Wayne Morris: Quarterbacks and Cockpits

Folks might remember Wayne Morris (1914-1959) somewhat better if his life hadn’t been cut short by a heart attack at age 45. He’d been a moderately well known star for decades, never plunging all the way down to bit roles as some did. He was doing just fine at the time of his death, and if he survived, he likely would have been among the many dozens who made the rounds of guest starring roles on all the major TV shows of the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s.

A former college football star, Morris essentially played versions of himself in the early leg of his career, boxers and football players and other athletes, often in college settings, and often in comedies. He was a type, I guess, but one I find singularly unappealing onscreen, a sort of mouth-breathing “Ugly American”, a whining lummox with thin lips and pasty flesh, something like Nat Pendleton but elevated to a status not unike that of the Marx Brothers’ lesser Zeppo replacement Frank Albertson from Room Service. Morris’s co-stars were often people like Ronald Reagan, Jane Wyman, and one or another of the Lane sisters, not exactly top tier attractions. And furthermore, he had the misfortune to be named “Wayne” — just like Wayne Newton and Wayne Osmond.

Morris’s first starring role was the title character in Kid Galahad (1937) a boxing drama, and he later played boxers in the comedies, The Kid Comes Back (1938) and The Kid from Kokomo (1939), though those “Kids” had different names in each picture. He had a recurring supporting part in the military school comedies Brother Rat (1938) and Brother Rat and a Baby (1940). Other comedies of this early period included Men Are Such Fools (1938), An Angel from Texas (1940), Ladies Must Live (1940), The Quarterback (1940, in which he played twins), Three Sons O’Guns (1941), and the spook comedy The Smiling Ghost (1941). Also notable from the early period was the horror picture The Return of Doctor X (1939) with a very against-type Humphrey Bogart.

In 1942 Morris joined the World War II effort as a navy fighter ace, flying Hellcats off the aircraft carrier USS Essex. He emerged at the end of the war a full-fledged, decorated war hero, having shot down 7 Japanese zeroes, and sunk several enemy ships. Morris had developed an interest in flying from his experience in the 1940 film Flight Angels. Just before leaving for his tour of duty he married Patricia Ann O’Rourke , sister of actress Peggy Stewart.

After the war, Morris returned to acting, now in it a slightly reduced status (usually 3rd billed). Now, if I were a studio producer or publicist and was confronted with the task of finding vehicles for a former war hero, I’d work hard to play up that service record, and star him in lots of heroic, mythologizing battle stories. For whatever reason, this wasn’t done. Task Force (1949) was one of the only films of this type he made after returning. There was a little prestige work: he was in James Cagney’s 1948 screen adaptation of William Saroyan’s The Time of Your Life, and later starred in the Broadway premiere of Saroyan’s The Cave Dwellers (1957). Also in 1957 he had a memorable role in Stanley Kubrick’s anti-war film Paths of Glory, playing a cowardly, lazy junior officer. Today, this is probably his most widely seen performance. Throughout the first half of the 1950s, he appeared in numerous B movies for Warner Brothers, most of them westerns. This led to lots of work in TV westerns in the second half of the ’50s.

But there were also efforts to do more in television than the occasional guest shot. In 1956 Morris starred on a British tv series called The Adventures of the Big Man, in which he played a corporate publicist. He also starred in a pilot for a series called They Went Thataway, that aired in 1960. His last screen credit was in a posthumously released independent western called Buffalo Gun (1961), along with Red Barry and country stars Marty Robbins and Webb Pierce.

In Fall 1959, Morris was reviewing some aerial maneuvers aboard the aircraft carrier USS Bon Homme Richard when he died of a massive heart attack. Ironically, 15 years earlier he’d made 57 sorties off a deck just like that one, gotten shot at by the enemy countless times, and managed to come home unscathed. When it’s your time, it’s your time.

For more on classic comedy please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.