John Wayne: Discovering The Hero Within The Man

By Cassandra Fournet on November 4, 2012

The following is a telephone interview between Brian Downes, the Executive Director of The John Wayne Birthplace, located in Winterset, Iowa, and Texas A&M journalism student, Cassandra Fournet. The questions asked, pertain to the facts and history of the life of  American, movie actor, John Wayne.

Cassandra Fournet:  How long have you worked at The John Wayne Birthplace?

Brian Downes:  Since the spring of 2008.

CF:  Why did you start working at The John Wayne Birthplace?

BD:  I worked 35 years with the Chicago Tribune Newspaper and met John Wayne. We worked on a few newspaper articles together. He was against mandatory retirement and had an opinion about everything. His centennial celebration came along and I wanted to be a part of it. Then, a year later I was hired.

CF:  Why do you like John Wayne?

BD:  He always felt comfortable. He was like the rugged characters in my own life.  It is like he was one of us. Even his neighbors liked him.

CF:  What is your favorite John Wayne fact?

BD:  He was very proud of his” Irishness.”

CF:  What is your favorite John Wayne film?

BD:  Quiet Man (1952) and True Grit(1969).  Quiet Man, because I am proud of my “Irishness” and  it was good in every regard for script, landscape, music, and acting. It was hands down a perfect movie.  True  Grit, because it showed that a flawed man, no matter how many flaws, if his underlying values are descent, in his core, he is still a hero no matter how flawed. [The character]Rooster kind of reminds me of me.

CF:  How did John Wayne get his nickname, “Duke”?

BD:  When he lived in Glendale, California he had a pet, Airedale dog named “Duke”. He walked from home to school everyday and would walk past a firehouse and the firemen would say,” Here comes Big Duke and Little Duke.” Wayne’s real name was Marion Robert Morrison. It sounded like a girls name so he didn’t like it. As most boys wouldn’t.

CF:  How did John Wayne catch his big break?

BD:  The first time, he had a football scholarship to Southern California University. He had a surfing accident and lost his scholarship so, he found a job working at Fox Studios, as a furniture mover and prop man.  A couple of directors saw the way he moved and thought he was graceful.  It was silent movies he did first, and he was not credited so they have been lost.  The second time, he starred in The Big Trail (1930), filmed in Canada, but the screen format was too wide for most theaters  He worked in “B” western movies and did that until Stagecoach (1939) came along.

CF:  What were John Wayne’s most famous movies?

BD:   Stagecoach(1939), Red River(1948), She wore a Yellow Ribbon(1949), Hondo(1953), The Searchers(1956), True Grit (1969), and The Shootist(1976) .  While filming The Shootist, the script writers wrote a scene where John Wayne would have to shoot his opponent in the back.  Wayne said he would never shoot a man in the back, so they changed his original script. John Wayne didn’t know he was dying of cancer during this movie, and most people think he knew and that is what made the movie so powerful. This is not true, that is not what made the movie powerful.

CF:  In which movies did John Wayne die?

BD: Central Airport(1933), Fighting Seabees(1944), Wake of the Red Witch(1948), Sands of Iwo Jima(1949), The Alamo(1960), The Cowboys(1972), and The Shootist(1976).

CF:  What were the first and last movies Wayne starred in?

BD:  The Big Trail (1930) and The Shootist (1976).

CF:  What was John Wayne’s favorite movie he starred in ?

BD:  He was very fond of different pictures for different things. He thought The Searchers may have been his best picture because he had to pull things out of himself that he didn’t know he had, because of the darkness of the role.  It was a darker side of John Wayne then people weren’t used to.  Writers think, The Searchers (1956), was racist, but his family  underwent Comanche slaughter. It was more just about vengeance.  True Grit– he loved it because of his academy award. The Quiet Man, he said, was a marvelous time because he got to work in Ireland with his family and friends.  She Wore a Yellow Ribbon– it was a real stretch for him as an actor because he was in his 40’s trying to act in his 60’s. He had all the old man characteristics down, and that was the first time he played a father figure.

CF:  Did John Wayne only star in westerns ? Why did he never switch to a different genre?

BD:  Westerns were a paycheck. He wanted to go beyond that, but he had a family to feed.  His pictures were popular in the south and southwest, in Saturday, morning matinees . He was type cast as a western actor. After [producer]John Ford and Stagecoach, you name it he played it.

CF:  Who was John Wayne’s favorite leading lady?

BD:  Maureen O’hara. They were in  five movies together and people thought of them as husband and wife.  He had a love affair with Marlene Deitrich. They starred in 2 movies together, Seven Sinners(1940) and Pittsburgh(1942).

CF:  What was John Wayne’s relationship with Lucille Ball?

BD:  They were great pals. They admired each other and both worked at Paramount together. I’m not sure how they met. At one point Maureen O’Hara and Lucille ball were roommates, so maybe that is how.

CF:  Who was John Wayne’s favorite actor?

BD:  In his early days his heroes were  silent movie actors, Harey Cary and Douglas Fairbanks. Later on he admired, Clint Eastwood, Lee Marvin, William Holden, and he would probably consider himself the best actor. Later in his life his pals were his neighbors. He didn’t pal around with the movie people.

CF:  Which character did John Wayne relate to the most?

BD:  Ethan Edwards in The Searchers.  He thought that was his biggest reach as an actor. He had to reach deep into himself to pull out that performance.

CF:  Did John Wayne come up with his comic one-liners or did the script writers?

BD:  Those were the script writers. James Edward Grant was his favorite script writer. He liked writers that could write for his character. He loved the dialogue in True Grit.  I saw both and the old and new versions were both true to the book and two great pictures. True Grit is kind of like the “Robin Hood” story, they keep filming it over and over again with different actors.

CF:  In real life, did John Wayne, the man, act different than the characters he played?

BD:  He was the same guy. Even his kids said he was the same fella’ he just wore different clothes at home was all. He was loud, and generous to a fault. He was the same guy .

CF:  Did fame ever take a toll on John Wayne’s private life?

BD:  Yes, but he firmly believed that he wouldn’t have the lifestyle he led without the fans. He never treated fans rudely. He would stop for autographs, and take a break during his meals.  It was a sacrifice of his private time. He ate a lot of cold dinners.

CF:  Did John Wayne struggle in his personal life as do other actors/actresses?

BD:  His mother didn’t love him too much.  Everything I am saying is just speculation, maybe because he was a 13 pound baby. She also resented that Duke’s Dad and John Wayne became close and so her husband was never good enough in her eyes.  John Wayne sent his mother and her second husband on an all-round expense paid trip, on a cruise. She came back and complained. She took out her resentment for her husband on her oldest son. Nothing he did was ever good enough. That is hard for anybody to live with.

CF:  Which brand of cowboy boots did John Wayne wear and what was his size?

BD:  His boots were custom made by the Italian boot maker,  Lucchese , in San Antonio. Their company has moved to El Paso. He was a nine and a half, which is small for a man of his size.

CF:  Did John Wayne have a favorite brand of jeans?

BD:  No, all of his jeans were custom-made by the studio’s western costumers.

CF:  Did John Wayne own any horses in real-life? 

BD:  He never owned a horse in his life or ever lived on a ranch. When they lived in Iowa they didn’t have one.  He had one when he was a young kid in California and rode it to school.  Horses were part of his job, not his life. The movie horses came from Fat Jones’ Stable in Hollywood . “Dollar”, was a Bay Gelding, and was his favorite horse. He rode it in most of his final pictures. He liked it because it was well- behaved, good looking, good size, and well mannered. He rode this horse in True Grit, The Shootist, and half a dozen other pictures.

CF:  When John Wayne had a day off what was his favorite thing to do?

BD:  He enjoyed his home in Newport Beach. If he had more than one day off he would go on his yacht named , “The Wild Goose”.  It was a wooden, Navy Minesweeper; a small ship.  It was personally outfitted for himself.  He would take it to Mexico in the wintertime and Alaska in the summertime. He went to Europe in it once, in 1963. The ship is still there at Newport Beach.

CF:  Is there any John Wayne fact that would be interesting to know about?

BD:  Joseph Stalin put a hit on him because he thought killing him would demoralize the United States.

CF:  What do you think made John Wayne the epitome of male masculinity?

BD:  His reliability and steadfast character. He wasn’t going to be the guy who shot someone in the back. He was very protective of his character. He was generous to a fault. He was truly a man of his word. If he told you he was going to do something, it wasn’t an option, it was an obligation. He even wrote a couple of essays at my request.

CF:  Why do you think John Wayne endures?

BD:  John Wayne endures because he is so common, because we see ourselves in him. He is a role model for young men and women wish the young men were more like John Wayne. The girls say where is my John Wayne? It’s in a song, she waits for a John Wayne and he never comes. They want someone like him because they want someone who is going to protect them and be true to them.  There was a quote he once said, “You shouldn’t go to the movies unless you believe in heroes.” I love that quote.

Known for his many western films, John Wayne is a symbol of an old way-of- life people wish still existed. He represents a time period when chivalry was practiced, a man never backed down from a fight, fear may have been felt, but was never shown, hard work was the norm, and a man always kept his word.

As I spoke to Brian Downes I caught a glimpse of this long-lost civilization.  I was shown that there are still people willing to take the time out of their busy schedule to help a complete and insignificant stranger. It was through these actions that I was taught John Wayne’s greatest lesson.  It is not by big, dramatic gestures, but by small everyday courtesies, that a hero is born.

John Wayne

 “Courage is being scared to death…and saddling up anyway.”

                                                              -John Wayne

By Cassandra Fournet

Uloop Writer
I am 20 years old and was born and raised in League City, Texas. I am currently a senior enrolled at Texas A&M University, majoring in telecommunications and minoring in journalism. I also have an internship with the Houston Family Magazine.Reading is my favorite hobby, and I love adventure! I have three heroes and they are my Mom, My "G" (grandma), and Lucille Ball, because they are examples of three, solid women who always leave me laughing.

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