John Wayne’s Son Ethan Defends His Father 50 Years After Controversial ‘Playboy’ Interview

The son of the film icon explains why California's John Wayne Airport shouldn't be renamed over out-of-context interview quotes.

American actor John Wayne stands by the street sign honoring his name in Prescott, Arizona.
Fox Photos / Getty Images

The son of the film icon explains why California's John Wayne Airport shouldn't be renamed over out-of-context interview quotes.

John Wayne has been dead for 40 years, but his famous 1971 Playboy interview continues to make headlines. The controversial interview was unearthed again last month and went viral on Twitter, and its content caused some to call to remove the movie legend’s name from an Orange County, California, airport, where a nine-foot bronze statue of Wayne is fitted at the entrance.

But in a new interview with CNN, John Wayne’s son, Ethan Wayne, defended his father, by saying quotes from the nearly 50-year-old interview were being taken out of context. Ethan Wayne first clarified that the interview was conducted over two days and that the original recorded transcript was eight hours long. Ethan said that any discussion of moving John Wayne’s name from the airport should include “the full picture” of how the late star lived his life, and not just random quotes from an interview conducted nearly 50 years ago.

In the infamous Playboy interview — which has been archived by the University of Virginia — John Wayne made what many considered to be offensive remarks against black, gay, and Native American people. The actor said that while he would never condone slavery, he didn’t “feel guilty about the fact that five or 10 generations ago these people were slaves.”

The movie legend also revealed that when he directed films, he made sure to cast black actors in the “proper position.” Wayne went on to say he cast a black actor as a slave in the 1960 movie The Alamo and he had “the correct number of blacks in 1968’s The Green Berets. But the actor added that he didn’t go so far as “hunting for positions” for black actors and he called out Hollywood for “carrying their tokenism a little too far.”

In one of the interview’s most damning statements, John Wayne said, “I believe in white supremacy until the blacks are educated to a point of responsibility.”

But Ethan Wayne told CNN that his father regretted using that phrase and that he made the “mistake” of repeating the interviewer’s language when using the term “white supremacy.”

John Wayne also used anti-gay slurs when talking about the movie Midnight Cowboy, and seemingly accused Native Americans of “selfishly trying to keep [the US] for themselves.”

In the CNN interview, Ethan Wayne admitted that said his father “used a terrible word” when using the anti-gay slur, but he pointed out that the word was not used “in the context of an individual’s sexuality.” Ethan explained that his father used the offensive term when talking about the changing landscape of the film industry, which was “something that distressed him.”

“My father worked in Hollywood for 50 years, and Hollywood is probably, you know, one of the most progressive and diverse communities on Earth. He didn’t care what race, gender, sexual orientation you were. He cared how well you did your job. He took everyone at face value.”

Ethan Wayne said he couldn’t think of anyone who had a closer relationship to Native Americans than John Wayne. Ethan said that his father was asked “pointedly political questions” about issues that were being dealt with 150 years before his father’s interview, and are still being dealt with today. Ethan Wayne also said his father had “a great respect for Native Americans” as well as their art and culture.

“When John Wayne and a film crew would come to a reservation it was an economic boon for that tribe and those people,” Ethan Wayne said. “They appreciated him and I think anyone who knew him would remember him fondly.”

Ethan Wayne added that his father is a Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient. John Wayne received the posthumous honor from President Jimmy Carter in 1980. In 1998, Wayne was awarded the Naval Heritage Award by the US Navy Memorial Foundation, for his support of the military during his film career. In addition to the John Wayne Airport, a Washington state marina is named after Wayne, as is a Brooklyn elementary school. John Wayne has also been honored with an Arizona street dedication in his name.

Ethan Wayne pointed to his father’s many notable achievements when downplaying the content in the resurfaced 1971 interview.

“They put my father’s name on that airport for the same reason that Congress voted to give him a Congressional Gold Medal, for the same reason that the President decided to give him a Medal of Freedom. And it’s recognition of a lifetime of significant contributions to this country, his community and to his industry.”

According to Heavy, John Wayne’s 1971 interview has come back to haunt his legacy several times in the past. Several years ago, the state of California opted not to proclaim a “John Wayne Day,” because of Wayne’s past racist and sexist statements.

John Wayne died from stomach cancer in 1979 at the age of 72, 10 years after winning an Academy Award for his role as U.S. Marshall Rooster Cogburn in the film True Grit.

You can see Ethan Wayne’s new interview below, in which he defends his father.