The Tragic Death Of John Wayne

You could probably call him Marion Morrison and he'd answer, since that was his name at birth. Alliterative, but not quite – there. His friends and fans called him Duke, which was the name of his childhood dog, and in fact, his first screen credit was "Duke Morrison."

Then lightning struck in the form of an insightful film director, Raoul Walsh, a one-eyed director with just a few years of experience under his belt. Morrison had dropped out of college to do manual labor at film studios, then picked up a couple of small parts here and there — he was a friend of then-rising director John Ford — and was cast in his first lead by Walsh, a western titled The Big Trail in 1930. Walsh didn't think "Marion Morrison" (or even Duke Morrison, probably) had the ring of "tall in the saddle" to it, and so Marion/Duke was rechristened John Wayne.

It didn't help. The movie wasn't particularly successful. And even with the new moniker, Wayne found himself churning through low-budget westerns, even performing from time to time as a singing cowboy known as "Singing Sandy." (You can't make this stuff up.)

But nine years later, lightning, or something like it, struck again, through Wayne's buddy John Ford, who cast Marion/John in Stagecoach, playing The Ringo Kid. And a star really was born.

John Wayne directing "The Green Berets"

Wayne (we'll stick with Wayne from now on, partly because he did) went on to play mostly quiet, strong, manly men in his long and remarkably successful career. There were a few exceptions — his take on Genghis Khan in The Conqueror is almost unwatchable, and although people trot out The Quiet Man every St. Patrick's Day, his Irish accent comes and goes (though he's playing a boxer, so maybe — brain trauma?). He specialized in all manner of action hero, often in westerns, but also military figures, although a college football injury disqualified him from actual military service.

Eventually, Wayne became known almost as much for his conservative political views as for his acting. He produced, directed, and starred in two films designed to make his points, playing Davy Crockett in The Alamo in 1960 and, at the height of the Vietnam War, The Green Berets. He was awarded a Best Actor Oscar in 1969 for True Grit.

Wayne liked a drink and he liked a cigarette. The chain smoker was diagnosed with lung cancer as early as 1964, forcing the removal of one lung and four ribs. In 1976's The Shootist, he plays a man dying of cancer. It was his last film.

Fifteen years after beating lung cancer, he was diagnosed with stomach cancer. Two days before his death, he converted to Catholicism. He died June 11, 1979.