If you’re wondering why film star John Wayne didn’t use his real name as his stage name, that’s because his real name wasn’t “Duke” – that was the nickname he went by from the time he was about 9 or 10 years old on. No, his real name was Marion Mitchell Morrison.
The name Marion, which is also a girl’s name, gave Wayne trouble in school when he was a kid, Wayne biographer Scott Eyman told Yahoo! Entertainment. And the name Mitchell came about after his baby brother was born, when his parents decided to take the middle name he had at birth (Robert) and give it to his brother instead.
So Wayne had already changed his name several times by the time he got to Hollywood. Picking a new name was no big deal. It was just a matter of choosing the right one.
From ‘Duke’ to John Wayne
When Wayne was about 10 years old, his family had a dog they named Duke. The Airedale Terrier weighed about 80 pounds and went everywhere with Wayne.
So people took to calling them Big Duke (the dog) and Little Duke (Wayne). According to Classic Country Music, the nicknames came from some local firefighters who had grown attached to Wayne.
The nickname “Duke” was so important to Wayne that his heirs filed a lawsuit against Duke University over the trademark rights to that name. The family was seeking to use the word “Duke” to sell bourbon stamped with Wayne’s image, Yahoo! News reported.
But when Wayne became an actor, he didn’t want to go by “Duke Morrison.” The name “sounds like a stuntman,” Wayne said, according to Eyman. So after one appearance, 1929’s “Words and Music,” as “Duke Morrison,” Wayne decided to come up with a stage name.
“Back then the studios didn’t like ethnic names,” Eyman told Yahoo!. “Winfield Sheehan, who ran Fox Studios, was a big fan of ‘Mad Anthony’ Wayne, the Revolutionary War general — that’s where the ‘Wayne’ came from. And ‘John’ just sort of came up in conversations because it seemed to fit with ‘Wayne.’”
John Wayne it was. The name stuck, and Wayne shot to stardom with Westerns from “Stagecoach” to “The Quiet Man” to “True Grit.”
Wayne Insisted On “Duke” Offstage
While the name John Wayne was very lucky for him, Wayne continued to tell people to call him “Duke.”
“The guy you see on the screen isn’t really me,” Wayne said in 1957. “I’m Duke Morrison, and I never was and never will be a film personality like John Wayne. I know him well. I’m one of his closest students. I have to be. I make a living out of him.”
In the end, the name on the death certificate when Wayne died of stomach cancer was Marion Mitchell Morrison.
According to Biography.com, Wayne by then had done his share of charitable work toward the battle against cancer. His kids launched the John Wayne Cancer Foundation in his memory. And according to its website, Wayne was “passionate” about helping other people fight cancer right up until the end.