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John Wayne – "The Duke"
Duke suffered from health problems that came to a head in 1964. He lost his left lung and two ribs to cancer in September of that year. Although there were rumors that he contracted the disease while filming in Utah, where the US government was testing an atomic bomb, he denied that this was true. From the early 1930s until the operation in 1964, he admitted to smoking three to five cigarettes a day.
His agents and consultants wanted to cover hospitalizations and illnesses, as motion picture industry backers and insurers were reluctant to cast sick actors. Backing someone with a potentially fatal illness was “bad business.” But about 3½ months after his operation, Mr. Wayne held a press conference at his ranch in Encino, Calif., and announced that he had no intention of going out quietly. Because of his openness and honesty, cancer patients around the world found new hope and courage in the strength he showed and offered.
Despite his illness and its complications, Mr. Wayne continued to perform many of his own stunts. In 1969, he fell from a horse during the filming of ‘The Unbeaten’ and fractured three ribs. After nearly two weeks of recovery and then returning to work, he tore a ligament in his shoulder and was unable to use that arm at all. In order to finish the film on time, the rest of his shots were done at an angle to hide the misuse of that arm. Despite being in great pain, he completed the shoot and showed remarkable patience.
Mr. Wayne’s last film, “The Shootist” (1976), portrayed him as an aging gunslinger diagnosed with prostate cancer. At the time, he was battling lung cancer again and had also developed stomach cancer. His co-star, the legendary Lauren Bacall, watched her real-life husband, Humphrey Bogart, suffer from lung cancer. The interactions between Ms. Bacall and The Duke took place during filming and made for some very touching and real-life interjections in the final product.
Since Mr. Wayne was unable to work every day, the shooting schedule was extended to accommodate him. Ill health raised questions about whether he would be able to complete the film, so he made it his personal mission to complete it – and succeeded in his endeavor.
After the film was completed, Mr. Wayne underwent surgery for an enlarged prostate in December 1976. After that, his public presence decreased considerably. But until he lost his battle with cancer on June 11, 1979, at the age of 72 years and 16 days, he was seen as often as his health allowed. He left behind an incredible legacy that endures even today.
He received many honors and tributes during his lifetime, as well as posthumously. In addition to the Oscar he received for “True Grit,” Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater nominated him for the Congressional Medal of Honor in 1979. It was awarded and passed on to his family after his death. And he was honored on the day of his death with the lighting of the Olympic torch at the Coliseum in Los Angeles. The torch was lit until the cremation four days later.
Other notable honors and tributes include:
1970 – Demolay received the Legion of Honor
1973 – Awarded a gold medal from the National Football Foundation in honor of his time as a player at both Glendale High and USC
1974 – Inducted into the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum’s Hall of Great Western Performers
1974 – The Harvard Lampoon invited Mr. Wayne to the Harvard Square Theater to honor him with the “Brass Balls Award” for his “outstanding machismo and penchant for punching people.” He accepted and arrived on an armored personnel carrier manned by active duty military personnel. He mounted the stage of the theater and quickly and deftly answered insulting questions with light-quick wit. Despite the ill feelings associated with college students expressing anti-war sentiments regarding Vietnam, he completely won them over.
1976 – Presented People’s Choice Award for “Most Popular Motion Picture Actor”.
1980 – Posthumously awarded the Medal of Freedom by President Jimmy Carter
1986 – Inducted into the Demolay Hall of Fame as a first class member
1990 – The US Postal Service featured a 25 cent stamp honoring the 1939 film. He appeared as “The Ringo Kid” in “Stagecoach”.
1997 – Ranked #16 in Empire (UK) Magazine’s “Top 100 Movie Stars of All Time”
2001 – Gallup poll participants chose John Wayne as their favorite movie star of all time
2003 – He asked Americans to name their favorite movie stars of all time in the annual Harris Poll’s “Top Ten.” No other late actor has achieved this status since the inception of this particular poll in 1993.
2004 – Commemorative 37 cent stamp from the “Legends of Hollywood” series issued by the US Postal Service
Other notable tributes and honors with no listed dates include: 4th Greatest Movie Star of All Time by Premiere Magazine, named 13th Greatest Actor on the American Film Institute’s list of 50 Greatest Screen Legends, voted 5th Greatest Movie Star of All Time. 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 most leading roles by an actor – 142. Apart from 11 of these films, he was the lead actor.
He has been imitated numerous times by comedians and actors on film and television. It has been referenced in song lyrics over the past four decades, most recently in the 2004 song by country music duo “Big and Rich”. He has an airport in Orange County, California, and a 100-mile trail in his honor at Iron Mountain State Park in Washington.
Even today, one sees the Western film “aficionado” attempt to imitate the rolling walk, slow drawl and use of the word “pilgrim” that this film icon used.
And the John Wayne Cancer Institute continues to treat and cure many of the devastating diseases that took this great man out of our physical world. Almost 30 years after his death, his influence continues in our lives. As long as there are people who carry on his legacy and share his memories and films with future generations, he will be remembered.
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