When one thinks of classic Western films, the legendary actor John Wayne typically comes to mind. Wayne encapsulated all of the iconic characteristics we associate with the genre, but he didn’t become one of the greatest Western actors on his own. He knew an actual cowboy, the Old Western lawman Wyatt Earp.
Earp moved to California after leaving Tombstone, Arizona, and spent the last years of his life in Los Angeles. While living in LA, he became friends with many Western actors and directors, including Tom Mix, John Ford and young Marion Robert Morrison who would become better known as John Wayne.
When Wayne was in his early 20s, he secured a job as a prop boy and worked on productions led by Ford and Mix. While on set, Wayne had the opportunity to meet Earp, who often consulted on Western films. While working as a prop boy, Wayne would take every chance he could get to speak with Earp and would even bring him his coffee.
Later in life, Wayne would claim that he tried to copy everything about Earp in his performances. Earp’s influence on Wayne brought the actor much success because he was able to draw from an authentic source.
Wayne, who was also known as Duke, took what he learned from Earp and went on to become a star. He is remembered for his performances in films such as “Stagecoach,” “True Grit,” “Red River” and many more. He won an Academy Award for his performance in “True Grit” and in 1999 he was chosen as one of the greatest male actors in American cinema by the American Film Institute. Read on to learn more about Wayne and Earp’s connection.
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Wayne was born on May 26, 1907, in Winterset, Iowa. His family moved to Glendale, California in 1916 and he attended Glendale Union High School. He played football and went on to play for the University of Southern California team. He made the decision to attend USC after he was denied acceptance into the US Naval Academy.
While at USC, Wayne’s football coach Howard Jones introduced him to Mix and Ford. After his football career ended due to a bodysurfing accident, Wayne began working as a prop boy on film productions. It wasn’t long before Wayne began appearing on screen in bit parts for the Fox Film Corporation. In 1930, he was cast in his first starring role in “The Big Trail.” This is when he first began appearing under the name John Wayne.
The actor went on to find breakthrough success in 1939 with the film “Stagecoach” and soon John Wayne became a household name. He was known for his ability to portray the archetypal “everyman” and was beloved by audiences. Eventually, Wayne became synonymous with the Western genre. He spoke about the appeal of Westerns with Roger Egbert in 1969 after the release of “True Grit.” Wayne said:
“I’m very conscious that people criticize Hollywood. Yet we’ve created a form, the Western, that can be understood in every country. The good guys against the bad guys. No nuances. And the horse is the best vehicle of action in our medium. You take action, a scene, and scenery, and cut them together, and you never miss. Action, scene, scenery.”
Wayne grew to legendary levels of success as a Western actor and credited Earp as his inspiration. He once said of the lawman: “Earp was the man who had actually done the things in his life that I was trying to do in a movie. I imitated his walk; I imitated his talk.”
Earp spent the last years of his life in Los Angeles where he worked as a consultant on several cowboy films. He was very good friends with Ford and Mix. It is said that he actually drew a sketch of the gunfight at O.K. Corral and Ford used it to choreograph a fight scene in his movie “My Darling Clementine.” It was during this time that Wayne was a prop boy and would fetch Earp coffee while he was on set.
It is rumored that Wayne was one of Earp’s pallbearers, but in truth, that role was filled by Mix. According to Michael Rogers on Instagram, Mix showed real emotion when his friend Earp died in 1929. Rogers wrote:
“Capping a life on both sides of the law, Wyatt Earp dies in Los Angeles at 80. In the aftermath of the O.K. Corral killings, Wyatt remarried and roamed throughout the West, finally settling in California. In his final days, he served as a consultant to Hollywood studios filming Westerns. Tom Mix allegedly cried like a child as Earp’s cremated remains were interred in the Hills of Eternity cemetery outside San Francisco.”
Earp made a real impact on the Western film genre through his influence on actors like Mix and Wayne. We have the lawman to thank for some of our favorite cowboy films, and who knows how the movies may have turned out without his consultation.