Meet John Wayne’s Stunt Double and Real-Life Cowboy, Yakima Canutt

by Katie Maloney

Who taught John Wayne to be John Wayne? A cowboy named Yakima Canutt.

Well, his name was actually Enos. Just like Wayne’s real first name was Marion. Both of them changed their first names and that’s about the only thing the two have in common. Although Wayne played one of the toughest cowboys around, he was anything but that in real life. Whereas Canutt grew up on the edge of Washington’s frontier. Canutt’s family were Oregon pioneers in the 1850s who moved to the area to farm and ranch. Canutt grew up riding horses, busting broncos, and bringing down steers. To say that he was as tough as the character’s John Wayne played would be a lie – he was tougher.

By the time he was 20-years old, Canutt was a major rodeo star. Legend says that he picked up his nickname, Yakima or Yak, at a Pendleton Round-Up in Oregon. Although he wasn’t from Yakima, some say a reporter mistakenly called him by the region’s name. The name stuck. Canutt followed the path of many cowboys by trying his hand in Hollywood during the rodeo off-season. He made his first film debut in 1915 and made appearances in several other films. However, he was never able to make it as an actor in the “talkie” films because his vocal cords were damaged during World War I. But his voice had no effect on his ability to do his own stunts, something he quickly became known for throughout Hollywood.

Yakima Canutt performs history-making stunts in Stagecoach.

Yakima Canutt Taught John Wayne How To Be A Cowboy

Canutt could leapfrog onto a horse or fall off it, arrange a wagon crash, or stage a convincing fight scene. And even more importantly, he could teach others how to do it too. He even invented techniques of his own and developed equipment that allowed for more realistic and dramatic violence like train crashes and wagon attacks. With his inventions, he was able to boost the entertainment value of a scene while protecting actors and fellow stunt performers.

In 1930, he met John Wayne. Wayne was fascinated by Canutt and carefully watched the way he talked and carried himself. A cowboy doesn’t try to be a cowboy, he simply is one. Canutt was the perfect example of this with his strong, macho man nature without unnecessary swagger. Wayne knew he was the model cowboy. Wayne even modeled the way he talked after Canutt, slower and stronger, especially when he got angry.

Canutt worked with action stars including Douglas Fairbanks and Errol Flynn. He acted as a stand-in for films including Gone With the Wind, Zorro and Lone Ranger. Soon, Canutt was credited with basically inventing the stuntman profession. During a time when we rely so heavily on special effects, it’s pretty amazing to watch classic films and realize that an actual human did every single one of those stunts. It’s even cooler to be able to put a name to many of those stunts – Yakima Canutt.