The Secret Sidekicks of History


History is all about perspective – but what happens when you turn that perspective on its head?

Have you ever wondered what those unsung heroes were like? I’m talking about the folks that influenced some of the most notable figures in history today, ever so stealthily. You’ll discover that these brothers, mothers, cousins, neighbors, and friends all had stories of their own.

A while back I contributed an essay to the book “The Who, The What, and the When.” This compilation told the stories of “The Secret Sidekicks of History.” We were each tasked with creating a portrait of an accomplice and the relationship they shared with their famous counterpart.

To the great pleasure of my grandparents, this particular essay on the legendary John Wayne was excerpted in Reader’s Digest. 


Here’s a bit of the excerpt that was featured in the compilation. I wrote about Yakima Canutt, an American champion rodeo rider, actor, action director, and stuntman – John Wayne’s stuntman.

Yakima Canutt

John Wayne’s Stuntman
By Joe Ringenberg

The story of John Wayne began in Iowa with the eldest son of a pharmacist’s assistant, a boy who went by the name of Duke. Hard times drove the family to California, and after dropping out of college on account of a lost football scholarship, Duke found work hauling props on movie sets.

Duke Morrison didn’t know much about movies, and he knew even less about cowboys. What he had going for him was this: He was handsome, he worked very hard, and he was friends with Yakima Canutt.

Yak was born out west, the son of a rancher. Broke his first wild horse at eleven and followed the rodeo to California. He figured he would teach the movie folks a thing or two about horses. He showed the early studios what a real cowboy was, showed them how to walk like a solemn fact, stare down a gun, and speak calmer than an oak tree.

Duke had worked his way in front of the camera through a series of minor roles, first in football-themed movies and then in low-budget Westerns. Yak was working the same circuit staging action scenes and devising more and more ambitious stunts. When Yak met Duke in 1932, he found an actor who was as tough as a stuntman.


Yak taught him how to ride a horse like a cowboy and fall off it like a rodeo star. Neither was a man to pull a punch, and the two developed rougher, more realistic fight scenes than moviegoers had ever seen.

In Yakima Canutt, Duke found the purest form of the American cowboy. He studied Yak’s walk, his diction, his mannerisms, and built them into the iconic hero of the Western genre, John Wayne. Duke appeared under that stage name in over 170 films over the course of half a century, and the movies had never seen a character like him—for John Wayne was as much a created character himself as were the cowboy heroes he played.

John Wayne was a man of the earth with a taste for plain talk and whiskey. He believed in justice and honor, but if you came at him with a chair he’d come back at you with a table. He showed America the promise of the West, the pure freedom of a lone man on a horse. He went by Duke, but his swagger was Yak.

Do you have any awesome sidekick stories? Who would you be interested in learning more about?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s