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John Wayne — born 110 years ago, on May 26, 1907 — embodied a very particular kind of American hero. In 1969, in the wake of what LIFE called a “splendid performance” in True Grit, the magazine examined the life of the American icon and reminded readers that, even though the world was changing rapidly, John Wayne was not.
After all, it was a time when audiences could also opt for a newer kind of star (exemplified in Dustin Hoffman, who shared the magazine’s cover with the Western icon) but John Wayne was still making Westerns, still riding horses, still holding onto his vision of right and wrong.
“Writers have a tendency to make me rough and tough, as if I’m ready to punch someone any minute,” the 62-year-old star told LIFE. “I’m not. I haven’t had a fight in many a year. I do see myself as pretty rough, even cruel on occasion, but never mean, never small, never petty.”
In fact, he wouldn’t even take a part to play a character whom he saw as mean or dishonest. If he was going to kill a man on screen, it had to be for a good narrative reason. Though he rued having once said that he didn’t need to act to do his job (the statement was poorly phrased, he explained to the magazine) it was also clearly the case that the John Wayne audiences still loved to watch on screen was, in many ways, the same man LIFE’s cameras captured on set and with his family.
“The reason I hate age,” he said, “is that I love this work so much.”