During John Wayne’s incredible, prolific, 50-year career, he was much more than “just” a movie star.
If the phrase “larger than life” ever described anyone, it certainly applied to John Wayne. He projected a male ideal millions of Americans identified with: ruggedly handsome, tough yet kind. His screen persona was that of a war hero, a cowboy, an anchor of justice, an adventurer. John Wayne, the icon, influenced real people in their real lives: men were inspired to enlist in the army, children played cowboys and sheriffs, generations of Americans grew up with dreams of heading west — of being that man who feared nothing and effortlessly commanded respect. Wayne was an old-time pioneer for a new day. It could be argued that for kids of the 40s, 50s and 60s, John Wayne defined the American Spirit as much as apple pie or whomever was sitting in the Oval Office.
Even today, some 32 years after he was felled by cancer, it’s nearly impossible to find any American who can’t do some version of a “John Wayne” stance, walk, or voice impression. Perhaps even more remarkable is, in some cases, the younger people who do those “John Waynes” haven’t even seen the movies they’re based on. He has permeated our collective consciousness to that degree: John Wayne is permanently ingrained in our American cultural identity.
So what, we ask ourselves, could a man this big, this far-beyond “average Joe” have been like at home? What would it have been like to wake up and call John Wayne “Dad?”
Ethan Wayne is John Wayne’s youngest son. After a career in show business, Ethan now runs John Wayne Enterprises and is director of the John Wayne Cancer Foundation. He spoke with Disney Dads via phone about John Wayne in the role of father.
“To this day,” says Ethan, “I wake up early, and I’m eager to start whatever it is I’m doing that day. I want to get up and DO. That drive definitely came from my dad. When I was a kid, he was the first one on the set and the last one to leave. I loved my time in the early mornings with that guy. I have a dog now, and my dog’s up and staring at me in the morning, ready and excited for me to get up. Well, that was me with my dad.”
Ethan Wayne grew up in Newport Beach, CA. There was the time spent at home, on their family’s boat “The Wild Goose” and on location wherever his dad happened to be shooting. Because of his dad’s work schedules, Ethan remembers everything being broken up into three-month blocks. His favorite time, he recalls, was being on location with his dad. “Those were my fondest memories: getting up early and going to location and being around the wranglers and horses and stuntmen. When we were on location, I could take a horse and ride away from the set. I had my Zippo lighter and my knife, and my beef jerky, and I knew how to find my way back. I grew up doing that, and so from age 8, 9, 10, I became a really handy kid. I realize now it was an incredible childhood. I had a great deal of freedom.”
Asked if he realized that he was “different” from other kids when he was at home, he says, “Not really.” But then he tells a story of something that clued him in to some degree: “I remember going to get mail at a friend’s house,” he says,”and there were, like, two envelopes in the mailbox. I remember saying to my friend, Is that all the mail you get?’ Because at my house, we got piles of it. Bags and bags full.” Ethan explains that it was part of his father’s work ethic that every piece of mail be answered. He didn’t do it all personally, of course, but he says his dad “was very grateful — for the American system, our country where someone could come from humble beginnings and become so successful. He wanted every piece of mail acknowledged.”
“My dad was 56 by the time I was born,” Ethan continues. “The greatest things he gave me growing up were a moral compass and his spirit. Because of the way he was, I learned that to be a man, you have to be kind. I know that having courage doesn’t mean that you’re not scared. I learned that you move forward anyway, try not to get stuck on things in the past, always move forward, not backward. Don’t be small and don’t be petty. Let things go. Because of him, I see a trail I can follow where I might not have otherwise seen any trail.
“My dad did put himself into the roles he played, so in a sense, he was similar in person to what people saw in the movies. The personality was there. The humor was there. The loyalty was there. We just weren’t getting shot at all the time.”
A new book, “John Wayne: The Legend and the Man” is now available (Powerhouse Books). The book represents the first authorized photographic record of John Wayne’s life, both on-screen and off, and includes a foreword by Martin Scorsese, an interview with Ron Howard, an essay by Patricia Bosworth and remembrances from Maureen O’Hara and Ronald Reagan. 272 pages, $45.
To learn more about the John Wayne Cancer Foundation, visit www.johnwayne.org.