John Wayne, the iconic Hollywood star whose films like How the West Was Won and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon can be streamed on BBC iPlayer, was once left so embarrassed by one of his performances that he nearly gave up acting, unearthed accounts show. Nicknamed the Duke, Wayne enjoyed a stellar career in Tinsel Town, earning credits in more than 180 films and TV productions. His career peaked in 1970 when he clinched the fabled Academy Award for Best Actor he craved.
But Wayne, born in Iowa in 1907, nearly quit the profession that made him one of the Golden Age of Cinema’s most profitable and popular stars after one of his performances in a romantic comedy fell flat.Before finding fame as a Western megastar, the Duke appeared in flicks such as Brown of Harvard and Girls Demand Excitement, titles that drew upon his previous experience in American Football and sports.
It was his role in the latter that left him fearful that people were poking fun at him, the actor still in school at the time.In a 1976 interview, The Bobby Wygant Archive reported, Wayne felt he wouldn’t be popular among his schoolfriends, saying: “I can remember I was going down the street just talking to myself. Thinking, ‘Geez, how am I going to face…’“You know, most of my friends were still the kids in school. I just didn’t think I could face my fraternity brother if they saw this picture.”
His career soon moved on though, and next up for Wayne was the 1930 flick The Big Trail.This performance, though, left executives unsure of exactly what role Wayne was likely to secure as his career developed.Reflecting on that time, Wayne said: “So the next picture they had me do [after ‘The Big Trail’], they had been training some girls to play basketball for some musical that they were going to make that would cost a lot of money.“Now with the depression, they’ve decided against it. So now they have these girls that have learned to play basketball. So they write a story about a college in which the boys don’t want the girls there. So it was probably as ridiculous a thing as I’ve ever been in.”And then Wayne’s place on the frontier was found. He noted how the executives “put me in those quirky westerns”, and that for a period, he was able to develop a “beautiful life for about 10 years of hunting from September to March, and doing the four-and-a-half and five-day pictures”.But success still wasn’t guaranteed yet, and the actor pointed out how at one point he was “made into a singing cowboy”.
During a 1971 interview with Playboy, Wayne continued: “The fact that I couldn’t sing — or play the guitar — became terribly embarrassing to me, especially on personal appearances.”“Every time I made a public appearance, the kids insisted that I sing The Desert Song or something.“But I couldn’t take along the fella who played the guitar out on one side of the camera and the fella who sang on the other side of the camera.”It left Wayne so infuriated that he considered giving up a career in Hollywood altogether. He wanted to maintain a connection with his younger fans and felt that not being able to perform for them let them down.Wayne claimed that he then “quit doing those kinds of pictures,” adding: “It was 1939 before I made ‘Stagecoach’ — the picture that really made me a star.“Let’s say I hope that I appeal to the more carefree times in a person’s life rather than to his reasoning adulthood.“I’ve played many parts in which I’ve rebelled against something in society. I was never much of a joiner. Kids do join things, but they also like to consider themselves individuals capable of thinking for themselves. So do I.”
Wayne’s career in the film industry may not have happened at all had he not been injured while training to become an American Football star, according to the star’s friend Eugene Clarke, in Scott Eyman’s 2014 book John Wayne: The Life and Legend.He noted how Wayne went to Balboa and saw “a lot of USC sorority girls… and we decided to do a little showing off”. Clarke continued: “We jumped in the water — it was Duke’s idea — and started to do what the kids nowadays call body surfing.“The waves were pretty high, real rough, and one of them caught Duke and tossed him ashore with a badly wrenched right shoulder.”
Wayne needed time off training as he was in “pretty bad shape”, and his coach demanded one of the star’s fellow players to “hit him with your right shoulder… real hard”.Clarke added: “If Duke tried to do that with his injured shoulder, it would have killed him. So what he tried to do was twist his body around so he could block with the left shoulder. Well, Jones saw him do that and that was all he needed.“All hell broke loose. Jones accused the Duke of being yellow, of being afraid to block and demoted him to the scrubs.”