“Based on the Church’s teachings, his soul was wiped clean, with Baptism and the Last Rites. He probably made a direct shot to the high heavens,” said Patrick Wayne, the son of the legendary actor whose name still resonates with audiences nearly 40 years after his death.
“I think what my dad represents to people, what they find attractive, is that he, not only on the screen but in his personal life, represented a character, the icon of the Old West, that this is an individual who stands on his own, who works hard to succeed,” said Patrick, 79, who himself enjoyed a successful film career.
Patrick Wayne, the chairman of the John Wayne Cancer Institute, will be one of the Legatus Summit 2019 speakers in January. He will be speaking about his famous father, the role that faith played in his life, and his family’s work to carry on the Duke’s legacy through funding cancer research.
“We had no idea how long the institute would last,” Patrick said. “We thought we would ride this and if his name resonated with the public, great. Not one of us would have expected that his celebrity and popularity would still resonate, and it does.”
An ambitious athlete
John Wayne was born Marion Mitchell Morrison in 1907 in a small town in Iowa. His parents moved the family west to California, eventually settling in Glendale. The young John Wayne was a gifted and driven athlete.
As a young man, my dad was ambitious. He wanted to succeed. He wanted to do something,” Patrick said.
John Wayne had dreams of attending the U.S. Naval Academy, but did not get admitted. However, he excelled in football and landed a scholarship to the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.
In his first year of college, Wayne broke his shoulder while surfing, and lost his football scholarship. He went to work in the local film studios, where USC football players often worked in the off-season, helping with props and working as an extra.
Within a decade, John Wayne was a movie star.
“If he had gone to the Naval Academy, he would have become the head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff,” Patrick said. “If he had gone to school, he would have been president of the United States. He was going to succeed in some form, in some way. Fate just took him into the movie business.”
Then to the movies
John Wayne appeared in more than 175 movies. He won an Academy Award for his portrayal of Rooster Cogburn in True Grit. He played dozens of cowboys in Westerns. He starred alongside Maureen O’Hara in The Quiet Man and portrayed soldiers in The Longest Day and The Green Berets.
“His roles in films were cookie-cutter, but not in a bad way,” said Patrick, who explained that his father was advised at a young age by the actor Harry Carey that he did not need to portray many different characters because moviegoers wanted their stars to be consistent, if not predictable.
“Right or wrong, good or bad, he chose to follow that route. I guess it paid off for him. He was still pretty successful,” said Patrick, who appeared in 40 films, 11 with his father, including The Quiet Man and The Green Berets.
“What came through the screen was his presence,” Patrick said. “When he worked in films, you were drawn to him. As an audience you can’t take your eyes off him. Without any trickery or chicanery, he was just like that.”
Referring to actors who would “be doing all sorts of schtick” when they were in a scene with the Duke, Patrick said he would tell his father, “Is this guy kidding?” The elder Wayne would just respond, “I don’t care about that. No one is going to be looking at him anyway.”
While a director could give Patrick particular instructions about a role, they would easily be vetoed by his father’s input.
“My dad would say, ‘Do it this way,’” Patrick said. “And I’d say, ‘Okay, Dad.’”
A man’s man
Audiences the world over saw John Wayne the movie star, the icon of masculinity. To Patrick, he was first and foremost, Dad.
“In his personal life, he had a great sense of humor, which from time to time was shown in the films, but not to the extent that he had,” Patrick said. “He was a warm, sensitive, feeling person, a very thoughtful, considerate, bright person. He was a much more well-rounded person than what you might see in the films.”
What Hollywood accurately captured was the Duke’s larger-than-life presence.
“He could walk into a room and literally everybody would stop talking,” Patrick said. “By the same token, in five minutes he was as charming as they come. He would warm you up and you would be talking to him and you would think from the conversation, from the comfort level, that you had been friends with him for your entire life.”
John Wayne grew up Presbyterian, but he was not churchgoing. He was divorced three times. His first wife, Patrick’s mother Josephine, was a devout Catholic who never remarried after their divorce but never stopped praying for him.
“For the last eight years of her life, she was a daily communicant,” Patrick said. “My mother was driven to be a decent person, and she had the structure of religion as a backbone.”
While John Wayne rarely darkened the doors of a church, Patrick said his father was “one of the most decent men” he still has ever met.
“He believed in the core values of loyalty, honesty, reliability and he lived his life that way,” Patrick said. “That’s the way he treated other people, with respect.”
Fighting cancer, embracing the Church
Josephine’s example and prayers had their intended effect. According to his biographies, Wayne was a spiritual person who hand-wrote letters to God as a way of praying. He also befriended Archbishop Tomas Clavel of Panama.
In the mid-1960s, The Duke successfully fought lung cancer, but by 1978, he was diagnosed with stomach cancer. He deteriorated quickly.
In May 1979, with Wayne in a coma and dying of cancer, the hospital chaplain, a Catholic priest, came to visit him. Patrick said he went into the room and asked his father if it was okay for the chaplain to see him.
“My dad opened his eyes and said, ‘Okay.’ That was the first thing he said in seven days. I was stunned,” said Patrick, who added that the chaplain emerged about 20 minutes later and told him that he had baptized his father and given him the anointing of the sick.
“He was conscious and made a conscious acceptance of it,” Patrick said. “And two hours later, he passed away.”
Today, the John Wayne Cancer Institute carries on The Duke’s legacy. Located in Santa Monica, California and affiliated with the Saint John’s Health Center, the institute has expanded its research efforts to fight many different diseases, including urologic, thoracic, endocrine, gynecologic, and neurologic cancers.
Patrick’s son is also on the board of directors, and his grandsons are showing interest in continuing the work of the John Wayne Cancer Institute.
“So it’s a generational thing,” Patrick said. “There are going to be Waynes to take up the reins for a long time to come.”
BRIAN FRAGA is a Legatus magazine staff writer.