“I mean to kill you or see you hang in Judge Parker’s court.” “That’s mighty big talk for a one-eyed fat man!” “Fill your hand you sunnovabitch!” And with those words Rooster Cogburn, with the reins in his teeth, twirling his Winchester in his right hand, and cocking the Colt in his left hand, charges into the Ned Pepper gang and wins his first and only Oscar for his real self, John Wayne. The movie was True Grit and Wayne said it was the first movie in which he played a character instead of himself. “You’ve gone to seed Rooster,” says John McIntyre in the sequel, but the pot belly and eye-patch will be forever linked to John Wayne as one of his best, perhaps the best film role of his 169-film career spanning more than 50 years from 1925 to 1976.
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Depending upon the biographer consulted, Marion Michael Morrison — or Marion Robert Morrison — was born in 1907 or 1908 in Winterset, Iowa. His father was a pharmacist and due to bad health moved the family to California when Marion was five years old. The move was good for both father and son and young Marion attended Glendale High School where he starred on the football team. After being unable to win an appointment to Annapolis and a Navy career, he eventually secured a scholarship to USC and played in the Rose Bowl.
At the time, silent movie Western star Tom Mix arranged for summer jobs for USC football players and Morrison worked in the property department. He was spotted by John Ford, who hired him as an extra in what would be Morrison’s first film, Mother Machree, and set the stage for the future and some of the greatest films ever, John Ford Westerns.
As a youngster Morrison had a large dog named Duke, from which he received the nickname “Little Duke” and in his first movies he was known as Duke Morrison. Duke would appear in six more movies and was then hired by Raoul Walsh to play the scout in the epic Western, The Big Trail in 1930. Morrison arrived on set after two weeks of acting lessons and Walsh had to spend time washing away those lessons so he would be the natural person needed for the role. In later years Duke would say he never acted, but rather was just himself and we can thank Raoul Walsh for that.
Duke’s first Western film did not do well, however it gave him a new name and set the stage for a long line of “B” Westerns. Marion Morrison simply would not do, so Duke became John Wayne. During the 1930s John Wayne made a long string of, as he says, “Each film more forgettable than the last,” budget Westerns. In 1935 he starred as Stoney Brook in The Three Mesquiters movies and also began a long friendship with the man who was probably the greatest of all stunt men, Yakima Canutt. Not only did Canutt do many of the Duke’s stunts, he taught him how to stage fight scenes and also appeared as a heavy in many of Wayne’s and other’s budget Westerns.