So it seemed only natural that John Ethan Wayne, the youngest son of the Duke, would one day turn to acting. And indeed now, at 21, he has his first starring role in In Tight, a soon-to-be-released thriller in which he plays a young adventurer who helps Tim Van Patten and Jimmy McNichol flee a Mexican jail. Wayne says the shot-in-Spain film "isn't much," but it "was a good role for me."
Ethan Wayne—he doesn't use his first name to avoid trading on his dad's fame—is the fourth of the Duke's seven children to try show business: Ethan's 48-year-old half brother, Michael, the eldest Wayne, has been a producer and is a businessman; his other half brother, Patrick, 44, is still acting; and his 17-year-old sister, Marisa, is studying acting.
Though he appeared in some John Wayne films as a child, Ethan was never encouraged to be an actor. The Duke, who went to USC on a football scholarship, mainly wanted his youngest boy to go to college, but "my grades weren't good enough," Ethan says. Yet his lineage shows in his striking hazel eyes and husky 5'11" frame. And although it has been four years since the Duke died of cancer at 72, he is a presence in Ethan's modest one-bedroom Newport Beach house. Wayne mementos abound: numerous photos, a bronze statue of the Duke in cowboy garb, limited-edition pistols and rifles embossed with the star's chiseled features.
But there are also trappings of Ethan the jock all around: His wet suit hangs on a rod in the bathroom, books on flying are everywhere (he flies small planes and ultralights and is studying for a commercial pilot's rating), and a Honda trail bike and two Great Danes vie for space in the backyard. Easygoing, modest and fun-loving, Ethan at first wanted to become a stuntman. He fondly remembers rolling some cars in the 1980 movie The Blues Brothers: "It was no big deal. I'd been driving dune buggies for years." But a year ago he sprained his ankle while rehearsing stunts and "it was then that I decided to go into acting."
Having rejected a series of coaches because of their gimmicky methods, he started studying with Allen Rich, the judge on Hill Street Blues. "He tells me what my father used to say: that acting is reacting. And it works. You have to draw on all your experiences and play yourself. I've been lucky. I've traveled all over the world, met interesting people. I'm just now realizing that I did learn something about acting from my father—the 'reacting' business. The more I study acting, the more I understand what my father did."
Which is useful, since John Wayne's kids—unlike the chips off some other big Hollywood blocks—have to make their own way. Half of the Duke's estate had already been settled on his estranged third wife, Ethan's Peruvian-born mother, Pilar Wayne, who lives near Ethan in Newport Beach. Taxes took a huge bite out of the $6.85 million that went to the seven children. In the end, says Michael, "We each wound up with about 4 percent of what was left to us." For Ethan, this provides a modest yearly income from a trust fund of about $200,000.
Money is not all that important to Ethan, who hasn't joined L.A.'s flashy young-actor crowd. His life revolves around his career, his sports and his girl, Kerry Coleman, 23, a waitress and the daughter of one of the Duke's production managers. She moved in with Ethan after he had finished school and (with a loan from Pilar) had bought his Newport Beach pad. After his dad died, the once "wild" Ethan turned more serious than he'd been before, and Kerry moved out to her own digs. "I started to take stock," he explains. "I had to make something of my life. I couldn't just go fooling around forever."
Since the Duke's death Ethan and his half brothers have drawn close. They work for the John Wayne Cancer Clinic at UCLA, and Ethan and Patrick aim to co-star in a dinner-theater production of Neil Simon's Come Blow Your Horn. Of the Duke, Ethan remembers, "He gave me so much—morality, honesty. He understood so much about what was going on in the world. I try to learn, but there are so many times I would like to sit down with him to ask his advice. I miss him every day."
His christening was a tequila-tinged all-night bash that became a Hollywood legend. His childhood was spent on movie locations in exotic settings. His godfather was the great director John Ford. And, of course, his father's name was a household word.