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Riding Into the Sunset

On June 11, 1979, film legend John Wayne took his final ride into the sunset. Born in Winterset, Iowa, 72 years earlier, young Marion Robert Morrison, couldn’t have ever imagined that one day he’d reign over Hollywood as “The Duke”.

The nickname “Duke” had stuck since Marion Morrison’s childhood when he had an Airedale terrier named Duke. Because the boy and his canine pal were so inseparable, the duo became known as “Big Duke” and “Little Duke”.

It was likely that Marion “Duke” Morrison would have considered becoming a sports star as he played football at Glendale High School in suburban Los Angeles before winning a football scholarship to USC. In truth, Duke Morrison had set his sights on earning a law degree at the university. However, a sports accident in his junior year (reportedly a collarbone injury while surfing at Newport Beach) put an end to his time as a USC Trojan and he lost his scholarship.

However, Hollywood was already calling the 6’ 4” handsome young Duke Morrison and he had, ironically, gotten a bit part as an extra in a 1927 black and white film, “The Drop Kick” where he played (what else) a football player.

With the loss of his college scholarship, and a dream of becoming a lawyer gone, his USC football coach, who was friends with silent screen cowboy star Tom Mix and film director John Ford, stepped up to help Duke Morrison. The coach asked the Hollywood heavyweights to give Duke a job at a studio prop house.

Director John Ford took a liking to Duke and cast the handsome young man as an extra in a few of his film productions. The budding young actor’s friendship with Ford landed him a breakout role in Ford’s 1939 film, “Stagecoach” where, appearing as John Wayne (a name given him by Director Raoul Walsh while Duke was working in Walsh’s “The Bg Trail”) received star billing along with the lovely Claire Trevor.

John Wayne’s success as the iconic on-screen cowboy is legendary. Starring in more than 140 movies, Wayne epitomized the strong Western hero – a man of few words but a lot of action. He was awarded the Academy Award for “Best Actor” in 1969 for his role as J. Rooster Cogburn, a one-eye U.S. Marshall, wearing a black eye patch in “True Grit”.

Receiving the Oscar by presenter Barbra Streisand, Wayne wiped a tear from his eye while holding his golden statue then quipped, “Wow. If I’d known that …I’d have put that patch on 35 years earlier.” Wayne’s speech then turned to a more serious tone. He shared with the audience that he’d picked up Oscars before but only for friends including John Ford and Gary Cooper. He added that, unlike those previous acceptance speeches for his friends where he’d felt carefree and witty, that upon receiving the Oscar for “True Grit” he felt, “… humble and grateful and I owe thanks to many, many people.” That short speech was pure John Wayne. A few carefully chosen words – delivered in the slow, famous drawl.

Aside from his fame as an actor, John Wayne had a long history in Freemasonry. During his teenage years in Glendale, he was a member of the Glendale Chapter of the Order of DeMolay, a Masonic youth group which teaches leadership skills. Later in his life, Wayne was awarded the DeMolay Legion of Honor.

Like many of Hollywood’s leading actors, directors and producers at the time, Wayne became a Mason. He took his degrees at McDaniel Lodge No. 56 in Tucson, Arizona. He later became a 32nd Degree Scottish Rite Mason and was a member of the York Rite before joining Al Malaikah Shrine in Los Angeles.

Interestingly, several of the men who had helped to launch Wayne’s film career including Tom Mix were also members of the Masonic Fraternity.

To learn more about Hollywood’s Western film heroes, go to our website menu and click on Virtual Tour, then choose the option “On-Screen Cowboys”.

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