In a genre of Westerns, tough guys and quiet men, one cowboy stands alone. John Wayne, the no-nonsense American hero of more than 200 films, has enduring appeal, largely because “he speaks for a character set or value set,” says Ethan Wayne, his 55-year-old son, who grew up on film sets including El Dorado and True Grit. “The American archetype that he represented was a person who decided to do the right thing whether someone was looking or not.
Ethan Wayne, who was 17 when the screen legend died in 1979, has warm memories of life on the road with his actor father (a dad of seven) and mother Pilar (Wayne’s third wife).
“He’d read his scripts until he fell asleep,” says his son, shown here on set of The Sons of Katie Elder with John Wayne in 1965. “In between (takes), he always made time for me as a little boy to come in and get a hug or sit on his lap.
“He was very open that way. But he expected you not to walk through someone’s eye line or mess with the camera.”
Off camera, the Wild West invited plenty of card games. “They played a lot of cards,” says Ethan, calling his father, seen here with Dean Martin one evening during the filming of Katie Elder, “very social. He was always playing gin rummy or bridge or whatever the game of the day was. He’d be in a card game down the road or in the club, or they’d get the basement of a restaurant in town and they’d be there until 2 a.m.”
The star of the 1952 classic The Quiet Man did things the old-fashioned way. “That’s me taking swimming lessons from my father,” Ethan jokes about a photo of himself at age three being playfully “tossed” into a river on the set of Katie Elder in 1965, a year after the towering 6-foot-4 star beat lung cancer.
Today, Ethan is director of the John Wayne Cancer Foundation (the star succumbed to stomach cancer at age 72), which kicks off a new campaign in June inviting supporters to raise awareness by posting a photo of themselves clad in a bandana photo or sharing their survival story on social media with the hashtag
“As he became more well known, the boat was really a place where he could get away. He loved being on the water,” says Ethan. “He loved to fish and hike and snorkel and go abalone diving. It’s what he did for recreation.” Though John Wayne is known for Westernssuch as The Searches and Red River, in reality, the Duke preferred the ocean. Born in Iowa, he moved to Los Angeles as a boy and ultimately made his home in Newport Beach, Calif. “He wasn’t a cowboy; we lived at the beach. He was an actor,” says Ethan. “He could just represent that archetype very well.”
Despite being one of the few vocal Republicans in Hollywood, Ethan says his father, pictured here relaxing in his movie trailer, engaged willingly with friends across the aisle. “He was friends with writers who had Communist leanings and very left-wing people in Hollywood. He could have an open discussion with them without getting upset or mad, and share his views and explain his reasoning. … I don’t see a lot of people today who can do that.” BY Andrea Mandell
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