John Wayne the Actor started out as Marion Morrison the Football Star. A college athletic injury cost him his scholarship and his future on the gridiron, so he made a lateral transfer to film, starting out doing construction at movie studios, working his way into bit parts, and finally hitting the big time with a name change and a starring role in Raoul Walsh’s epic, though financially unsuccessful, The Big Trail. He was solidly associated with the genre as a tall-in-the-saddle, man-of-few-words action-hero stereotype and made plenty of movies (even directing a couple, including The Alamo and The Green Berets) that reinforced that image. And, so the story goes, he liked the ladies, a drink or three, and a cigarette, possibly even in that order. Oh, and he was a racist.
That’s the allegation, anyway, and it comes with actual evidence to back it up. As Wayne became an icon in American popular culture, he became more and more outspoken about his political views — by any standard of measurement, he leaned to the right, and uber-patriotism was part and parcel of his image. Why anyone would pay special attention to the opinions of somebody who gets paid to recite other people’s words is a question for the ages, but pay attention they do. In 1971 he gave the ill-fated interview that would be haunting him today, if he were still alive.
BECAUSE ACTORS ARE ALWAYS WISE AND KIND
Snopes.com cites chapter and verse of the interview published by Playboy Magazine in its May 1971 issue. In those days Playboy had a certain reputation not only for photography, but also long-form interviews that tried to get beneath the surface of the individual in question. Wayne gave them ample opportunity. One of the questions asked if Wayne felt any empathy toward Native Americans — termed Indians in those times — so often portrayed in his films as villains. Wayne’s response:
“I don’t feel we did wrong in taking this great country away from them, if that’s what you’re asking. Our so-called stealing of this country from them was just a matter of survival. There were great numbers of people who needed new land, and the Indians were selfishly trying to keep it for themselves.”
But wait — there’s more: “What happened between their forefathers and our forefathers is so far back — right, wrong or indifferent — that I don’t see why we owe them anything. I don’t know why the government should give them something that it wouldn’t give me.” Still more. As cited by SFGate.com: “We can’t all of a sudden get down on our knees and turn everything over to the leadership of the blacks … I believe in white supremacy until the blacks are educated to a point of responsibility.” The interview led to an outcry in 2019 to rename John Wayne Airport in Orange County, California. The airport was named for him in 1979.