Born Marion Morrison in 1907 in Winterset, Iowa, his family later relocated to Glendale, California, which led to his soon getting odd jobs in the film industry.
After many bit parts he was set to star in Raoul Walsh's epic 1930 western "The Big Trail" but they decided the name Marion Morrison didnt suit him so "John Wayne" was finally born! Duke is very good in this film, obviously "green", but he had an undeniable screen presence even back then.
"The Big Trail" was not a box office success, largely due to the fact that it was shot in a widescreen process and not many theaters could even show the film because of lacking the proper projecting equipment! So "John Wayne" was relegated to bit parts and eventually starring in dozens of B-westerns throughout the 1930's. Having seen the lion's share of these films, they are all very similar, very fast paced, and often co-starring Gabby Hayes and stunt man Yakima Canutt and are generally a lot of fun! Duke is always worth seeing in these and one can see the gradual honing of his onscreen persona - the speech, walk and all the mannerisms that became his hallmark.
Then came a little film in 1939 called "Stagecoach", directed by John Ford, who Duke had played many bit roles for and was already very good friends with. That film would make John Wayne a star and all it takes is one viewing to see why. His first appearance in the film is an unforgettable, iconic John Wayne image. The film itself is a western masterpiece and contains one of the all-time great stunts performed, of course, by Yakima Canutt and later paid tribute to in "Raiders of the Lost Ark"
A publicity still for "Angel and the Bad Man", the first film by his own Batjac production company. Duke's performance, the cast, the story and production all make this one of his most enjoyable non-John Ford westerns. His friend and mentor, Harry Carey, Sr. is a complete joy in this film!
One of Dukes absolute best films, the great Howard Hawks western "Red River". Upon seeing this film, John Ford is reported to have said "I didnt know the big lug could act!" This film contains what is easily my favorite Montgomery Clift performance.
"Lest We Forget"
Duke with co-star Victor McLaglen in "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon" the second film in John Ford's legendary "Cavalry Trilogy". Duke gave a performance of incredible depth and sensitivity and it remains, in my opinion, one of his best. The film is a beautiful technicolor feast for the eyes, well-acted by all and filled with great touches of action, humor and drama.
"That'll be the Day!"
John Wayne's darkest and most intense character, Ethan Edwards, from John Ford's incredible masterpiece "The Searchers". Duke's performance in this film is absolutely towering! He is completely unforgettable and one can not possibly imagine anyone else in the role, he so completely makes it his own. This film is cited by the likes of George Lucas and Martin Scorsese as altering their very lives, so I think any praise I give it is comparitively feeble!
"Fill your hands you son-of-a-bitch!"
The Duke finally won an Oscar in 1969 for his colorful and thoroughly enjoyable turn as boozing one-eyed fat man "Rooster Cogburn" in Henry Hathaway's "True Grit".An iconic American image. I could never pick one favorite actor but the Duke is certainly one of the top 5 or 6 on my list.