John Wayne, By the Decades: Youthful Years

From star student and football player to Fox Studios prop man and featured player, Marion Morrison rides early and unsteady waves towards success.

Written by Constance Dunn

It was a keen mind and committed work ethic that launched Marion “Duke” Morrison to standout athlete status and president of his class at Glendale High School. And more of the same, plus a sturdy 6’4” frame that cinched his place on the football roster at University of Southern California (USC), where he enrolled in 1925 courtesy of a football scholarship.

During the Roarin’ 20s, the USC Trojans football team was a shining star of the sports world; even movie stars clamored for tickets. While Morrison’s tenure on the team was not long lasting—he was cut due to injury; and without a scholarship couldn’t continue at USC—it was due to one only-in-Hollywood transaction that he would advance to the next crucial step en route to becoming John Wayne.

Famed USC football coach Howard Jones had informed Morrison that in exchange for season tickets, Tinseltown gunslinger Tom Mix had offered two jobs at Fox Studios to Trojan football players. Morrison was one of them. The year was 1927, and his duties as prop man and day laborer were as strenuous as the days were long.

But Morrison, whose tenacity and work ethic were formed by his earliest, and often hardscrabble, days spent in his native Iowa, then California—a job was a job. “The Big Depression was still two years away,” Wayne wrote in his unfinished autobiography, “but my one personal depression was staring at me from the bottom of my empty soup bowl. I needed a job.”

Three years later, after proving his mettle at Fox, doing whatever was needed on the lot, including appearing in front of the camera as an extra, then a featured player, Morrison landed the lead in director Raoul Walsh’s Western saga The Big Trail (1930). The actor was just 23 years old, with a new career and a new name: John Wayne.

A youthful John Wayne in The Big Trail, circa 1930.

To see more of John Wayne by the decades, visit the John Wayne: An American Experience exhibit at the Fort Worth Stockyards in the National Historic District of Fort Worth, Texas. Located in the Historic Exhibits Building on the corner of Exchange Street and Rodeo Plaza at 2501 Rodeo Plaza, Fort Worth, Texas, 76164. Open 7 days a week from 9AM to 6PM.

Photographs courtesy of JWE.