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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.

Marion Morrison?

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 Marion Morrison.

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 Green Berets in 1968. In some ways, he can be seen as the anti-'Hanoi Jane' Fonda.

Visiting the Troops

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 for criticism.

Chu Lai, South Vietnam; NARA photo


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 subject.2

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 years.

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, Rio Lobo, Big Jake, The Cowboys, Cahill - United States Marshal, McQ, Brannigan, Rooster Cogburn, and The Shootist.

1: If you doubt his credentials as an activist, check out his FBI file.
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."



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Wayne said his epitaph should be an old Mexican saying which translated as: 'He was ugly, he was strong, he had dignity.'

NARA/Hoover Library photo

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