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|RAT PACK GOLDDIGGERS
been a lot of stories about how I got to be called Duke. One was that
I played the part of a Duke in a school play, which I never did. Sometimes,
they even said I was descended from royalty! It was all a lot of rubbish.
Hell, the truth is that I was named after a dog!"
He may have been - and may still be - the greatest motion picture star of all time.
Katherine Hepburn once remarked about the legendary John Wayne, "As an actor he has an extraordinary gift. A unique naturalness. A very subtle capacity to think and express and caress the camera - the audience. A secret between them." Legendary producer Hal Wallis was more concise, "No film actor had greater integrity or stature. He represented the American folk hero at his best."
After making some 130 films, John Wayne graduated from B-movie actor to A-list action star with the release of Stagecoach in 1939, directed by the legendary John Ford. Over the next decade he went on to star in hits like Seven Sinners, Flying Tigers, Back to Bataan, They Were Expendable, Dakota, Fort Apache, Red River and Sands of Iwo Jima.
John Wayne was the biggest box-office attraction in 1950, 1951 and the third most popular star of 1952. And no wonder, those three years brought Hondo, Flying Leathernecks, Operation Pacific, Rio Grande and other triumphs to the big screen.
By the mid-fifties, the number of actors under contract to the major studios fell by two thirds but Wayne was wisely co-producing his own films for Republic Pictures since 1946. To maximize his independence after the triumphant release of The Quiet Man (also directed by John Ford), Wayne left Republic in 1952 to start his own production company, Batjac.
At the same time, he was wrestling with a messy divorce trial attracting headlines across the nation. Chata Wayne, an earthy Latin drunkard, did everything she could to destroy her husband publicly, hurling unfounded allegations that he manhandled and beat her during drunken rages.
Duke denied it, emphatically saying, "In fact, I was woman-handled. On many occasions I had to protect myself from her temper."
Chata charged her husband with punching her in the nose and other acts of physical cruelty, accusing him of "clobbering" her in exotic locales all over the world. Wayne denied everything until the judge grew so sick of hearing their salacious accusations that he forced the couple's lawyers to come to terms with no further trial.
"Our marriage was like shaking two volatile chemicals in a jar," John Wayne admitted to the public.
Chata Wayne obtained her divorce and her big money settlement. She fled the country, only to be discovered dead a year later, broke and alone in a Mexico City hotel room, "surrounded by empty liquor bottles." Duke married his third and last wife actress Pilar Palette in 1954.
Outside of minor cameos on shows like This Is Your Life in 1952 and Climax! in 1954, John Wayne avoided making many television appearances during the early-fifties; he had a film career with a remarkably consistent audience base and didn't see the need for small screen exposure. At least not at first.
John Wayne was already a major TV star by default. Local stations, desperate
for any content to fill their days and nights, began running his 1930s
and 1940s westerns because the major movie studios wouldn't license their
product to TV. Republic, on the other hand, was eager to do so.
1953, John Wayne waded into the television pool with his first major
guest role on The Milton Berle Show. It was not a happy experience.
"The idea was that I keep sayin' 'I am not going to be one of these
movie stars that goes on television just to get publicity for his latest
movie,'" Wayne told TV Guide, "and then have this big
electric sign on my back and every time I turn around I press the button
in my pants and it flashes HONDO."
In 1953, John Wayne waded into the television pool with his first major guest role on The Milton Berle Show. It was not a happy experience. "The idea was that I keep sayin' 'I am not going to be one of these movie stars that goes on television just to get publicity for his latest movie,'" Wayne told TV Guide, "and then have this big electric sign on my back and every time I turn around I press the button in my pants and it flashes HONDO."
It got the desired laughs, but Wayne was left feeling foolish - because of that experience, he reasoned he "didn't belong in television." That didn't stop the networks from approaching Duke with series and anthology proposals. He turned them all down.
Wayne briefly considered starring in a western series for the fall of 1955 - playing Marshall Dillon on CBS's Gunsmoke. The network offered him a sweetheart deal with a two million dollar guarantee.
While it's true this radio to TV transplant would have been a sure thing for both parties, he opted instead to recommend one of his co-stars for the role - James Arness. To help launch the series, John Wayne filmed an introduction for the first episode.
Gunsmoke initiated a wave of 'adult' westerns on television and ran for twenty years in primetime. It's fortunate for moviegoers that he passed on the role, think of all the great films (like The Searchers in 1956) that wouldn't have been made had Wayne taken that role.
MAKING PEACE WITH TELEVISON
Recognizing the potential TV had to reach into middle America - and therefore boost his box office - Duke chose to kick off the 1955-56 season of I Love Lucy (his favorite TV show). In that famous two-part episode, Lucy steals John Wayne's footprints from the sidewalk in front of Grauman's Chinese Theater - giving Wayne a chance to plug his latest motion picture, Blood Alley, on the nation's top-rated program.
Next up on TV was a dramatic role on Screen Director's Playhouse airing December 7, 1955, directed and introduced by his mentor John Ford (who helmed many of Wayne's best films). The teleplay, entitled Rookie of the Year, was shot at the Hal Roach Studios with Duke as reporter Mike Cronin; the program also featured Ward Bond and son Patrick Wayne as a young baseball player.
Apart from reruns of his old movies, John Wayne appeared on the tube in commercials for Camel cigarettes in the mid-fifties, speaking highly of the product: "Mild and good tasting pack after pack. And I know, I've been smokin' 'em for twenty years."
Truth in advertising - at that time Wayne was a five pack-a-day smoker of unfiltered Camels and had been for over thirty years. He also advertised Gillete razors on screen with his son Patrick.
Duke was a presenter on the 30th and 31st Academy Award telecasts in 1958 and 1959 but by this point, his box office drawing power was in serious decline after years on top. With the exception of the brilliant Rio Bravo, it looked like John Wayne might be on his way out to pasture as the sixties unfolded.
JOHN WAYNE: PART 1
JOHN WAYNE: IN THE 1960's
JOHN WAYNE: MID-SIXTIES
JOHN WAYNE: LATE-1960's
JOHN WAYNE: THE SEVENTIES
JOHN WAYNE: DEATH OF A LEGEND
"We called him Duke, and he was every bit the giant off-screen as he was on. Everything about him - his stature, his style, his convictions - conveyed enduring strength, and no one who observed his struggle in those final days could doubt that strength was real. Yet there was more. To my wife, Nancy, 'Duke Wayne was the most gentle, tender person I ever knew.'"
- Ronald Reagan, October 1979
John Wayne facts:
His first big film was Stage Coach in 1939 but his career began with silent movies of the 1920s.
John Wayne, affectionately known as "The Duke," was born Marion Morrison on May 26, 1907 in Winterset, Iowa.
Wayne made some of his best -and worst - films in the 1970s. The best would include Chisum, Rio Lobo, The Cowboys and his last picture, The Shootist in 1976. The not-so-good include detective dramas McQ, and Brannigan.
"Sure I wave the American flag. Do you know a better flag to wave? Sure, I love my country with all her faults. I'm not ashamed of that, never have been and never will be."
- John Wayne
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