John Wayne & Marsha Hunt in Born to the West (aka Hell Town). Image via Wikipedia.

The Surfing Accident That Drove John Wayne To A Legendary Hollywood Career

One of the greatest leading men in movie history may have never taken up acting if not for an unfortunate injury

Andrew Martin
3 min readApr 18, 2022

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John Wayne epitomized what it means to be a movie star. The “Duke” headlined popular movies for decades, typically specializing in Westerns and war films. Given his success as an actor, it might be expected that he devoted his life to his craft from an early age. However, it turns out he may have never landed his career in Hollywood if it wasn’t for a surfing accident he suffered as a young college student.

In a 50-year career, Wayne had 181 acting credits to his name (which was changed from Marion Morrison after he began his new career). This included being nominated for an Academy Award three times and taking home the statue in 1970 for his role in True Grit. Instead of being classically trained, he was largely self-taught and enthralled audiences with his macho demeanor and patented slow drawl.

Instead of being into acting growing up, he was a talented athlete, particularly when it came to football. He was so skilled in the sport that he earned a scholarship to play for the University of South California (USC), where starting in 1925 he played lineman while studying in the school’s pre-law program.

Like many other young people in the area, Wayne enjoyed surfing when he had free time. The lure of the Pacific Ocean was too tempting and trying to catch waves also spoke to his athleticism. Unfortunately, while on his board one day during the football offseason in Newport Beach, he was hit by a rogue wave and forced under water. The awkward fall painfully wrenched his shoulder. He attempted to play football later that year through the pain but he just couldn’t perform the same and was eventually cut from the team in his sophomore season.

Without a scholarship, college was no longer financially feasible and he dropped out. Sticking around the Los Angeles area, he worked a series of small odd jobs, which included a telephone company and washing dishes. Finally, his former football coach used a connection with legendary director John Ford to get Wayne a position working in the Fox Studios’ prop department.

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Andrew Martin

Dabbler in history, investing & writing. Master’s degree in baseball history. Passionate about history, diversity, culture, sports, investing and crypto.