How John Wayne Became John Wayne
Credit: Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images

Before John Wayne became one of America's most iconic actors, he was a good-looking ex-football player embarrassed by his dreams of stardom. In his book John Wayne: The Life and Legend, Scott Eymann relies on interviews with the actor's friends and associates as well as material drawn from years worth of audiences with "The Duke" himself to create an indelible portrait of a complicated man who loved Latin women, big country, and the pioneer spirit he came to embody for so many Americans.

The story of the christening of John Wayne varies only slightly in the telling.

Raoul Walsh had approached Fox Film Corporation head Winfield Sheehan regarding a western about the pioneers' trek west. The film was to be based on a Saturday Evening Post serial by Hal G. Evarts entitled The Shaggy Legion that ran from November 30, 1929, to January 4, 1930, and was later published as a novel. The serial's title referred to the last great herd of buffalo, but Walsh's imagination converted it into a vast saga of western expansion, a sound version of The Covered Wagon or The Iron Horse – two of the greatest hits of the silent era. Fox signed Evarts to a screenwriting contract in February 1930 that paid $1,000 a week.

That was easy; the hard part was the casting. As Evarts would write, "the male lead must be a true replica of the pioneer type — somewhat diffident with women, being unused to them, but a bear-cat among the men of the plains. Walsh was afraid that the sophistication of an experienced actor would creep through and be apparent to the audience. As against that was the probability that a man chosen from the ranks of the inexperienced would be unable to carry the part in so big a picture."

When people at the studio grumbled about Walsh's plans to hire Duke Morrison, an unknown, he told them, "I don't want an actor. I want someone to get out there and act natural – be himself.... I'll make an actor out of him if need be."

As Walsh said at the time, "If there was one thing I did not want, it was an established star for the role of Breck Coleman.... I wanted... a personality, not an actor."

Walsh remembered that the critical moment came when he saw Morrison lugging some furniture across the soundstage for John Ford's Born Reckless, which was being shot early in 1930. "He was in his early 20s – laughing and the expression on his face was so warm and wholesome that I stopped and watched. I noticed the fine physique of the boy, his careless strength, the grace of his movement."

Walsh walked over and asked the boy his name. The gangling youngster looked him over and said, "I know you. You directed What Price Glory. The name's Morrison." He explained that he wanted to be in pictures, but "this is as far as I've come."

"What else can you do besides handle props?" Walsh asked. "I can play football."

"I believe you. Let's see how much you want to be an actor. Let your hair grow. Come and see me in two weeks."

Duke believed that Walsh had first noticed him at a Fox company picnic a week or so earlier. Morrison was hungover, having a beer, wearing a Harris tweed suit, and eventually competed in a walking contest, which he narrowly won against a "little grip that's just right on my ass."

A few days later, Walsh saw Wayne crossing the lot with a table on his head and "it must have reminded him of the picnic. Actually, I was goin' to a Ford set, and Walsh asked [producer] Edmund Grainger who I was, and Eddie yelled to me. I came over, we were introduced, and then Walsh came over to the set. I guess he talked to Ford then. That night, as I was leaving, Eddie came around: 'Jesus, don't cut your hair – Walsh wants to take a test of you for this picture.'"

The clock was ticking — the picture had to start shooting in the spring — and Walsh needed a leading man right away. "The part wasn’t too exacting," remembered Walsh. "What I needed was a feeling of honesty, of sincerity, and Wayne had it."

In the future, Duke would claim that he was thunderstruck by the invitation to act, that "it was the furthest thing from my mind.” But in 1946, he confided to the gossip columnist Louella Parsons that John Ford thought he had the makings of an actor rather than a technician, and "I was ashamed to admit I was hipped on the idea of acting. That's why I started in with the props."

There was a screen test of course – million-dollar movies weren't hung on people who might not photograph. Before that, Morrison was sent to a drama coach, who he recalled as one of many "phonies" who washed up in Hollywood after the coming of sound to teach elocution. "All day long, this drama coach had me declaiming in deep, stentorian tones. Over and over again, I had to roar, 'Tell that great white mountain hello for me.' After a few weeks of that, I quit. A Shakespearian delivery wasn't for me."

Morrison reported back to Raoul Walsh, who set up a different test. There was no script, no lines to memorize. Instead, Walsh had Ian Keith and Marguerite Churchill, both experienced actors, ask him questions in character, with Duke responding in character.

How long was the trip? Will we see buffalo? Any danger of Indian attack? Wayne felt self-conscious with the camera on him, a feeling that would plague him for years, so he combatively turned the tables. "Where you from, Mister?" he asked Keith. "Why do you want to go west? Can you handle a rifle?"

Walsh called "Cut!" A week later John Ford told the boy he had the job. He was no longer making $35 a week; Fox generously gave their new star a whopping $75 a week.

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Since Marion "Duke" Morrison was not a name that carried much synchronicity for the part of a fearless young scout, studio head Winfield Sheehan decided to change his name. Raoul Walsh claimed that he came up with the name "Wayne," and that Sheehan added the "John," but Duke said that the whole thing was Sheehan’s idea. Sheehan was a fan of Mad Anthony Wayne, the Revolutionary War general, because "he had been tough and a non-conformist." The "John" seems to have been an afterthought, but it worked – gave the two halves of the name the equivalence of two blocks of granite that miraculously fit together.

As far as the newly christened star was concerned, the name was irrelevant. "I was known as Marion Morrison to my family and older friends, and I had become Duke Morrison to my generation – neither of which is a good theatrical name. Duke Morrison would sound too much like a stunt man or something, and Marion Morrison would have probably got me in more fights than I’d normally get in." In Fox’s eyes, "Marion" was a problem even retrospectively; they decided to tell the press, in the person of Louella Parsons, that the boy's name had actually been Wayne Morrison before they changed his name.

Excerpted from John Wayne: The Life and Legend by Scott Eyman. With permission of the publisher, Simon and Schuster. This selection may not be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form by any means without the prior written permission of the publisher.