Born May 26, 1907, Marion Robert Morrison would grow up to become one of Hollywood’s biggest movie stars,  John Wayne.

John Wayne, The Big Trail 1930

John Wayne was born in Iowa but grew up in California. He lost a football scholarship to the University of Southern California when he was injured bodysurfing. The football coach had friends at the movie studios and found part time jobs for his players. Wayne began working for studios as a prop guy for $45 a week. A handsome, strapping man, he was soon employed in movies with bit parts for up to $75 a week. His first leading role was a western, “The Big Trail” (1930) for which he was paid $105 a week. He continued making B movies, mostly westerns through the 30’s. When John Ford cast him for “Stagecoach” (1939) it was career changing, John Wayne became a Hollywood star.

Wayne became a top box office draw for the next 3 decades, earning more than $700 million, and starring in 17 of the 100 highest growing films in Hollywood at the time of his death in 1979.

Biographer Ronald Davis said, “John Wayne personified for millions the nation’s frontier heritage. Eighty-three of his movies were Westerns, and in them he played cowboys, cavalrymen, and unconquerable loners.”

His persona on the screen was literally and figuratively larger than life. His movie roles included detectives and military commanders but he is most commonly remembered as a cowboy. Though Wayne grew up riding his mare Jenny to school and made much of his career from atop a horse he was once interviewed and had this to say about horses.

“I’ve never really liked horses.”

Perhaps not, but horses were integral to his success as an actor and part of his personal life as well. Wayne owned a ranch and was an avid rider who taught his children to ride. Horses certainly had a significance throughout his lifetime, from Jenny to Dollor. Or is it Dollar?

The family mare, Jenny, carried young Marion Michael Morrison to school every day in Lancaster, California. By the time Marion Morrison became John Wayne, he was an experienced rider who once said that riding a horse “came as naturally to me as breathing.”

“He was surprisingly skilled, considering his size. For a big guy, he looks graceful on a horse,” Petrine Day Mitchum, author of the book Hollywood Hoofbeats says. “But he also had the advantage of working with Yakima Canutt, the famous stuntman, who gave him a lot of coaching.”

In the 1930s Wayne was paired with a majestic white parade horse with a long, flowing mane and tail. The horse was called Duke, after the actor’s nickname. “It was kind of an inside joke,” Mitchum says.

John Wayne and Duke (the horse)

During the 40’s and 50’s The Duke’s favorite mount was a large bay named Banner, supplied by the Fat Jones stables. “He was intelligent and had an instinct for this business,” Wayne once said of Banner.

In such films as Tall in the Saddle and The Conqueror, Wayne rode a stallion named Steel, one of the most famous horses of his era.

Occasionally Wayne would take the reins of Cocaine, the stunt horse used by Chuck Roberson, who was Wayne’s double in more than 30 movies.

In El Dorado The Duke rode Zip Cochise, an Appaloosa that was so small, Wayne appeared to be riding a pony.

John Wayne and Dollor

Then there are the horses Dollor and Dollar which have confused movie buffs at infinitum. Dollor, with an “o”, had a much wider blaze on his face and different stockings on his legs than Dollar, with an “a”. Wayne rode Dollor (o) in the charging scene in True Grit. Wayne rode Dollar (a) in the sequel, Rooster Cogburn, as well as in his final film, The Shootist.

Though John Wayne was more my grandmother’s generation, he was one of my favorite movie stars growing up. I rarely missed watching a John Wayne western on TV. His westerns transported me to the glamorous old west, a time filled with horses. He was born 110 years ago and died nearly 40 years ago but I can still hear his voice in my head. Tonight I think I’ll watch my favorite John Wayne flick, the Cowboys as tribute to the man who epitomized America’s iconic cowboy, the Duke.

John Wayne 1907 – 1979

John Wayne in The Cowboys

John Wayne Factoids

His nickname “the Duke” came from the family dog growing up. The family had an Airedale named Big Duke who chased fire engines. The fireman started calling young Marion “Little Duke” which evolved to “Duke”.

In high school, John Wayne was on the debating team, president of the Latin Society and reported sports for the school newspaper.

John Wayne was an avid chess player. Wayne repeatedly cheated when playing chess against Robert Mitchum (Wayne had huge hands and would carefully slide a piece into a different position as he made a separate move). Mitchum eventually plucked up the courage to tell him he was cheating. Wayne replied “I was wondering when you were going to say something. Set ’em up, we’ll play again.”

The Duke was very superstitious. One could never hand the salt shaker to him directly, it was to be placed on the table then he would reach for it.

John Wayne won the Academy Award for Best Actor for True Grit 1969

He was recognized by the US Government with two of the highest civilian honors, the 1979 Congressional Gold Medal and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1980 (awarded posthumously).

The epitaph on his tombstone reads, “Tomorrow is the most important thing in life. Comes into us at midnight very clean. It’s perfect when it arrives and it puts itself in our hands. It hopes we’ve learned something from yesterday.