John Wayne Started His Career In Show Business By (Literally) Knocking Over John Ford

Neither John Ford nor John Wayne went by their birth names. They had multiple reasons to adopt show business names, whether it was Ford’s desire to not go by his Irish surname of Feeney or Wayne’s first name being the decidedly not rugged Marion. Ford’s name came from his brother Francis, his older sibling who moved west to make pictures in the early 1900s. Wayne’s came from Raoul Walsh, who cast the actor in his doomed cutting-edge proto-widescreen epic “The Big Trail.” 

Both men also came from the world of American football. According to Joseph McBride’s “Searching for John Ford,” the director was nicknamed “Bull” Feeney as a student at Portland High School in Maine for his prowess (and brutality) on the field. Even in the fairly unregulated era of the early 1910s, he was notorious for playing rough, and on the rowdy sets of his silent films, lawless football games were rituals. After moving to California, he became a big fan of college football, particularly coach Howard Jones’s team at the University of Southern California. Watching those games, he saw Marion Morrison, the man who would be John Wayne.

At that time, Wayne was just a prelaw student and a surprisingly graceful football lineman at USC. He went by “Duke.” In the summers, he worked as a prop man on local sets, “lugging around furniture and other props” according to McBride. 1926 saw his first film role ever, as a wild, no-line spectator at a horse race in Ford’s Irish drama, “Hangman’s House.” But their first meeting was a tough one.

Leave a Comment