John Wayne Dies at Age 72
By Patrick Mondout
Legendary movie star and political activist1
John Wayne died after years of fighting cancer on June 11, 1979. His death
was expected, but it was still a shock to have someone who so many
identified with the true American spirit gone. To this day if you ask
someone to name a western movie star, most will name John Wayne.
On May 23, 1979 with his death imminent, the U.S. Congress voted to
award him a gold medal honoring his service to the nation. Former co-star
Maureen O'Hara told the congressional subcommittee that Wayne, "is
not just an actor. John Wayne is the United States."
It is hard to even imagine another person - real or fictional - that
more personified the characteristics many Americans believe embody what it
is to be a "real" American. Wayne's on-screen characters were
courageous, tough, honest, ornery, and never backed down from a fight.
Many still consider him a true American hero. A remarkable feat for a
man who dodged service to his country during World War II.
Born as Marion Morrison in Winterset, Iowa on May 26, 1907, he moved
with his family to California in 1913. He soon adopted the name of his
Airedale terrier, Duke, as nickname and became a star football player at
Glendale High School. He was good enough to play tackle on scholarship for
the University of Southern California from 1925-1927.
He was able to exchange USC football tickets with a contact in the
movie industry for a summer job as a prop man. He met director John Ford
while on the set and Ford cast him in small parts in his movies and billed
him as "John Wayne," which certainly sounded more manly than
Wayne may have been in the right place at the right time to land the
small roles, but he was hardly an overnight success. It would be another
decade until Ford cast him in the now-classic Stagecoach,
which finally made Wayne a star.
He went on to star in over 200 movies and was regularly in the top 10
most popular actors poll as conducted by Quigley's Publishing and even
topped the poll as late as 1971.
While no post-Stagecoach John Wayne film had trouble finding an
audience, critics were never quite as impressed with his acting abilities
as the general public was with his persona. He did not win an Academy
Award until 40 years after his debut (for True Grit in 1969).
His critics were not limited to those writing for Variety. Wayne
invited criticism for his outspoken conservative political views. He
strongly supported the Vietnam War and appeared in the openly pro-war The
in 1968. In some ways, he can be seen as the anti-'Hanoi Jane' Fonda.
John Wayne signs Private
First Class Fonsell Wofford's helmet during his
visit to the 3rd Battalion, 7th Marines. Wayne's
strong support for the Vietnam War made him even
more popular and brought made him a lightning rod
Chu Lai, South Vietnam; NARA
He biggest challenge was not winning an Academy Award, but beating
cancer. Wayne lost a lung to cancer in 1964, but survived. "I licked
the big 'C'", he famously said, breaking the taboo of discussing the
Wayne's last movie was 1976's The
Shootist, in which he plays an aging gunfighter dying of cancer.
The aging actor would face the same fate in the span of the next three
Wayne endured open heart surgery and a gall-bladder operation in 1978
before having his stomach removed in 1979 due to the spread of cancer.
He died at the U.C.L.A. Medical Center with family members at his side.
He left this world as the biggest box-office star of all-time.
Wayne's Super70s movies include: Chisum,
Lobo, Big Jake,
- United States Marshal, McQ,
Cogburn, and The Shootist.
1: If you doubt his credentials as an activist, check out his
2: It is hard to imagine now, but as recently as the early 1960s, the
"c" word (cancer) simply wasn't discussed in public. When
someone died from it, newspaper reports often referred to the death as
having been from "a long illness."