There is an oft-repeated myth that John Wayne met legendary gunslinger Wyatt Earp on a movie


John Wayne died in 1979, but he remains one of the world’s most well-known actors. He personified the Wild West in a way that nobody else could ever match and formed the basis for much of the modern cultural identity of the United States. He so strongly embodied the concept of “American-ness” that Emperor Hirohito of Japan and Nikita Khrushchev of the USSR both specifically requested meetings with him when they visited the US in 1975 and 1959, respectively.

John Wayne was a model student in high school, getting good grades, playing football, and participating in extracurricular activities like the debate team. He was even president of his senior class in 1925. When it was time to go to college, Wayne applied to the U.S. Naval Academy but was rejected. He ended up going to the University of Southern California, where a football scholarship paid his entire $280/year tuition and covered one meal a day, five days a week. He was majoring in pre-law, which makes perfect sense given his background in debate. Unfortunately, he broke his collarbone in a bodysurfing accident and lost his scholarship. Without that, he couldn’t afford to remain in school and had to drop out soon after beginning his junior year.


There is an oft-repeated myth that John Wayne met legendary gunslinger Wyatt Earp on a movie set in 1928. In this myth, the young Wayne formed a close bond with the 80-year-old former sheriff and even became one of his pallbearers when Earp died in 1929. Sadly, it seems that this myth never happened, and Wayne likely never even met Wyatt Earp, though they did share a connection with silent movie star Tom Mix.

Even though they never met, Earp influenced John Wayne’s perception of what it meant to be a cowboy and therefore informed much of his acting. Earp lived by a code that Wayne would go on to adopt for his roles in Westerns. For example, Wayne demanded that a particular scene in “The Shootist” be re-edited to remove the implication that his character would shoot a person in the back. This was an act that went against Wyatt Earp’s code. Similarly, Wayne insisted that his movie characters would never shoot an unarmed man.

Wayne’s birth name was Marion Robert Morrison, and that was the name he was known by when he played college football and later when he started his acting career. He also went by “Duke,” a nickname picked up from a childhood friendship with his Airedale Terrier, also named Duke. Some people referred to Wayne and his dog as “Little Duke” and “Big Duke,” and that name stuck.

However, when choosing a stage name, the studio had something else in mind for him. His legal name sounded too feminine, so director Raoul Walsh suggested the name of a Revolutionary War general, Anthony Wayne. Fox Studios executive Winfield Sheehan rejected this name, saying it sounded “too Italian.”

Finally, Walsh came up with “John Wayne.” Thankfully, everyone involved was on board with this alias, so “John Wayne” stuck. It is said that Wayne was not even present for this discussion and was not given the option to offer his input. Perhaps if he had, he would have chosen to call himself “Duke,” after his beloved dog.

John Wayne’s first big break was in a film called “The Big Trail,” directed by Raoul Walsh. It was an immense undertaking, costing about $2 million and utilizing 20,000 extras and thousands of cows, horses, and buffalo. The film was intended to commemorate the centennial of the Oregon Trail. It was shot on 70mm film, a technology that could only truly be enjoyed in a tiny number of theaters. Due to the limits of the majority of theaters, most people did not get to see the film in its full glory, and it was a box office flop.

This massive failure, though not Wayne’s fault, tainted his career for the next decade. Wayne faded back into relative obscurity and acted in various films created by the so-called “Poverty Row” studios of the time. Poverty Row referred to small, B-movie studios that churned out low-budget movies with no-name actors in the first half of the 20th century. Wayne appeared in approximately 80 of these low-budget films before getting his second crack at the big time with “Stagecoach” in 1939. This time, his fame would stick.

Modern movies owe a lot to John Wayne in terms of fight scenes. Before he came along, the expectation was that the hero always fought cleanly and gallantly. Wayne changed that. “The hero could only knock the villain down politely and then wait until he rose,” Wayne said. “I changed all that. I threw chairs and lamps. I fought hard, and I fought dirty. I fought to win.” This made the fights more believable and his characters less squeaky-clean and more interesting.

Wayne also invented a type of punch that was particularly well-suited for film. In it, he would dramatically wind his fist up and punch in a big, wide arc that would appear to knock both puncher and target off balance. Additionally, the way that he would position himself relative to the camera.

by Movies

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