John Wayne Credits His Iconic Cowboy Persona to Wyatt Earp: Here’s Why

by Matthew Wilson
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Somewhere between truth and Hollywood legend, John Wayne met and became friends with the legendary cowboy Wyatt Earp. Whether or not the two actually crossed paths, Wayne has Earp to thank for his on-screen persona.

The character of John Wayne was forged in the fires of Hollywood during the early 1900s. If you subscribe to legend, a young Wayne met the cowboy while working on set. The future actor had dropped out of college after a bodysurfing injury and got a job as a prop hand in the movie business.

It is rumored that Wayne and Earp met on the set of a western by director John Ford. Earp acted as an adviser on the film, giving it an air of authenticity. The cowboy did become a leading authority on all things Old West in Hollywood. Between takes, Earp took recounted tales of his adventures in the Old West. As a sheriff in Tombstone, Earp believed in only using his weapon as a last resort. But he was also quick on the draw.

According to Hollywood myth, Wayne eventually became good friends with Earp. When the cowboy died in 1929, Wayne served as one of his pallbearers. It’s nice to imagine one of the Old West’s legendary figures passing the baton to one of Hollywood’s iconic cowboys. But it’s more likely to be on the side of a myth than fact.

John Wayne Modeled Himself After Wyatt Earp

A young Wayne was likely to have heard about Earp’s exploits, though. The cowboy did have conversations with John Ford. Whether Wayne was present or not is unknown. But the actor is likely to have heard these tales second-hand from the director. In many ways, he tried to model his characters after Earp (minus the occasional villain or two).

For instance, the actor made director Don Siegel re-edit a scene in his final film “The Shootist.” In the initial scene, it appeared that Wayne’s character shot someone in the back. The actor explained that his cowboy character would never commit such an act. Likewise, Wayne’s on-screen characters adopted the stance of refusing to shoot an unarmed man. It’s a code that Earp lived by when he refused to shoot a man as he ran away.

As an actor, Wayne stood on the backs of the great Wild West figures that came before him like Earp. It’s not hard to imagine the two meeting and becoming good friends. But Earp remained one of several influences in Wayne’s developing career.

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