke assured his bride-to-be their spontaneous nuptials would go off without a hitch. With no time to waste, the Peruvian actress went into town to find the perfect dress while her groom and his crew toiled to ensure every detail was just right for the gala wedding. Come sunset, it was time for Duke and Pilar to become man and wife. The legend’s friend Francis Brown served as best man, while his secretary Mary St. John was Pilar’s matron of honor and The Sea Chase’s director John Farrow was chosen to give the bride away. “As we prepared to take our vows, a crowd of Hawaiians—the women in muumuus and the men in colorful island shirts—appeared in the garden carrying gifts of flowers,” Pilar recalled in My Life with the Duke. “It was the most romantic wedding a bride could have wished for.”
For the rest of his life, Duke would share countless good times and memories with Pilar as they traveled to distant filming locations, sailed the open sea on the Wild Goose and enjoyed the rare quiet moments at home with their three children, Marisa, Aissa and Ethan. Much like his career on the big screen, the love the icon had for Pilar was legendary.
1955: Sitting in the Director's Chair
The first few films released via John Wayne’s Batjac Productions revealed that the actor was more than capable of juggling tasks on both sides of the camera. And in 1955, Duke would pull off a Hollywood hat trick by starring in, producing and co-directing Blood Alley.
While precious Batjac entries had allowed him to both produce and star in his films, Blood Alley would mark John Wayne’s first time settling into the director’s chair. Before production for the film got underway, the legend had planned on focusing all of his energy on the behind-the-scenes endeavor rather than taking on the lead role. Initially, Robert Mitchum was signed on to play Capt. Tom Wilder, the film’s fearless protagonist who escapes a Chinese jail and brings a boatload of refugees to freedom in Hong Kong, but an incident on set led to his unexpected departure. To keep the film afloat, Duke stepped into the role, all while maintaining his duties as producer and co-director. The decision paid off, as Variety wrote in its review, “Wayne was a perfect choice to play the rugged sipper;” while The New York Times declared the film as a whole a “lively, if not top-flight adventure.” With the success of Blood Alley, John Wayne’s future as a filmmaker was looking bright.
1970: Winning the Oscar
In a letter to producer Hal Wallis prior to the release of 1969’s True Grit, John Wayne wrote of the forthcoming film, “I’m sure this one is going to make those theater owners ‘fill their hands.’” But cinema proprietors would not be the only ones enjoying the success of the Western, as Duke’s unforgettable turn as the one-eyed curmudgeon Rooster Cogburn would soon bring him something he’d never held before: an Oscar.
The legend’s fellow nominees for Best Actor at the 42nd Academy Awards—John Voight (Midnight Cowboy), Peter O’Toole (Goodbye, Mr. Chips), Richard Burton (Anne of the Thousand Days) and Dustin Hoffman (Midnight Cowboy)—composed a clear picture of the new era dawning on Hollywood. But as presenter Barbara Streisand opened the envelope and declared John Wayne the winner, Duke’s fellow stars and industry titans in attendance celebrated the long-overdue accolade by sending the icon to the stage with a standing ovation.
Finally holding the golden statue that had eluded him for so long, John Wayne joked, “If I’d have known that, I’d have put that path on 35 years earlier.” But as he wiped a tear from his eye before continuing the speech, it was clear the win had been worth the wait.
1976: Saying Goodbye to the Big Screen
When John Wayne stepped onto the set of The Shootist in July 1976, he may not have known the film would be the last of his 50-year career. But given the parallels of his own life, the role of the dying gunslinger J.B. Books would serve as a perfect swan song for the legend.
After a visit to the doctor reveals that cancer has taken hold of his body and he has little time left to live, J.B. Books becomes a fresh target for the outlaws in town who hope to capitalize on his condition. Still sticking by his code even in his dying days, the famed gunman arranges to settle the score with a trio of foes in a barroom showdown. But though he bests all three in the shootout, the bartender sneaks up with a shotgun and blasts Books, marking a very rare instance in which one of Duke’s characters is killed.
The poignancy of John Wayne playing a man dying of cancer in his final film was not lost on viewers. Newsweek praised Duke’s “proud, quietly anguished performance,” while The New York Daily News wrote: “This is unmistakably Wayne’s valedictory performance. Only a great actor could have given this skillfully delineated performance.” If John Wayne’s career had to end, there could be no better note to end on than the role of the impeccably strong-willed J.B. Brooks.
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