Marion Morrison’s Moniker

By Brad Dison

In 1907, Marion Robert Morrison was born to Clyde and Molly Morrison in Winterset, Iowa. Before his tenth birthday, the Morrisons moved to Glendale, California, where his father worked as a pharmacist.  Marion excelled at Glendale High School.  He was an overachiever who did well in academics as well as in sports.  He played on the football team, was on the debate team, contributed articles to the school’s newspaper, and, in 1925, was the president of his senior class.

Marion’s impressive high school transcript earned him a football scholarship to the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.  The scholarship covered tuition, $280/year, and, because he was on the football team, his scholarship included one meal a day during weekdays.  Eugene Clarke, a longtime friend and teammate of Marion, said “we sort of had to scratch around for our other meals and for all of our meals on weekends.”  Eugene added with a grin, “We were always pretty hungry by Monday morning.”

Marion’s school work ethic was just as strong at USC as it was at Glendale High School.  Marion and several of his high school friends joined Sigma Chi fraternity.  During one college party, a fight broke out.  Marion cleverly filled his mouth with ketchup.  When several guys turned their sites on Marion, he put his fists up and allowed the ketchup to flow slowly from his mouth.  Rather than hit Marion, the guys felt bad for him and let him go.  Marion’s quick thinking all but ended the fight.  Then, Marion started to laugh.  Realizing they had been had, the guys started the fight anew with Marion as their main target.  

During the summer between Marion’s sophomore and junior year, Marion went bodysurfing with friends in the Pacific Ocean.  Surfers generally use a surfboard or some other type of floatation device to surf high waves.  Bodysurfers, on the other hand, use no floatation device, but use only their bodies to ride the waves.  Bodysurfers swim out into deep water and watch for a powerful advancing wave.  The bodysurfers turn and swim back toward the beach.  Once the wave reaches them, they hold their bodies in a rigid position with their backs slightly arched, which allows them to ride the wave.  Marion bodysurfed a large wave only too well.  He rode the wave into shallow water and struck the ocean floor with such force that it broke his collarbone.  His afternoon of bodysurfing ended his football career and, more importantly, his scholarship.  Marion was in financial trouble.  He owed more money than he made at his various odd jobs.  He owed his former fraternity money for membership dues in addition to room and board.  Unable to afford tuition and fraternity fees without the scholarship, Marion was forced to drop out of college.    

Marion had no prospects, no money, and no place to live.  A friend of Marion’s convinced his parents to allow Marion to live in a small room above their garage until he got back on his feet.  USC football coach Howard Jones helped Marion secure a part-time job as a prop man and day laborer at Fox Studios.  Marion had no aspirations at acting.  He just needed a job.    

In 1928, Marion moved from behind the camera to in front of it when he landed a small movie roll.  The small role came with a small pay increase.  For two years, Marion played bit parts and an occasional lead part in a few mostly forgettable low budget films.  In 1930, he got his first starring role in a movie which had a budget in excess of $1 million.  Marion fit director Raoul Walsh’s formula for the part.  Raoul wanted an actor who was six foot three or over, had no hips, and had a face which fit in a sombrero, characteristics which Marion had.  Fox executives assigned an acting coach to help Marion develop his manner of speaking, walking, subtle movements, and other minor details.  Marion detested the strict regimen and failed to take his acting coach seriously.  Finally, the acting coach quit with a final harsh remark; “If you live to be 100 years old, you will never become an actor.”  Raoul was unconcerned because he believed in Marion’s acting ability.  The movie was a commercial flop.  

For another decade, Fox executives demoted Marion back to low budget, mostly forgettable films, for which he received little pay.  Whereas most big budget movies took months to make, many of the movies Marion appeared in were shot in just a few days.  His movie career seemed at an end, but, because of the Great Depression, Marion was glad to have a job.  He worked as often as he could, was always on time, always knew his lines, often performed his own stunts, and did whatever was possible to improve the picture.  After working on several musical films which required him to lip sync due to his inability to sing, Marion made a single demand.  He refused to “sing” on film.  Marion was in no position to make any demands, but luck seemed to be on his side.

Legendary director John Ford had an upcoming project for which he thought Marion would be a perfect fit.  Movie producers disagreed with Ford, but Ford argued that rather than getting a big star, which would be expensive, they could get Marion “for peanuts.”  Ford failed to mention that he had watched several of Marion’s films and saw potential.  Finally, the studio relented and Ford cast Marion.  During filming, Ford purposefully treated Marion cruelly.  Ford wanted to break Marion of his bad acting habits, and wanted the other, more established actors to feel sorry for Marion so that they would help improve his acting ability.  Ford’s cruelty paid off as the film was nominated for best picture along with Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and several others.  The best picture Oscar went to Gone with the Wind. 

Despite not winning the Oscar for best picture, Marion’s status as an actor gradually improved, as did the budget for the films he worked on.  Marion eventually became more than a movie star; he became an icon.  Despite the fact that he died in 1979, more than four decades ago, Marion has always ranked in the top ten of “America’s Favorite Movie Stars” according to the Harris Poll.  Marion is the only person who has never dropped off of the top 10 list since 1993, the first year the Harris Poll was published.  Fox executives disliked the name Marion Morrison and decided on a new name.  Marion suggested they use his childhood nickname, which they quickly rejected.  For the rest of his life, Marion’s devoted fans called him “Duke,” the name Fox executives rejected.  Fox executives settled instead on a moniker for Marion which has become symbolic of a tough, honest, all American man.  They created the name… John Wayne.       

Sources:  

1.  The Harris Poll. “Tom hanks is America’s favorite movie star….” Accessed February 15, 2021. theharrispoll.com/his-roles-over-the-years-have-taken-him-into-the-past-and-the-future-out-into-space-and-even-into-a-childs-toy-chest-and-this-year-tom-hanks-currently-in-theaters-as-attorney-jame/.

2.  Jewell, Rick. “John Wayne, an American Icon.” USC News. Accessed February 15, 2021. news.usc.edu/15621/john-wayne-an-american-icon/.