John Wayne: Ethics of Hard Work and Success

Wayne’s lifestyle was intimately associated with his screen image to the point where the two elements were interchangeable.

Unlike other stars, who experienced tension between their public and private lives, in his case, they supported and reinforced each other. Wayne’s stature as an important star and national figure rested on the fact that he articulated and exemplified basic values in his lifestyle that were distinctly American. The most important of these values were: the ethics of hard work and success, upward mobility, individualistic achievement, monetary success, ordinariness, and strong family life.

Hard Work

Work was Wayne’s main interest–making movies was genuinely the core of his life. Work was more than a motivating force; he was compulsive and obsessive about it. He claimed there were two important things in his world, “the people I love, and the work I love.”

Working hard brought real satisfaction, as he observed, “I am miserable when I am not working,” and “the only reason I hate age is that I love this work so much.” Esperanza Baur, Wayne’s second wife, described him as a person who is “always interested in his business.” “He talks of it constantly,” she said, “When he reads, it’s scripts. Our dinner guests always talk business and he spends all his time working, discussing work, or planning work.”

Wayne worked hard because he believed in the ethics of hard work; this was the force, he felt, that kept him alive–and healthy. After fifty years in the film industry, he never tired of making movies. Unlike Gary Cooper and Clark Gable, who lost interest in their profession as they aged, Wayne never lost excitement for the prospect of making a new movie. Jimmy Stewart once described him as having “the enthusiasm for life that would make a high school football star envious.”

In the l960s, many of his colleagues began to pass away. “There aren’t many of us left,” he said, “so many of my friends have died these years–Coop, Clark, Ward Bond. But me, hell, I’ll just go on doing what I do till they kick me out.” At the reporters’ suggestion that he should be preparing for a peaceful retirement, after 35 years in movies, he said: “I’m 56 years old, for Pete’s sake. This is an important time in my life. I’ve got to get in as much as work as I can, because how long can you hope to carry on in this business”

But he did carry on for another fifteen years! “Every time I finish a picture,” he once admitted, “I go around saying I won’t do another for a couple of years. But two weeks later, I’m looking to see what’s around. I just gotta work, I love this goddamn business.”

In the early years, he worked hard because he lacked financial security. Coming from a relatively poor family, he dreaded the idea of being broke; associates noticed that he always carried large amounts of cash on him. And later, he continued to work hard to support a large family of seven children. “It’s not that I feel the need to establish myself,” he explained, “but I do need the money.” “I live well but I am not rich,” was the way he described his social standing. “I oughta be rich,” he felt, “but I had bad business advice, and I lost a lot of dough.”

Which was true. Wayne was not nearly as wealthy as some of his colleagues, say Bob Hope and Gene Autry, who were multi-millionaires because they were shrewd businessmen–which he was not. He lacked savvy as an investor, and several financial endeavors that were badly managed. Among his unsuccessful operations, half a million dollar investment with Robert Arias in a shrimp business in Panama, proved unprofitable. He later invested most of his personal capital in the production of The Alamo, and lost his shirt.

In 1962, Wayne was shocked when he suddenly realized that after 25 years in the business, he had to start out all over again. He would just about break even, he said, if he sold all his property which, to him, having worked hard
for so many years, meant being broke. Money-losing deals plus three marriages and a free-spending lifestyle kept him working until he died; fortunately, he enjoyed it.

In the l970s, however, his finances improved. His holdings included Batjac, his production company, a nice bay front house in the Bay Shore section of Orange County’s Newport Beach, a cattle ranch in Arizona, and some other investments.

No Retirement Plans

Retirement was never considered, not even after his cancer operation. “Not me!” he said, “I want to go on acting just as long as people will have me, and then I want to go into some other end of the business.” “Pictures have been all my life!” Wayne repeatedly said. He really believed that “you die if you retire, if not physically, mentally.” “A hard day’s work still appeals to me,” continued to be his favorite motto.

When he was filming The Shootist,” Wayne teased reporters: “Bull! It won’t be my last film.” “Unless I stop breathing, or people stop going to see my films, I’ll be making more of them.”

Less than a year before he died, he reiterated his gusto for life: “I couldn’t retire. That would kill me. What would I do I’d go nuts.” “Work is the only thing I know,” he used to say, “and as long as I can keep my dignity, I’m going to go on making movies. I like what I do. People who want to retire, don’t.” Not that he was unaware of his age. “I’m old, I guess. At least I ain’t new,” he used to joke, “but I plan to just keep making pictures. I’m having a helluvalot of fun.”

Pride of Being American Actor

Wayne was immensely proud of being an American” actor. “It gives me a genuine feeling of satisfaction to have a part in the tremendous job this industry does in creating entertainment, on a scale no other medium can ever attempt,” he said on the opening night of Flying Leathernecks.” “I feel about motion pictures,” he said, “something like the Leathernecks do about the Marines. To the Marines the greatest thing in the world is simply a fact of being a member of the fightiest crew that ever bore arms. We can use a lot of that spirit in our business.” “We’ve got every reason to be proud of motion pictures,” Wayne elaborated, “we should express that pride in giving our best in the way of acting and technical performances and in conducting ourselves as self-respecting members of a highly respected industry.”

Conspicuous consumption and public display of wealth are usually associated with movie stardom. Wayne’s lifestyle, however, was ordinary, modest, and far from glamorous. Swimming pools, sumptuous clothing, and elegant parties played no part in his life. There was nothing spectacular about the way he lived. Unlike Gable or Cooper, he did not care about fashion, and unlike Cary Grant, who dressed so elegantly he wore his own suits in his movies, Wayne’s cherished simplicity and mendacity in every aspect of his life.

Nor was he the kind of star whose pictures appeared in fashion magazines; one could never suspect him of attempting to contend for “the best dressed man.” On the contrary, he always stressed that there was nothing glamorous about making movies, that it was in fact a hard job, requiring health, strength, and self-discipline.

In his lifestyle, Wayne exemplified the most important values of the American Dream: upward mobility, success, and individual attainment. He was literally a self-made man, working his way up to the top. He became an actor by accident and luck played a crucial role in his career, but it was hard work, driving ambition to succeed, and tremendous will power that got him to the top. He believed that the most important thing was to work steadily,” which he did for half a century!

Wayne’s career was genuinely a rags-to-riches story, starting at the bottom of the hierarchy as a prop man and progressing gradually, until he became the most popular star in film history.

The critic Joan Mellen claimed that the importance of Wayne as a phenomenon was that he was an ordinary American who has risen to the top of the social echelon and by doing so became an emblem to the American democratic system. Wayne succeeded where most stars failed, in combining the spectacular aspects of a career whose public image is glamour with the ordinary existence of the everyday man.

Indeed, the durability of Wayne appeal rested on a delicate balance between two elements: star mystique or magic, necessary for becoming a celebrity, and the credibility of living an ordinary life. Wayne’s ordinariness, on screen and off, turned out to be one of his greatest assets.