John Wayne: After starring in more than 160 movies, ‘Duke’ left legacy worth imitating

Jeff Wayne Sutherland has been a John Wayne impersonator for 27 years

Jeff Wayne Sutherland, makes his living as a John Wayne impersonator, stands in his living room with his John Wayne memorabilia on Friday, August 16, 2019 in Lodi.
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Jeff Wayne Sutherland, makes his living as a John Wayne impersonator, stands in his living room with his John Wayne memorabilia on Friday, August 16, 2019 in Lodi.

When he’s in costume, walking the walk and talking the talk, crowds gather around John Wayne impersonator Jeff Wayne Sutherland. They pose for pictures, they banter, they play along with the persona.

It’s not surprising, given the army of lifelong fans who continue to pay homage to The Duke’s memory. After all, the actor was an international superstar, ranked the No. 1 box-office draw (or included in the top 10) every year for three decades. The authoritative American Film Institute has him at No. 13 on its list of the 25 greatest male actors in movie history.

In the day, through more than 160 movies over four decades (overwhelmingly Westerns), he seemed to embody the idealized values on which America was founded. Onscreen, he was the honorable, brave he-man other men aspired to be. His characters were tough but fair, rugged but sensitive. They persevered against the odds and inspired those around them.

Most of all, they were devoted to whatever noble cause was immediately at hand, from helping underdogs (“El Dorado,” “Hondo”) to rescuing those in peril (“The Searchers,” “Big Jake”).

As biographer Scott Eyman wrote in “John Wayne: The Life and Legend,” “He played the kind of man the audience needed to believe in – larger than life, transcending death.”

As for Wayne’s journey: Iowa-born and Southern California-raised Marion Mitchell Morrison won a football scholarship to UCLA, but a shoulder injury while body-surfing forced him to abandon his plan to become a lawyer.

Instead, he worked as a prop man, stuntman and extra for the Fox Film Corporation, later 20th Century Fox. Through his friendship with director John Ford, Wayne landed small roles in a long string of B movies. His first starring role was in 1930, in director Raoul Walsh’s “The Big Trail.” Though the film played in theaters on the innovative “widescreen” format and was shot on location throughout the West, it failed at the box office. The Great Depression was blamed.

Nine years later, Wayne got his breakthrough role as the Ringo Kid in John Ford’s classic Western “Stagecoach,” shot in the spectacular Monument Valley. It was all uphill from there.

Wayne’s honors and awards would fill a room, but perhaps one of his most satisfying moments was taking the best actor Oscar in 1969 for “True Grit,” topping Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman for “Midnight Cowboy,” a movie he despised.

His last film was “The Shootist” (1976), the story of a former gunslinger who’s dying of cancer. Though Wayne had lung cancer in 1964 – “The Big C,” as he called it – he was still in remission while making “The Shootist.” One of his most famous lines is from that film, a summation of what he stood for in the minds of moviegoers: “I won’t be wronged, I won’t be insulted and I won’t be laid a hand on. I don’t do these things to other people, and I require the same from them.”

On May 26, 1979, just two weeks before his death from stomach cancer on June 11, Wayne was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal for “performing an achievement that has an impact on American history and culture.” A year later, Jimmy Carter awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The two medals are the nation’s highest civilian awards.

The Duke is buried in Newport Beach. The epitaph on his grave marker is a quote from a 1971 interview: “Tomorrow is the most important thing in life. Comes into us at midnight very clean. It’s perfect when it arrives and puts itself in our hands. It hopes we’ve learned something from yesterday.”

However, the epitaph he told his friends he wanted – which his family ultimately denied him – was in Spanish. “Feo, fuente y formal” translates to “Ugly, strong and dignified.”

In case you’ve wondered, the nickname “Duke” came from his childhood dog, an Airedale terrier named Duke. The boy and his dog were seldom apart, to the point that family and friends nicknamed him “Little Duke.”

And, yes, that was a toupee, one made of human hair.

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