John Wayne may have been one of cinema’s most famous and celebrated cowboys. But it wasn’t always that way for the actor. When he was starting out, Wayne was just a prop hand named Duke Morrison, still regretting his football career got cut short.
In a 2018 interview with Fox News, Wayne’s son Ethan revealed how he created his fable cowboy persona. And the truth was Wayne drew from some pretty famous inspiration. Take a legendary cowboy like Wyatt Earp and a Hollywood auteur like John Ford.
“I read stories [of] when he was first starting out and how he was very uncomfortable and felt awkward,” Ethan Wayne told the outlet. “He didn’t like the way he moved, so he talked to John Ford and met Wyatt Earp… He started taking pieces of these guys. And putting them together into a character that became John Wayne, who was definitely part of my father. There was also fantasy. He was a heck of a gunman and a horseman, but he also certainly knew the craft of film and storytelling. We were never in a gunfight.”
John Wayne built up a character so larger than life that it threatened to take over his own life. Duke Morrison and John Wayne were separate beings. For instance, Morrison was more at home on the sea than on a prairie. There were aspects of Morrison in Wayne, perhaps his best and most honorable characteristics. But John Wayne was very much an ideal, bigger than one man could ever dare to be. Yet, somehow Morrison made it work.
John Wayne and Wyatt Earp
Like the tall tales he inspired to be, there’s a bit of myth to go along with the truth of Wayne’s early days. For instance, it’s unknown if John Wayne actually met cowboy Wyatt Earp in the flesh. His son Ethan certainly seems to believe he did. But Ethan was born in Wayne’s later years when Wayne’s legacy was already fastened and secured.
According to American Cowboy, there have been accounts that discredit Wayne and Earp ever sharing the same room. But it sure makes a great story if he did. One cowboy near the end of the trail and one just starting his journey. It’s the kind of magic Hollywood brings together. Whether Wayne met Earp or just heard his exploits second-hand, the actor did base his character off of Earp’s honor code.
Like Earp, Wayne created a noble cowboy trying to live an honest life. And like Earp, his name still stands tall in the dust.