A man who needs little introduction, John Wayne is a true legend of the Hollywood Golden Age. He was the leading man that made every performance his own. Owning a career filled with way over a hundred film and television productions, it’s hard to imagine an actor at the very peak of the industry, ever having to deal with money worries ever again.
But, sadly and strangely, that’s exactly what John Wayne had to overcome. In Fact, Wayne almost wound up flat broke at one point in his career. This wasn’t early in his career either but after more than 25 years in the business. So how did Wayne lose vast quantities of his fortune? And what was the passion project that proved an absolute nightmare for the star? Join us as we take a look at the side of his career and How John Wayne Lost All His Friends & Money.
An icon of Hollywood’s Golden Age
Originally named Marion Michael Morrison but known around the world as John Wayne, the American actor and filmmaker became a popular icon through his starring roles in films made during Hollywood’s Golden Age. In particular, when someone thinks of a Western or war movie, John Wayne will no doubt come to mind. His career spanned from the silent era of the 1920s through the American New Wave. Wayne appeared in an astonishing total of 179 film and television productions. He was even among the top box office draws for three decades, and appeared with many other important Hollywood stars of his era.
Wayne played leading roles in numerous B movies during the 1930s, most of them Westerns, but he hadn’t quite yet become a major name. That all changed with John Ford’s 1939 movie, Stagecoach, where he starred alongside Claire Trevor and Andy Devine. The Western classic made Wayne a mainstream star. Wayne starred in fourteen of Ford’s productions. A celebrated collaboration unlike any other in Hollywood history. Wayne has played a wide range of roles in Westerns that include a cattleman in Red River, a Civil War veteran in The Searchers, a troubled rancher in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and a cantankerous one-eyed marshal in True Grit. His performance in True Grit earned Wayne an Academy Award for Best Actor.
His final screen performance was that of an aging gunfighter battling cancer in the 1976 movie, The Shootist. John Wayne made his last public appearance at the Academy Awards ceremony on April 9th, 1979 before succumbing to stomach cancer later that year. He posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor of the United States. It was in 1999 that the American Film Institute selected John Wayne as one of the greatest male stars of classic American cinema. Looking back over his celebrated career, it’s easy to see why.
John Wayne’s poor financial investments
While John Wayne is one of the most recognisable names in all of Hollywood history, he suffered from poor financial investments which damaged his financial stability significantly. These weren’t just made by Wayne, but also his manager. The Hollywood legend spoke out about his financial troubles during an interview in 1962. He explained how after 25 years in his career, he was suddenly starting out all over again.
He described how he didn’t have it made at all, and while his business manager didn’t do anything illegal, they both involved in many unfortunate money-losing deals. At the time of the interview, if he sold everything he had, he would just about break even. So what were the bad investments that John Wayne made? One of his poor moments in judgement was betting on himself as a film director.
A passion project his was a movie based on the Battle of the Alamo. John Wayne was old school, and he wanted to put his money where his mouth was. So, he did just that.
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The true life story behind John Wayne’s passion project
The Battle of the Alamo, which took place between February 23rd to March 6th, 1836, was a pivotal event in the Texas Revolution. After a brutal 13-day siege, Mexican troops under President General Antonio López de Santa Anna reclaimed the Alamo Mission near San Antonio de Béxar, modern-day San Antonio, Texas. Most of the Texians and Tejanos inside killed. Santa Anna’s cruelty during the battle inspired many Texians and Tejanos to join the Texian Army. Driven by a desire for revenge, the Texians defeated the Mexican Army at the Battle of San Jacinto, on April 21st, 1836. This effectively ended the rebellion.
Several months previously, Texians had driven all the Mexican troops out of Mexican Texas. About 100 Texians then garrisoned at the Alamo. The Texian force grew slightly with the arrival of reinforcements led by eventual Alamo co-commanders James Bowie and William B. Travis. On February 23rd, approximately 1,500 Mexicans marched into San Antonio de Béxar as the first step in a campaign to retake Texas.
For the next 10 days, the two armies engaged in several skirmishes with minimal casualties. Aware that his garrison could not withstand an attack by such a large force. Travis wrote multiple letters pleading for more men and supplies from Texas and from the United States, but the Texians were reinforced by fewer than 100 men because the United States had a treaty with Mexico, and supplying men and weapons would have been an overt act of war.
In the early morning hours of March 6th, the Mexican Army advanced on the Alamo. After repelling two attacks, the Texians were unable to fend off a third attack. As Mexican soldiers scaled the walls, most of the Texian fighters withdrew into interior buildings. Those who attempted to escape slain by the Mexican cavalry. Several noncombatants were sent to Gonzales to spread word of the Texian defeat. In 19th-century Texas, the Alamo complex gradually became known as a battle site rather than a former mission. The Texas Legislature purchased the land and buildings in the early part of the 20th century and designated the Alamo chapel as an official Texas State Shrine.
John Wayne’s cursed passion project
John Wayne first got the idea for a film about the historic last stand back in 1944, and he spent over a decade trying to get it made. But Hollywood studio after studio turned down the project, reminding Wayne that he was an actor, not a director. It was United Artists that finally agreed to let Wayne direct the film, but this was only if he signed a three-picture deal and also starred in the movie.
The Alamo was a historic moment perfect for a movie adaptation, and John Wayne was the man to make it happen. Or so he thought. Wayne invested a hefty sum of $1.2 million into the film. Several of His friends also invested in the project. The production of The Alamo felt like a curse of biblical proportions. Not only was Wayne directing a logistically challenging and high-pressure movie, but it was his first big production as director.
As the director, John Wayne struggled to manage the film, which he also had to star in. The production suffered setback after setback, including a heavy rain storm that delayed filming early in production. The storm was so substantial that in total, it deposited some 29 inches of rain. From there the set garnered a reputation for wild rattlesnakes and scorpions, but the challenges didn’t end there.
Wayne initially wanted to shoot the project for cheap, which is why he originally planned to film in Mexico. But a group of Texas businessmen threatened to boycott the film if Wayne didn’t shoot it in Texas. Wayne finally agreed even though it would cost him a good chunk of his own money. The actor also had to deal with his mentor and director John Ford, notorious for being strict, and trying to take over while on set.
The publicity office caught fire, which destroyed all the necessary paperwork for the film. A couple of crew members were killed in a car wreck. And then, 80 percent of the cast caught the flu from an outbreak that spread during the production. An actor even smashed his foot with a canon. But most dramatic of all, there was a murder at the heart of the production. An extra, named LaJean Ethridge was murdered by her boyfriend while the two of them were working on the film. This led Wayne to having to shoot the film around a police investigation into the murder.
While it took an enormous amount of hard work on Wayne’s part, he managed to produce a classic that’s remembered today. The film ended up being a hit with audiences. Apparently Wayne needed to make $18 million to turn a profit. But fortunately for the legendary actor, the film ended up making $20 million at the box office across its lifetime. This must have come as a huge relief for the actor and director, not just because of the disastrous production, but the financial woes he was trying to overcome.
Was it absolute madness for John Wayne to place so much of his fortune into his passion project, or should he be commemorated for pulling off the seemingly impossible?
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