John Wayne liked to be called by the nickname “Duke,” but where did this moniker come from? Wayne had humble beginnings as an actor, starting with an uncredited appearance in 1926’s Brown Of Harvard before becoming the lead in b-movie Westerns such as 1932’s Haunted Gold. It was thanks to the success of 1939’s Stagecoach that he finally broke through as a leading man, and would go on to become one of the biggest Western movie stars of all time.
There was something about Wayne’s screen presence that seemed custom-made for the genre, and he starred in classics such as The Searchers, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance – which has a famous twist – and Rio Bravo. He’s estimated to have appeared in 80 Westerns, which made up nearly half his acting credits. Of course, he had plenty of success outside of the genre, with other notable projects including 1958 drama The Quiet Man, World War 2 movie Sands of Iwo Jima and the somewhat bizarre The Barbarian and the Geisha.
Wayne was born Marion Robert Morrison but for his first onscreen movie credit in 1929’s Words and Music, he used the name “Duke Morrison.” Of course, “Duke” would become his nickname, in addition to the name of a white horse he rode in six Westerns during the ’30s. While Wayne’s Duke nickname became famous, few people knew where it came from. Wayne – who only made one sequel – himself heard many stories about its supposed origins, including that he was descended from royalty. The truth is it stemmed from a childhood nickname he earned because of his Airedale Terrier dog named Duke. Wayne would walk with his quite large dog to school every day, and befriended a local fireman who dubbed the Terrier “Big Duke,” and over time young Marion was called “Little Duke.”
Wayne grew to prefer the “Duke” name over his own, and it evolved into a lifelong nickname. The origin of John Wayne’s Duke nickname has led some to wonder if it wasn’t used as inspiration for 1989s Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade, which revealed Indy himself was named after his childhood dog. In reality, the good doctor was named in honor of George Lucas’ own dog, an Alaskan Malamute.
John Wayne’s (who almost made a movie with Elvis) final movie was 1976’s The Shootist, which was – fittingly – a Western. The actor died of cancer in 1979, but even decades on from his passing, he’s still commonly referred to as Duke in articles discussing his career. John Wayne also played characters named Duke in several films, such as the romantic comedy A Lady Takes a Chance and Operation Pacific.
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