Gettin’ back in the lane with John Wayne’s youngest son

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Ethan Wayne, the sixth child of American icon John Wayne and director of the John Wayne Cancer Foundation, leaves no stone unturned as he recalls learning how to drive on a busy Los Angeles freeway, visiting “The Sons of Katie Elder” movie set, filming a Great Western Savings and Loan commercial, and much more in an enlightening interview. Seen here is a 10-year-old Ethan visiting his famous father on the Durango, Mexico set of “The Train Robbers,” an underwhelming western directed by Burt Kennedy and released by Warner Bros. to diminishing returns on February 7, 1973. Photography by David Sutton

Ethan Wayne has some mighty tall boots to fill but he doesn’t let that unenviable task deter him. As the youngest son of landmark American cowboy star John Wayne, Ethan has casually worn many hats over the course of a lengthy career — actor, stuntman, musician, and current director of both the John Wayne Cancer Foundation and John Wayne Enterprises.

One of Ethan’s most notable efforts to memorialize his larger than life dad, who succumbed to horrific stomach cancer mere months after the teenager’s 17th birthday, came with the publication of the estate-sanctioned John Wayne: The Genuine Article coffee table tome 34 years later in 2013.

Author Michael Goldman recalled the Duke’s unmitigated love for his child, who actually landed a costarring role in the elder Wayne’s gritty revenge-laden Western Big Jake, during a previous interview with this writer. “When I wrote the introductory chapter of The Genuine Article, I pulled out some material from biographer Wayne Warga’s notes in which Duke had told Warga on the set of The Cowboys [1971] an anecdote about Ethan,” said Goldman.

“Ethan had been on Easter vacation visiting the set, and Duke decided to let him stay there an extra week even though school was back in session. Warga asked, ‘Why isn’t the kid going back home for school?’

“Duke replied, ‘I have two older sons — Michael and Patrick. When they got to be close to 18, they kinda went away from me. They didn’t really come back until they were about 30 — grown men. I’m a lot older now, and I’m probably not going to be around when Ethan is 30. I have to love him now.’ Ethan was very touched because his dad had said this about him, and he didn’t know until forty-odd years later.”

So just pull up a chair and keep reading as Ethan jump starts a mesmerizing if laconic journey of his back pages.

The Ethan Wayne Interview

What is the first movie set that you remember visiting your dad on?

I was only three years old but probably The Sons of Katie Elder [1965] for real clear memories — Dean Martin and the spurs [Author’s Note: Dino also costarred with the Duke in Howard Hawks’ classic western Rio Bravo, released some six years earlier].

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Six-year-old Ethan Wayne gamely emulates the Duke during location shots for the classic “True Grit” at Hot Creek in Mammoth Lakes, California, site of the foreboding cabin shoot-out with Dennis Hopper and Jeremy Slate, circa September 1968. Photography by Phil Stern

I stumbled upon your heartwarming sleeping bag cameo with your sister Marisa in a Great Western Savings and Loan commercial starring your dad.

I recall that very clearly. Great Western Savings hired my dad to be their spokesperson in 1977. The guy who ran the bank said the most important decision he ever made in his career was hiring John Wayne to do those commercials.

Besides 1971’s Big Jake [and an uncredited bit part in Rio Lobo, released the year before], it’s the only time that I was featured onscreen with my dad. We filmed the commercial in Oregon, and the shoot went very smoothly. My dad didn’t give me or Marisa any specific direction for our one scene. Next time I see Marisa I’ll have to ask if she has any memories.

I have read many humorous stories about your dad’s reckless driving as well as his green Pontiac Grand Safari station wagon featuring a customized roof for his Stetson and then-unusual telephone with two channels. Did he teach you to drive in this vehicle and do you have any idea where it is today?

He had a few of those Pontiacs. They were customized by George Barris who did the Batmobile. When I was about five he would drive to L.A., put me on his lap, and make me steer. If I would start driving out of the lane he would yell, “Hey — get back in the lane!” and scare the crap out of me. He would also accelerate when we would go into a corner. He had a lot of fun doing that.

I didn’t keep any of those Pontiacs in the years after his passing, but I remember them well. One built in 1972 is at the John Wayne Birthplace Museum in Winterset, Iowa, and one was just sold at an auction. They are floating around.

Stomach cancer claimed the life of your dad’s mentor, director John Ford. Did you spend much quality time with him?

I did get to meet him and had plenty of times with him but I was very young. I was only 11 years old when John Ford died in 1973 so I was a young boy. He was very advanced in age but I do have plenty of memories with him. He was my godfather.

Cancer has impacted my family tremendously. My Uncle Robert [Bobby] Morrison was felled by lung cancer in 1970, and my grandmother Mary [Molly] Morrison succumbed to this awful disease earlier that same year. We used to go visit her when she was living in Long Beach.

When your dad discovered that he had cancer for the second time, do you recall if he sat down and told you the devastating news?

No, he did not. Everything with him was sort of matter of fact. I took him to the hospital, he needed treatment, and then he never came out. We never expected him not to come out — at least I didn’t.

When my dad was dying of stomach cancer he looked at his kids and said, “Use my name to help the doctors fight cancer.” That is what started the John Wayne Cancer Foundation off in 1985 [upon elder half-brother Michael Wayne’s death in 2003 of heart failure after complications from lupus, Ethan assumed leadership]. It has been funded by programs that have been set up by John Wayne.

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Eleven-year-old Ethan Wayne joins his dad, actor John Wayne, and director John Sturges during a moment of prayer on the Seattle, Washington location shoot for “McQ,” a bleak cop flick ultimately released to cinemas on February 6, 1974. Photography by David Sutton or Phil Segura / Warner Bros. / The Las Bugas Collection

How would you describe your day to day responsibilities as director of the JWCF?

At the end of the day I have to be responsible for everything. We just hired a president, Catherine Brown, who brings more manpower to help drive our current programs forward like support in the John Wayne Surgical Fellows, Block the Blaze which is now in six states and growing, as well as survivor camps and support groups. At the same time, we can’t get more done without expanding.

What is your proudest achievement as director of the JWCF?

It’s not about me. It’s about John Wayne’s work in cancer. Because of him we have a standard of care in the sentinel node biopsy. John Wayne has graduated 150 fellowship-trained surgeons. They each handle 400–600 cases a year, so John Wayne is now affecting 100,000 people a year with fellowship trained surgical oncologists. Also, getting the kids educated about skin cancer prevention through Block the Blaze and sun safe tips as well as funding the support groups are all significant achievements.

What cancer research goals do you hope to achieve within the next five years?

We would like to find the cure for cancer, and until then we will continue to find pieces to the puzzle just like we have been doing for the past 30 years.

Right now we are making a big push to tell the public about John Wayne’s track record in cancer and invite them to join us in the fight. There is going to be a dramatic shift in the way things are done.

I don’t think it is fair for people with cancer to be restricted to fundraising that we can come up with in the form of product or something to sell to give a portion of that to the cancer foundation. Don’t get me wrong — we will continue to do that but John Wayne is responsible for significant and important work. Once people know about it, they will want to join him and become part of the fight.

For folks who want to help in the war against cancer but aren’t exactly sure how best to proceed, what would you suggest?

Simply visit and click on the donate button.

Have you considered opening a museum or attraction where your dad’s possessions could be publicly viewed? Perhaps this could be a perfect way to raise funds for cancer research.

Yes, some sort of presentation is in the development. Fortunately all of the artifacts are catalogued within the John Wayne Enterprises archives.

What were the origins of The Official John Wayne Way to Grill: Great Stories & Manly Meals Shared by Duke’s Family and DUKE Kentucky Straight Bourbon?

Both of these things are aimed at where my father lived his life with his friends and family. It was typically at the end of the day after the last cut. He would pour some Bourbon in a tin cup, sit on a rock, and have a laugh with friends while grilling something for dinner.

Other projects that are on the table for John Wayne Enterprises in the next couple of years can be boiled down to adding more “Made in America” product to our portfolio and having John Wayne lead that charge. You can see that in DUKE Kentucky Straight Bourbon, meat rubs, sauces, charcoal, The Official John Wayne Way to Grill, and other associated accessories that will be online soon.

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Circa June 1976, genuine article John Wayne and son Ethan are captured aboard the star’s prized Wild Goose yacht shortly after completing final film “The Shootist.” Photography possibly by Pat Stacy appears in “John Wayne: The Genuine Article” by Michael Goldman
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Ethan Wayne, the sixth of seven children belonging to iconic actor John Wayne, poses alongside one of his most prized possessions — a chocolate Labrador rescue dog named Wes — circa June 6, 2011, aboard his boat in Newport Beach, California. Image courtesy of John Wayne Enterprises

******************DON’T GO ANYWHERE YET!*******************

Exclusive Interview: Late character actor Gregg Palmer appeared in an impressive six films with John Wayne. By far, “Big Jake” contains Palmer’s best work with the towering legend. In it, the 6'4", 300-pound burly muscle man memorably plays a vicious machete-brandishing villain who threatens his grandson’s life with near deadly results. In the words of fan Tom Horton, Palmer was one of the nastiest bastards to ever fight the Duke. Incidentally, “Big Jake’s” grandson was portrayed by Ethan Wayne in his debut screen appearance. In the just released “The Man Who Killed John Wayne’s Dog: Remembering Gregg ‘Grizzly’ Palmer’s Classic Movie Memories,” the bearded outlaw relives his friendship with the Duke and remembers his 30-year career alongside some of the greatest actors in Hollywood.

Further Reading: John Wayne possessed no plans to retire after “The Shootist” opened to excellent reviews but middling box office receipts in August 1976. After open heart surgery two years later, the Duke was determined to begin work on “Beau John.” He went to impressive lengths to secure the screenplay, actually buying the film rights via Batjac, the first time that had happened since he unsuccessfully bidded for “True Grit” 10 years earlier. The legend also had plans to reunite with recent costar Ron Howard. To learn more about the one project that gave Wayne some much needed hope during his final days, head on over to “‘Beau John’: The Untold Story of John Wayne’s Last Film Project.

Exclusive Interview No. 2: While eating some scrumptious lunch inside Universal Studios’ renowned green room commissary, illustrious scene stealing character actor Dan Duryea pointedly remarked to 25-year-old protégé Robert Fuller, “I know ‘Laramie’ is your first series, and I’m gonna tell you something about money. I want you to save your money. Don’t be like all these actors and run right out and buy a new car, okay?” You’ll have to visit “Chewin’ the Fat with Iron-Willed ‘Laramie’ Cowboy Star Robert Fuller” to learn what happened next. Fuller later starred in the long-running “Chicago Fire” precursor “Emergency!”, took over Steve McQueen’s role of gunslinger Vin Tanner in “The Magnificent Seven” sequel with Yul Brynner, costarred with Chuck Norris in “Walker, Texas Ranger,” and danced cheek to cheek with Marilyn Monroe in the legendary “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” production number from “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.”

Exclusive Interview No. 3: “When I was younger, I had been in a class at George Washington High where I saw a teacher hit a guy on the knuckles with a wooden ruler. He broke the ruler. I was pretty impressed. Later when I was going to the Academy of Perpetual Help, some nun smacked me across the hand with a wooden ruler. I took the ruler and cracked it. I was just some punk kid. From then on I became the hero.” Puerto Rican actor Henry Darrow overcame an early childhood riddled by hard knocks to star as heartthrob Manolito Montoya on the venerable NBC Western series “The High Chaparral,” not to mention building up a résumé littered with guest-starring turns on “Bonanza,” “Gunsmoke,” “Zorro,” and even “Star Trek” over a prolific 50-year career. Check out “Totally Immersed in the World of Henry Darrow” for further illumination.

Further Reading No. 2: Head ’em up! Move ’em out! As trail boss Gil Favor on the long-running 1959–1966 Western “Rawhide” — the CBS Western series that incidentally made costar Clint Eastwood a household name — Eric Fleming engendered a three-dimensional portrait of a harsh as nails protagonist capable of genuine empathy for his motley crew of trail drovers. A little over a year after controversially departing “Rawhide,” Fleming was in the remote jungles of Peru filming an ABC TV movie entitled “High Jungle” when he perished at age 41 in a horrific canoe drowning accident. To read a harrowing first-hand account detailing Fleming’s final hours from “High Jungle” costar Nico Minardos, head on over to “Now or Never: Remembering ‘Rawhide’ star Eric Fleming.

© Jeremy Roberts, 2015, 2016. All rights reserved. To touch base, email and mention which story led you my way. I appreciate it sincerely.

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Retro pop culture interviews & lovin’ someone fierce sustain this University of Georgia Master of Agricultural Leadership alum. Email:

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