The Case of the Award-Winning Actor With Multiple Diseases and Numerous Operations

Albert B. Lowenfels, MD


August 04, 2006

Brief Biography

The son of a pharmacist, Wayne was born in 1907 and grew up in Iowa. A tall, strong man, he obtained a football scholarship to attend the University of Southern California, where he studied law. When his scholarship expired, he worked in the film industry as a prop man and later as an extra on films directed by John Ford, who eventually gave him the lead role in Stagecoach (1939). Only later as a film star did he change his name from Marion Morrison to John Wayne, but he was often called by his nickname, "Duke." Because of his natural, convincing acting style, his good looks, and his commanding presence, he quickly became a popular actor, nearly always listed as one of the top 10 movie stars. He usually played the leading role in films about the American west, where he is portrayed as a skilled rider and an accomplished gun fighter.

In a 1942 film (In old California), John Wayne plays the role of a pharmacist -- the same profession as his father. Not only does he protect his fellow citizens from a land-grabbing scheme, but he also uses his medical knowledge to successfully combat a typhoid epidemic.

There are many anecdotal stories relating to Wayne's life and career. One famous story concerns his encounter with Nikita Khrushchev, the formidable Russian premier who enjoyed watching John Wayne movies, and who, like Wayne, enjoyed consuming alcohol. In 1959, when Khrushchev visited the United States, the two men met at a reception. Later in the evening as they conversed via an interpreter, they consumed several drinks. Much to Wayne's astonishment, a few months after their meeting, Khrushchev sent several cases of fine Russian vodka. Wayne reciprocated with a gift of his favorite drink -- tequila.

Although he never served in the military, Wayne did feature in several military films, such as Sands of Iwo Jima (1949). Douglas MacArthur was impressed by his military manner and quiet competence, so noticeable in his many film roles. Wayne was a role model for Ronald Reagan, and Nancy Reagan was a devoted fan and admirer.

During his lifetime, Wayne received several prestigious awards, including:

  • Oscar Award (1969) for the portrayal of Reuben (Rooster) Cogburn in True Grit;

  • Veterans of Foreign Wars gold medal (1973);

  • Congressional Gold Medal (1979); and

  • Presidential Medal of Freedom, awarded by President Jimmy Carter (1980-posthumously) (see Figures 2 and 3).

Figure 2.

Congressional Gold Medal awarded to John Wayne shortly before his death.

Figure 3.

Presidential Medal of Freedom awarded posthumously by President Jimmy Carter.

In addition, he has been recognized in several other ways:

  • The John Wayne Cancer Institute (Santa Monica, California), founded in 1981, offers cancer therapy and performs cancer research.

  • One of Los Angeles' major airports is named after John Wayne.

  • In the center of Beverly Hills, California, there is a large bronze statue showing John Wayne dressed in his characteristic cowboy garments, astride a horse.

For some Americans, John Wayne represents 20th century America. In real life he was a tall, strong, blunt man with strongly held, usually conservative opinions; in many ways his film roles were a self-portrait: he played characters who made things happen. His thousands of fans regarded him as a brave, strongly principled, authoritarian figure. President Reagan said: "There is no one who more exemplifies the devotion to our country, its goodness, its industry and its strengths than John Wayne." Jimmy Carter, when awarding the Presidential Medal of Freedom, said: "He was the genuine article."

Because of his popularity and conservative view, the Republican party reputedly offered Wayne the 1968 presidential candidacy. Wayne refused because he never imagined a film star could become president. Surely, if he had been alive in 1980, he would have been surprised when Ronald Reagan, a less well-known actor, became president.

Because some of his fans believed Wayne incapable of developing a potentially fatal illness, movie studios initially suppressed the facts about his operation for lung cancer. After his pneumonectomy, he made many more films, performing with his usual vigor despite bouts of pain and shortness of breath.

Wayne, after successfully winning the battle against lung cancer, continued to act in strenuous roles, despite the loss of a lung. He then survived open heart surgery, but eventually, at age 72, succumbed to a second lethal tumor -- gastric cancer.[11,12,13]

Related Links

The Unofficial John Wayne Website

Reel Classics: The Classic Movie Site


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