From the incredible feats he accomplished throughout his career to his ability to remain relevant nearly 100 years after he first stepped onto a film set, John Wayne often seems like a fictional character from a tall tale. Of course, Duke was as real as they come, but in celebration of our Special 40th Edition, we’ve collected many of the unbelievable but true stories that exemplify his extraordinary life. Read an excerpt from the issue below and get your own copy here.
Born to Be Big
On May 26, 1907, Marion Robert Morrison was born to parents Mary and Clyde Morrison in the family’s rented home in the heart of the Midwest. Though the rural Iowan town in which baby Marion began his life had a population just shy of 3,000 people at the time, the boy would grow into a man known to millions across the globe. And while no one could have predicted the levels of stardom he’d reach, they could safely bet that he was going to be big.
The May 30, 1907, edition of the local Madisonian publication announced a “13-pound son arrived at the home [of] Mr. and Mrs. Clyde Morrison,” likely causing some readers to do a double take. But that impressive size would prove to be an important asset to the son of Mary and Clyde Morrison in the years to come. Eventually, he would be larger than life.
Boy’s Best Friend
The boy known as Marion Morrison in his younger years would grow up to be John Wayne—but along the way, he also became “Duke.” As the youngster became acquainted with the citizens of his sleepy Midwestern hometown, many noticed he was rarely seen without his family’s Airedale Terrier, Duke, by his side. Soon enough, the pair became known as Big Duke and Little Duke.
Even after his career in Hollywood took off and he was officially christened as John Wayne, the original moniker stuck. Friends, family and fellow industry titans all referred to the icon as “Duke” for the rest of his life. Packing plenty of punch, the nickname perfectly suited a legend so synonymous with hard-hitting, big screen action.
A Perfect Picture
Regardless of the incredible cast and crew involved or the raving critical reception it receives, at the end of the day, the quality of a film will always be subjective, But more than 60 years since its release, John Wayne’s classic Western Rio Bravo (1959) has managed what may seem like an impossible feat these days: a perfect score of 100 percent on the film review site Rotten Tomatoes.
In the film, Duke plays John T. Chance, a sheriff who recruits a band of locals to ensure the incarceration of a murderer with powerful ties among the town’s elite. Standing alongside John Wayne is a fellow icon of the era (and a close friend of the legend), Dean Martin, who plays Dude, a town drunk who must get his act together to tackle the tall task at hand. And with director Howard Hawks at the helm, it’s no surprise Rio Bravo succeeded on so many levels. Variety called the film a “topnotch Western” while Time wrote, “Wayne, of course walks off with the show—not by doing anything in particular, but simply by being what he is: at 51, still one of the most believable he-men in Hollywood.”
When it came to making movies, John Wayne lived by a simple notion: go big or go home. After spending months shopping around the idea for his self-directed film The Alamo (1960), Duke found investors and sunk $1.2 million of his own money into the project, giving the production the big budget it needed to recreate the mission exactly as it was before its defense against Santa Anna’s forces.
John Wayne believed the film’s set needed to be as close to scale of the real Alamo as possible, but budget concerns meant dialing it back. As a compromise, the entire set was built at 75 percent scale—with the exception of the chapel, which was a full-size replica. In February 1958, builders broke ground on the new Alamo armed with stone, wood from dilapidated Fort Clark buildings, limestone and handmade adobe brick. As the set was isolated from town, the crew also had to build 10 miles of road and tap several deep-water wells to keep the set and its creators hydrated. Spread over 400 acres of land the set truly became its own kind of village. Proving just how much Duke poured into the project, the massive Alamo Village set remains standing in Brackettville, Texas, and was even open to public tours until 2009.