When Ethan Wayne talks about his father, he often returns to one theme:, his gratitude for being able to spend time with the legendary actor he called “Dad.” Though that time was relatively brief (John Wayne died when Ethan was just 17 years old), the softened tone of Ethan’s voice reveals how precious those years together were to him—with much of his childhood spent on one movie set or another.
“You’re down in Mexico, or in Colorado, or in the Sierras, so I liked being with him when we had moments together on those sets. That was really nice for me.”
And Ethan learned quickly about life on set.
“You have to have an awareness of the camera sight line, actor sight line, be aware of sound, when they’re rolling…are there going to be explosives? You’re just like a kid who grows up on a ranch, you know, you just become savvy to certain things.”
At age eight, Ethan moved up a notch, from spectator to actor as Little Jake McCandles, the kidnapped grandson of Jacob McCandles, a gruff rancher who is estranged from his wife, Martha, played by Maureen O’Hara, in Big Jake.
“It was a great experience,” Ethan recalls, “I loved Durango, Mexico, loved Maureen O’Hara. I knew the wardrobe guys, the catering guys, the wranglers, and the stuntmen. It was home…[John Wayne] took me on location, but this time, I was involved, so I got to go a step further…and we got more time on that set to be on the horses.”
Observing a parent work, whether at their job or at a hobby, is usually fascinating for a child. It was no different for the kid of one of the world’s most admired actors. Watching his father doing his job left an abiding impression on Ethan.
“You get to see how he works. You get to see how he stayed ahead of everything. [He] had to be there the first week, and stayed late so he knew what was going on, helped other actors figure out how to make the best product that they could, and he knew every aspect of the business. So, he would help everybody.”
John Wayne may have pitched in to help everyone on set, from the lighting guys to the production assistants, but he gave a little extra coaching to his youngest son.
“Reading scripts as we fell asleep at night. I’d stay with him and lay in bed and go over the script at night, and my words, and you know, I’d have two words,” Ethan smiles, “I mean I’d have to say, ‘Oh no,’ but, you know, we still did that together so… I think, one, it was great to work on it, but two, it was great to be with him.”
Aside from spending time traveling with his dad and being on set, some of Ethan’s favorite memories were of just the two of them together at home.
“We’d be on horses and we’d just be alone going for a ride, or being on the boat,” Ethan says, setting the scene of a father and son bonding. “You know it’s early morning, and we’re having a cup of coffee and watching the sun rise. It’s blustery weather, and we’d go explore some unknown place.”
Parents want the best for their kids, and many times they offer advice based on their own hard-learned lessons. Early in his life and career, John Wayne came up against several setbacks, but he never quit. He would pivot and move forward whenever he faced an obstacle. One time, Ethan was in a motorcycle race, and each lap, he’d hit the same rock, losing ground. It got to the point, he’d look right at the rock, until his dad shook things up.
“He goes, well, don’t stare at it. Stare at where you want to go, not where you don’t want to go. And boom, that solved the problem,” Ethan says, “and then that sort of carried over into life…just look where you want to go and let the other stuff go.”
Because he was born when John Wayne was already a 55-year-old veteran actor, Ethan has a unique perspective on his father’s films.
“I get to see my father when I didn’t know him, as a younger man or in a different genre. He’s playing a detective or he’s playing a sea captain, or he’s a Roman soldier, and so those are sometimes really fun for me to watch. But if The Shootist is on, I pretty much sit there and watch it. If The Quiet Man is on, I watch it. Some of these films are timeless, well-told stories…When I watch [them], I’ll get another little thing from my father, a little tidbit, something you didn’t see, or just rekindling a memory because he’s been gone a long time.”