John Wayne was larger than life. An unabashed conservative. Two-fisted. Macho.
He was also a superb craftsman who worked with some of the landmark directors of the 20th century, including John Ford, Howard Hawks, William Wellman and Don Siegel. Though he died in 1979 at age 72, his legacy looms large.
Wayne’s popularity today could make many a living actor jealous. In Harris polls that ask Americans to name their top leading man, the Duke has notched a Top 10 spot for more than a decade. His cowboy-hatted likeness has sold Coors Light, refrigerator magnets, alarm clocks and organic beef jerky — and revolvers, ammunition cartridges and beaver-fur hats.
Wayne’s screen portrayals of men of duty, honor and courage, coupled with his own off-camera personal true grit, endeared him to nearly three generations of Americans.
He started as a $35-a-week prop department flunky in 1926 and grew, over the decades, into America’s most enduring film superstar.
Over the years, Wayne played many types of roles, including comedy and romantic lead to many of Hollywood’s most beautiful women. But the characterization that would ultimately immortalize him was that of a man doing his duty — whether in military uniform, civvies or dust-encrusted western wear.
Some of his most famous films include “The Alamo” (1960), “True Grit” (1969), “El Dorado” (1966) and “How the West Was Won” (1962).
In 2008, Wayne’s alma mater, the University of Southern California, offered a three-day scholarly examination of the Duke titled “John Wayne: Actor, Star, Icon, Trojan.”
“When you have a conversation with people about John Wayne, the feeling is, ‘Ah, well, he wasn’t that much of an actor,’ ” said USC film professor Rick Jewell at the time. “But if you have really seen most of his work, you know that is far from the case. He was an extraordinary actor.”
“The icon has overtaken the actor in many people’s eyes, I think,” said film historian Leonard Maltin. “So it’s high time the actor was reevaluated. There is nothing stupider than saying he was playing himself because I don’t know what the real himself was like, but from what I gathered it wasn’t that guy we saw on screen.”
In Orange County, where Wayne made his home in Newport Beach, the relationship between the Duke and his fans was as tight as that of cowboy and horse.
“They had an icon there,” said James S. Olson, who co-authored the biography “John Wayne: American.” “The image he projected hearkened back to an era where black and white and good and evil were clear.”
Still, by 2007, the year that marked what would have been Wayne’s 100th birthday, Newport Beach had wiped away most of his fingerprints. The tennis club Wayne built: renamed. The affiliated Dukes team: now called the Breakers. The Orange County airport remains the grizzled leading man’s namesake — although one county supervisor toyed with rechristening it The O.C. Airport when the 2003-2007 prime-time television soap outstripped the leading man in hipness.