John Wayne Once Gave Fan Firsthand Account of How He Got His Start in Hollywood

by Jennifer Shea

Western icon John Wayne was tough from the very beginning of his Hollywood career.

In fact, being a tough guy on set helped Wayne get his start in motion pictures. Wayne shared the story of how he stood out in the movie business during an interview with Phil Donahue in 1976.

“I was going to University of Southern California, and we just started having good ball clubs – or being recognized by the East, Middle West and South,” Wayne recalled. “And so the business became very interested, and they’d get us jobs during the summer. And I went on John Ford’s set. And they’d had a habit of, they say to you, ‘Oh, you play football. Well, how do you get down, let’s see you get down.’ And they’d push you and pull you. And this got a little boring. So when they’d ask me, I’d just brace myself on all four limbs, which is not the position to be in if you’re in a football game.”

Eventually Ford himself stumbled across the young man who would become the legendary John Wayne. And Ford had played a little football. So he said to Wayne, “Well, stop” – and then he kicked Wayne’s feet out from under him. And Wayne’s face hit the fake mud – made of plaster – on the set.

“And I said, ‘Well, let’s do it again,’” Wayne recounted. Ford started to walk around Wayne, and then Wayne whirled around and kicked him right in the chest.

“Down he went,” Wayne said. “And there was a dead silence. Then he started to laugh.”

Watch Wayne tell the story at the 18:00 mark here:

John Wayne Was Plagued by Guilt for Having Avoided Military Service

While Wayne starred in “The Sands of Iwo Jima” and received an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of a U.S. Marine, in real life, he struggled with guilt over his failure to serve in World War II.

According to a book about Wayne, “John Wayne: The Life and Legend,” the Hollywood legend never got over his regret at having stayed home with his children instead of enlisting during the war.

Wayne also struggled with three failed marriages and strained relationships with his kids. And he worked right up until his death because a combination of soured business deals and double-crossings by friends left him financially insecure. Furthermore, in his later years, Wayne poured money into making the movie “The Alamo,” which failed critically and at the box office.

Still, Wayne always cultivated that public image as a tough guy. And even if he sometimes struggled to live up to it offscreen, he never forgot how Ford first discovered him.