2004 37¢ Legends of Hollywood: John Wayne
US #3876 – Wayne was the 10th honoree in the Legends of Hollywood Series.

John Wayne was born Marion Robert Morrison in Winterset, Iowa, on May 26, 1907.

He was named Marion Morrison after his grandfather. The Morrisons later moved to a homestead in Glendale, California, where Wayne’s father opened a pharmacy in the same building as a movie theater. Wayne was allowed to go to the movies for free several times a week. It was also in California that Wayne’s father taught him to ride horses, handle firearms, and to stand tall as a man.

Wayne received the nickname “Little Duke” from a fireman he saw every morning as he walked with his large Airedale Terrier dog, Duke. The name stayed with him for the rest of his life.

In high school, Wayne was both an honor student and an excellent athlete. He received a football scholarship to the University of Southern California, and while there, worked as a scenery mover for Fox Studios. After suffering a bodysurfing injury and losing his scholarship, Wayne was soon cast in bit parts in movies.

Wayne earned his first spot in a movie replacing a stunt man who refused to go in the water off Catalina Island because it was too rough. The director on the film was John Ford, who later launched Wayne’s career by starring him in the movie Stagecoach. However, Wayne would make more than 80 grade-B films before then.

2012 45¢ John Ford
US #4668 – John Ford was reportedly “the only man who could make John Wayne cry.”

Wayne’s first starring role came in the 1930 film The Big Trail, Hollywood’s first epic Western sound motion picture. It was at this point that he adopted his stage name. The film’s director first suggested Anthony Wayne, after Revolutionary War General “Mad” Anthony Wayne, but Fox executives didn’t like it. They eventually settled on “John Wayne,” though Wayne himself wasn’t even present for the discussion or decision.

1990 25¢ Classic Films: Stagecoach
US #2448 honors Wayne’s breakout film – Stagecoach.

Wayne continued to make predominantly Westerns, but it wasn’t until Stagecoach in 1939, that he attained national stardom. This movie was director John Ford’s most-acclaimed film. It was nominated for seven Academy Awards and won two.  It introduced America to a rising young star named John Wayne.

Wayne’s first color film was Shepherd of the Hills, in 1941. One of his most popular roles was as a heroic pilot in The High and the Mighty, in 1954. Critics and fans alike praise his portrayal of Ethan Edwards in The Searchers (1956) as one of his best and most complex performances.

Wayne became an American icon and his name and image became synonymous with the rugged Wild West. Wayne’s film performances made him a symbol of the American cowboy, the courageous, patriotic soldier, and the fearless lawman in search of justice. His performance in True Grit in 1969 earned him the Oscar for Best Actor. In 1980, President Jimmy Carter awarded him America’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Wayne played the male lead role in 142 of 153 films, setting an industry record. As Hollywood’s most outspoken conservative Republican, Wayne was asked to run for president in 1968. He declined because he didn’t believe an actor could be elected to the nation’s highest office.

2004 37¢ John Wayne Classic First Day Cover
US #3876 – Classic First Day Cover

John Wayne starred in over 200 movies during a span of 50 years. Sadly, it was the filming of a 1955 movie, The Conqueror that many think killed the “Duke.” The filming took place near a nuclear test site where the radioactive bombs had recently been dropped. Although most knew about the radiation (there’s even a picture of Wayne with a Geiger counter) they obviously didn’t realize the danger they were in.

1990 25¢ Stagecoach Classic First Day Cover
US #2448 – Classic First Day Cover

Within twenty years, many of the residents of St. George, Utah, and 91 of the 200 members of the cast and crew of the film had developed cancer. By 1979, all of the film’s stars had died of cancer, with Wayne among them, passing away on June 11, 1979.

FREE printable This Day in History album pages
Download a PDF of today’s article.
Get a binder or other supplies to create your This Day in History album.  

Discover what else happened on This Day in History.

Did you like this article? Click here to rate:
4.9/5 - (67 votes)
Share this Article


  1. A real history lesson. Did not know how he got cancer but always thought it was from smoking. A real surprise to learn how he got it. Mr. Wayne was a true hero.

    1. It was from smoking. And the stomach cancer, according to a show on cable called “Autopsy: The Last Days of…” it was because of his drinking. The doctor said he wasn’t an alcoholic but heavy alcohol use can cause other problems.
      Apparently the story about the high radiation on the set was deemed as inaccurate.

  2. Hondo, North to Alaska, and The Alamo are favorites of mine.
    I did not know about the radiation poisoning before now. That is an American tragedy for all of those families.

  3. I too was unaware of that fact about the radiation influence. The “Quiet Man “ is my favorite as well as the “Searchers” . At 6ft4in he was probably intimidating. Definitely a favorite.

  4. This Hollywood legend made sure African-Americans were not overlooked in the movie business by hiring them in various respectable roles – one of the first actors to do so. All of his movies are my favorites, especially “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence” with Jimmy Stewart and Lee Marvin as well as “The Shootist” (maybe the best acting of his career), with Lauren Bacall and Ron Howard. Shamefully he was snubbed of several Oscar’s in his career.

  5. Great article. Didn’t realize about the cancer. Great film but often overlooked: Island in The Sky, also starring James Arnass of Matt Dillon/Gunsmoke TV fame.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *