My Father, the Movie Star

For Ethan Wayne, the toughest cowboy in the world was just plain dad

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I am the first child of John Wayne and his third wife, Pilar Pallete. I was born in 1962. My father named me after Ethan Edwards, a character from his film, The Searchers. Right after I was born we moved out of Los Angeles to this little town called Newport Beach so my experience of my father is probably different from my step-siblings Michael, Patrick, Toni, and Melinda, who he had when he was much younger.

By the time I came along, my father was 59. A lot of his older friends like Henry Hathaway, John Ford, Jimmy Stewart, and Maureen O’Hara  had already passed away. I think it was hard for him to work with the younger actors. He was used to working with craftsmen like them and if someone wasn’t up to par, it was like going into a craftsmen shop and moving his tools around. He wants his tool in one place and he doesn’t even have to look to reach over and grab that thing to do his work. You start messing with his game and you’d catch hell.

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My dad is always thought of as a cowboy or a military person but, off the set, his life was centered on the ocean. He was on either the beach or a boat. We had an old converted World War II minesweeper called The Wild Goose which we’d sail out to the Channel Islands of Southern California on. Every winter, we would sail down to Mexico on the boat, whether that was Baja on the Sea of Cortez or down into the mainland.

When he wasn’t on the boat, he was working. So I was raised on movie sets in places like Durango, Mexico, Ridgeway, Colorado, or outside of Santa Fe, New Mexico. Sets were different in those days. They were rugged. We’d stay either in a small rented house or in a little motel. I had a tutor three hours a day who taught me English and Math. But I learned a lot from my father too. He never told me “do this” or “do that” but he led by example. You never wanted to disappoint him. So whether it was being situationally aware on a movie set, or not crossing into an eye line or step into a frame or make a sound when it was rolling was something I learned by osmosis. He had a terrific way of sharing his knowledge with few words. I remember one day he said to me “Kid, you are long on mouth, but short on ears.” I knew exactly what he meant.

My dad was tough, but very loving. He was old school, I don’t know how else to describe it. He didn’t talk much but he could make those words very very meaningful. I remember watching him and John Ford working on dialogue. Other actors fight for lines. But they were trying to remove as many words as possible. My dad learned from Ford, Wyatt Earp, who he had met as a prop boy, and the actor Harry Terry. He learned from these guys who were ahead of him in life. When he first saw himself on screen, he didn’t like his voice, his look, the way he moved. He was very uncomfortable. So he figured out that guy walks right, that guys talk right. This guy acts like a man. This guy grabs a stick from a guy in the right way. He absorbed of all this from these people and built this guy called “John Wayne.” He was known as Duke. One day he told me, “When someone calls me John, I don’t even turn my head around.”

john wayne and his son ethan

He was a father in the same gruff but supportive way. He’d let me do all sorts of things like drive when I was real young. Once we were up in Oregon at a friend’s ranch and he told me to drive to the house in an old pick-up truck and grab some things for him. I was 12. I got the truck stuck and I had to go to him and say that I got it stuck. He was in the middle of a card game when I told him. “How old are you?” he asked. “I’m 12.” He said, “How old do you have be to drive?” “16.” “Uh huh,” he said, real slow. That was it. I had to go figure out had to get the truck on my own.

When we were in Cabo or La Paz,  we’d anchor the boat far from the shore and swim in. It was like a 25-minute swim. I remember being 7, 8, 9 years old and swimming into a  bunch of sea snakes and being like “Holy crap. There are sea snakes here, Dad!” “He was like “Yeah, just keep swimming kid.” Once we made it to shore, walking around til our clothes dried, I was just so proud to have made it through, proud to by my father’s son. He was loving though in his own way. I can’t remember a time when he didn’t wrap his arms around me and lift me up. He called me Big Stuff and Kid.

My dad died in June 1979, when I was 17. It was just me and him alone in the house in Newport at the time. My mother had moved out.  He had had lung cancer back in 1964 and it had returned to his stomach. I could tell something was wrong but whenever I asked he used to say, “Get out of here kid. Nothing is wrong.” But that day he said he wasn’t feeling well so I drove him to UCLA. It was the first time I had ever been to Los Angeles if you can believe it. As we pulled up to the hospital, there was a crowd of photographers at the entrance waiting for him so we had to go through the back. I was worried but I was an idiot teenager and I thought he was going to come out of it.  He just always got over it. I didn’t know at the time but that was the last trip I would ever take.

— As told to Joshua David Stein

Ethan Wayne is the chairman of the John Wayne Cancer Foundation which is running a #ShowYourGrit campaign through June. Take a picture of yourself with a cowboy hat or bandanna. Share it with the hashtag #ShowYourGrit and $1 will be donated to the JWCF. 

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