John Wayne – “The Duke”

The Duke was plagued by health problems which came to a head in 1964. He lost his left lung and two ribs to cancer in September of that year. Although rumors spread that he had developed the disease while filming in Utah, where the U.S. government had been testing nuclear bombs, he denied that this was true. Admittedly, he smoked from three to five packs of cigarettes a day from the early 1930s until the operation in 1964.

His agent and advisors wanted to cover up the hospitalization and illness, due to the fact that the backers and insurers of the motion picture industry were hesitant to have ailing actors performing. It was “bad business” to back someone with a potentially fatal disease. But about 3½ months after his operation, Mr. Wayne held a press conference at his ranch in Encino, California and announced that he had no intentions of going out quietly. Because of his openness and honesty, cancer victims from around the world found new hope and courage in the strength which he showed and offered to them.

Despite his illnesses and their complications, Mr. Wayne continued to do many of his own stunts. In 1969, while filming “The Undefeated”, he fell from his horse and fractured three ribs. After almost two weeks of recuperating and then returning to work, he tore a ligament in one of his shoulders and could not use the arm on that side at all. In order to finish the film on a timely basis, his remaining shots were done at an angle to hide the non-use of that arm. He finished filming and showed remarkable aplomb, in spite of tremendous pain.

Mr. Wayne’s last film, “The Shootist” (1976), portrayed him as an aging gunfighter who is diagnosed with prostate cancer. He was, at the time, again fighting lung cancer and had been diagnosed with stomach cancer as well. His co-star, the legendary Lauren Bacall, had watched her real life husband, Humphrey Bogart, battle lung cancer and its agonies. The interaction between Ms. Bacall and The Duke came through during the filming and made for some very touching and real life interjections in the final product.

Because Mr. Wayne was not able to work every day, the shooting schedule was extended to accommodate him. Due to the fact that there had been questions about whether or not he would be able to finish the film, because of failing health, he made it his personal mission to accomplish just that – and succeeded in his endeavors.

Following completion of the film, Mr. Wayne had surgery in December of 1976, ironically, for an enlarged prostate. His public appearances decreased drastically after that. But being the trouper that he was he continued to appear, as often as his health allowed, until he lost his battle with cancer on June 11, 1979 at the age of 72 years and 16 days. He left behind him an incredible legacy which survives, even today.

He received many honors and tributes during his lifetime, as well as posthumously. Besides the Oscar that he received for “True Grit”, Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona nominated him for the Congressional Medal of Honor in 1979. That was awarded and presented to his family after his demise. And he was honored on the day of his passing by the lighting of the Olympic Torch at the Coliseum in Los Angeles. The torch remained lit until he was interred four days later.

Other notable honors and tributes include:

1970 – received the DeMolay Legion of Honor

1973 – Awarded the Gold Medal from the National Football Foundation in honor of his time as a player at both Glendale High and USC

1974 – Induction into the Hall of Great Western Performers at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum

1974 – The Harvard Lampoon invited Mr. Wayne to appear at the Harvard Square Theater to award him the “Brass Balls Award” for his “outstanding machismo and a penchant for punching people”. He accepted and arrived atop an armored personnel carrier which was operated by active military personnel. He mounted the stage of the theater and quickly and adroitly answered the derogatory questions with lightening-quick wit. Despite the ill feelings associated with the college students who voiced anti-war sentiments in regards to Vietnam, he won them over completely

1976 – Presented the People’s Choice Award for “Most Popular Motion Picture Actor”

1980 – Posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Jimmy Carter

1986 – Inducted as a Member of the First Class into the DeMolay Hall of Fame

1990 – Pictured on a 25 cent stamp issued by the U.S Postal Service honoring films of 1939. He was featured as “The Ringo Kid” from “Stagecoach”

1997 – Ranked #16 in Empire (UK) Magazine’s “Top 100 Movie Stars of All Time”

2001 – Gallup Poll participants selected John Wayne as their favorite movie star of all time

2003 – He placed in the “Top Ten” of the annual Harris Poll asking Americans to name their favorite movie star of all time. No other deceased actor has achieved this status since the inception of this particular poll in 1993

2004 – Commemorated on a 37 cent stamp in the “Legends of Hollywood” series issued by the U.S. Postal Service

Other notable tributes and honors with no listed dates include: voted 4th Greatest Movie Star of All Time by Premiere Magazine, named 13th Greatest Actor on the list of 50 Greatest Screen Legends by the American Film Institue, voted 5th Greatest Movie Star of All Time by Entertainment Weekly Magazine and Mr. Wayne was a Lifetime Member of Sigma Chi Fraternity, the Masons, DeMolay and the USC Trojan Knights.

Further, John “Duke” Wayne holds the record for the actor with the most leading parts – 142. He was the lead actor in all but 11 of those films.

He has been imitated, countless times, by comedians and actors in films and on television. He has been referenced in song lyrics over the last four decades, as recently as 2004 in a song by the country music duo “Big and Rich”. He has an airport in Orange County, California named for him and even has a 100 mile stretch of trail in the Iron Mountain State Park in Washington named in his honor.

Even today, one might see a Western film “aficionado” attempt to imitate the rolling walk, the slow drawl and the use of the term “pilgrim” which were employed by this film icon.

And the John Wayne Cancer Institute continues to pursue treatments and cures for several forms of the devastating disease which took this great man out of our physical world. His influence still continues in our lives, almost 30 years after his demise. He will be remembered as long as there are those who carry on his legacy and share his memories and films with future generations.

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