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 John Wayne: 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  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  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].
Recently 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.
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.
In 2016 we are going to make 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 JohnWayne.org 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.
- DON’T GO ANYWHERE YET! John Wayne possessed no plans to retire after “The Shootist” opened to excellent reviews but sluggish box office returns in August 1976. After open heart surgery in late spring 1978, the Duke was determined to begin work on “Beau John.” He went to impressive lengths to secure the project, actually buying the film rights via Batjac, the first time that had happened since he unsuccessfully bid for “True Grit” 10 years earlier. The legend also had plans to reunite with one of his recent costars. Little has been known about the unfinished “Beau John” film until now. 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 Project.”
And if that discussion isn’t up your alley…Steve McQueen’s widow, Barbara Minty McQueen, and distinguished biographer Marshall Terrill took a few moments to discuss the King of Cool’s friendship with John Wayne. Barbara recounts the hilarious tale of what happened when an inebriated Duke and her husband wound up at the same Hollywood awards ceremony in the late ’60s.
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Exclusive Interview: Still a towering icon three decades after his death, John Wayne personifies the genuine article. In 2013 the Wayne family commissioned journalist Michael Goldman to explore the family archives of personal letters (i.e. correspondence between presidents, Steve McQueen, director John Ford, the president of the Harvard Lampoon after the Duke rode to the campus on a tank borrowed from Fort Devens) and rare documents, most of which had accumulated dust in unopened boxes hastily packed away in the hectic days following the naturally gifted actor’s tragically unfair demise in 1979. The only edict from the Duke’s son, Ethan, was to craft a portrait harnessing his dad’s own words. During Goldman’s research, he stumbled across a golden goose—the cowboy actor’s unfinished memoir. In “He Was Ugly, Strong, and Had Dignity: Uncovering John Wayne’s Hidden Treasure,” Goldman agreed to speak candidly with this writer about his favorite archive discoveries. That’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Exclusive Interview No. 2: Burly 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 the action-packed 1971 Western, the 6’4″, 300-pound Palmer memorably plays a vicious machete-brandishing villain who threatens Big Jake’s grandson with near deadly results. In the words of fan Tom Horton, Palmer was one of the nastiest bastards to ever tangle with the Duke. In a quite rare two-part interview with the 86-year-old thespian [e.g. “The Man Who Killed John Wayne’s Dog”], the gentle giant relives his friendship with Duke and remembers his 30-year career alongside some of the greatest actors in Hollywood.
Exclusive Interview No. 3: Starring James Drury in the title role, The Virginian is the third-longest running and first 90-minute western in prime time television. A humble, genuine cowboy in real life with intense passions for writing and flying, the octogenarian speaks eloquently in a new feature about his unexpected encounter with the iconic John Wayne, whether he had a role model in mind for his characterization of the Virginian, the 50th anniversary of his namesake series, and why he will always appreciate his fans. Click on either installment link above to begin the enlightening ride.
- Exclusive Interview No. 4: Imposing, intelligent, battle-scarred hombre Richard Boone rose to fame as the star of CBS’ iconic Western series, Have Gun—Will Travel. Boone was a multifaceted individual who experienced frightening Kamikaze attacks and hand-to-hand combat during World War II. The gruff cowboy, whose villainous heavy in Big Jake gave John Wayne perhaps his most formidable onscreen foe, was capable of gregarious carousing one evening while attending opera or art gallery openings the next. Biographer David Rothel took it upon himself to shine a light upon the thespian’s varied life and career. Fortunately, yours truly convinced Rothel to undertake his first Boone-centric interview (“A Knight Without Armor in a Savage Land: Saluting Erudite Tough Guy Richard Boone”) in well over a decade.
Exclusive Interview No. 5: Lee Marvin made many a cowboy hero quiver in their dusty boots, including drinking pal John Wayne in The Comancheros, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and Donovan’s Reef. In a refreshing conversation [i.e. “Battle Scars and Violent Interludes: Point Blank with Lee Marvin’s Biographer”], author Dwayne Epstein focuses on Marvin’s World War II experiences, revealing why he believes Marvin suffered from undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). He also presents the venerable tough guy’s surprising connection to Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, why one of his favorite projects, Hell in the Pacific, is a bold, experimental failure, and the chilling tale of a Silver Star recipient and future Marvin co-star who briefly wound up in a California mental hospital.
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