Like a lot of little boys, Ethan Wayne grew up idolizing his father. So did millions of other folks.
Ethan’s dad was John Wayne, one of the most famous movie idols in the history of Hollywood, an all-American icon who continues to cast a giant shadow across popular culture more than 30 years after his death.
“I don’t think he ever imagined he would be this popular,” says Ethan, 49, who today oversees the John Wayne estate as president of John Wayne Enterprises in Newport Beach, Calif.
Although he portrayed a variety of roles, Wayne was best known for the macho soldiers and good-guy cowboys that he brought to vibrant life on screen in Stagecoach, Rio Bravo, Red River, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, The Longest Day, The Sands of Iwo Jima and more than 160 other feature films between 1926 and his death in 1979 from stomach and lung cancer.
“To many people he represents the quintessential American,” says movie critic Leonard Maltin. “Strong, feisty, taking a stand and unwilling to back down from it.”
Wayne received his only Oscar for what would become his most indelible role, as cantankerous U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn in the 1969 movie True Grit.
Life outside Hollywood
Wayne’s youngest son, the middle and only male of the three children born to the star and his third wife, Pilar Palette, recalls a childhood dramatically distanced from the spotlight of the movie business.
“John Wayne, the movie star—that always seemed unusual to me,” says Ethan, who was 17 when his father died. “We didn’t live in Hollywood. We didn’t have a Hollywood upbringing. We lived in a little town, Newport Beach, about 60 miles south of Los Angeles.”
Ethan recalls many outings with his famous father on his beloved boat or at the beach. “He spent a lot of time in the water. He bodysurfed, swam and snorkeled. He didn’t water ski a lot, but we’ve got some great photos of him snow skiing.
“But I think he might have been the happiest on that boat. We went exploring. We went on deserted beaches. We’d treasure-hunt, hike to a waterfall and pick a bucket of berries and make pies for dinner, maybe catch a salmon and eat it.”
Co-starring with dad
Perhaps expectedly, Ethan gravitated to acting as a younger man, which led to several movie and TV roles and a later career as a Hollywood stunt man. He appeared onscreen with his father in Big Jake, a 1971 Western that also featured one of Ethan’s half brothers, Patrick Wayne, and was produced by another half brother, Michael Wayne.
“That was one of my fondest memories,” Ethan says.
Ethan frequently accompanied his dad to work. He recalls being fascinated by the rattlesnakes that had been procured for a pivotal scene in True Grit. Even though they were secured in cages, the reptiles were strictly off-limits to anyone except the animal handlers—even the son of the movie’s star.
“I’d go over to the snakes, and the wranglers would be, ‘Get outta there!’ ” Ethan says. “I’d slink off and sneak back. I remember my dad kinda liking that I wanted to do something I’d get in trouble for. He liked a kid with an adventurous spirit.”
Ethan remembers how much his dad appreciated his fans. “If we were leaving the house to go shopping, I always had to have a pocketful of autographed cards to pass out to people. We grew up knowing how important the fans were.”
Everybody, it seemed, wanted a piece of John Wayne. They still do.
“Every day, we get phone calls and requests: ‘Could I get a scarf?’ ‘Could I get a vest?’ ‘Is there something—anything—I can get, for my son, my father, my husband?’ ” he says. “So I sat down with my brothers and sisters and said, ‘You know how important the fans were to my dad. It’s time we gave them an opportunity to get some of this stuff.”
That opportunity will come in October with an auction that will offer more than 800 grouped lots of awards, scripts, costumes, props and correspondence from the treasure trove of John Wayne’s personal and professional artifacts. It will mark the first time any official Wayne memorabilia has been made available to the general public.
Ethan says he’s never been much of a memorabilia person himself. “I have two objects that are important to me. One is a gun that he gave me when I was a little boy, and the other is a small little bronze sculpture of a man on a horse.”
More than objects, Ethan cherishes his memories of a childhood spent with a father who was much more than a movie star, a dad who left him with words, examples and experiences that continue to inspire and guide him.
“He taught me that life is for living. He didn’t stand still. He didn’t look backward. He always moved forward and focused on the positive. He tried to avoid anything small or petty or mean.
“If we were out riding horses, or motorcycles, I might say something like, ‘I keep hitting rocks.’ He’d say, ‘Don’t look at them—look at where you want to go.’ He taught me to look at where I want to go. It works for a bicycle, a motorcycle, a horse—and life.”