It was hard to imagine John Wayne lying down. At 6’4” and more than 200 pounds, the Duke had towered over many movie sets during a career that spanned half a century. But 13 years ago this week, the actor who had made sprawling, brawling Westerns an American tradition succumbed to what he called ”the Big C,” cancer, at age 72.
Born Marion Morrison in Winterset, Iowa, in 1907, Wayne was 5 when his family moved to Southern California. He played football at USC and earned extra money working as a prop boy and bit player in Hollywood. Then, in the stuff that movie legends are made of, this handsome hero-to-be was noticed on a set, rechristened John Wayne, and given the starring role in 1930’s The Big Trail.
Wayne went on to make more than 200 movies, some of them awful (like The Green Berets, which he codirected in 1968), but many of them classics (1939’s Stagecoach, 1948’s Red River, 1949’s She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, 1952’s The Quiet Man, and 1959’s Rio Bravo). Although he won a 1969 Oscar for True Grit, he had no illusions about his abilities. ”When I started, I knew I was no actor,” he once said, ”and I went to work on this Wayne thing. It was as deliberate a projection as you’ll ever see…I dreamed up…a way of moving meant to suggest that I wasn’t looking for trouble but would just as soon throw a bottle at your head as not.”
He did the ”Wayne thing” up until his final film, 1976’s The Shootist (in which he played a gunfighter who dies of cancer), and became the epitome of the American hero — tough, genial, and indestructible. Which made his final, painful days that much harder to bear. The actor underwent heart surgery in April 1978, then had his stomach removed in January 1979 after a cancerous tumor was found. He was hospitalized again on May 2, when part of his lower intestine was excised. He hung on to life for another five weeks, but the operation had come too late. Wayne died on June 11, leaving 3 former wives, 7 children, 21 grandchildren, and a lover, Pat Stacy, who wrote in her 1983 book, Duke: A Love Story, ”He’d been through so much and beaten it all. We couldn’t believe he wouldn’t beat the last one, too.”
June 11, 1979
Disco ruled the charts, with the Bee Gees’ ”Love You Inside Out” at No. 1. Sally Field found that people liked her in the film Norma Rae, and Robert Ludlum’s The Matarese Circle scored top place on the fiction best-seller list.