He was the quintessential cowboy, the all-American American, the symbol for “macho” all over the world. He starred in more than 170 films in an unparalleled almost 50 year career in movies. He was, of course, the one and only John Wayne, the “Duke” himself.
One person described the classic John Wayne walk by saying, “He looked like he needed to change his diapers.” Slightly tipsy, slightly off-balance looking, rough, tough, and rugged. Why did the Duke walk with that trademark swagger?
Well, Wayne once said that “the women love it” in reference to his famous gait. But he himself never elaborated.
Several theories exist for Wayne’s walk.
The “John Wayne walk” didn’t happen overnight; he developed it over the years. John Wayne was a big man: most sources cite him as 6’4″ (some say he was shorter and wore lifts, but others insist he was actually 6’5″ or 6’6″). He had a long, lanky body; in his early films of the 1930s, he looks very stiff and a bit awkward, as if he doesn’t know quite what to do with his body. He was hired because he looked and talked like a hero, but he didn’t know how to move like one.
Slowly but surely, he learned to move in a very slow, deliberate way; his slow and deliberate walk was simply his way of controlling his body. By the time his body had filled out, the style was pretty much set.
Still, other theories for the walk persist:
Burt Reynolds claims Wayne used a Native-American walk: toe to heel, toe to heel.
Another theory says the Duke broke his leg before he hit it big, and that created his off-balance walk.
Some state that John Ford, Wayne’s favorite director and close friend, taught him the “John Wayne walk.”
Some simply say he wore his pants too tight.
Probably the most colorful—and fascinating—theory regarding the Duke’s walk states that he based it on Michelangelo’s statue of David. John Wayne loved the statue and based his walk, and his famous hand-on-hip stance, on the legendary statue.
But interestingly, two of Wayne’s most famous leading ladies, Katharine Hepburn and Lauren Bacall, agree on one theory: John Wayne just had small feet!
Both actresses recall looking at Wayne’s broad, hulking body and being surprised how little his feet were. (As a sidebar: I well remember my first-ever visit to the legendary Graumann’s Chinese Theater on Hollywood Blvd. I clearly remember marveling at how small John Wayne’s boot prints were! I wear a size 9.5 shoe and the Duke’s boot prints were much smaller than my feet.) Wayne’s boot prints at Graumann’s seem to reveal a men’s size 5 or 6 foot.