(Because of he recent heart surgery, John Wayne has been under doctor’s orders not to do interviews for the next three months. He made an exception for Jim Bacon, his friend of 30 years. “He knows I have enough on him to hang him” jokes Bacon.)
“I guess I’m just too goddamned tough to die.” That’s the Duke talking – John Wayne. And he’s right. There must be a few other 71-year olds around who have licked the Big C. But offhand I can’t think of one who has licked the Big C and the Big H in 14 years.
When the Duke had open-heart surgery this spring in Boston to replace a defective valve, surgeons were amazed at the durability of the screen’s greatest legend. They should have known better. For the John Wayne you see on the screen is the same John Wayne you see in the flesh. There is only one, thank God. None of his friends could cope with more.
Duke’s last stay in the hospital scared his family and even scared him a little. Pilar, his estranged wife third wife, wanted a reconciliation, but as Duke say’s, “You can never go back”.
The screen’s most famous cowboy discovered the problem in his artery in a strange way. He had been having respiratory trouble ever since losing a lung to cancer in 1964. “Then all of the sudden I found I was losing my voice,” he explains. “I didn’t know until a doctor told me there is an artery that goes from your heart to your vocal cords. Now, that scared me. What the hell is an actor going to do when he loses his voice? That’s how I make my living.”
As his fans know, nothing ever scared John Wayne. But this was different. “I didn’t fight anybody and say, ‘Don’t take me to the hospital,’ but I was scared at losing my voice.” he admits. (Duke not only talks for the camera, he speaks his mind loudly and clearly on many occasions, whether he has an audience or not).
After his operation, I asked Duke if he could still take a belt of Scotch. “I guess I could if I wanted to.” he said, “But I’ve been taking it easy since I came back from Boston. One of these days, I’ll lift a few.”
When that happens, watch out. Duke can out drink anyone in Hollywood. Always could and always will. I remember the baptism of his son John Ethan at St. Cyril’s Church in Encino, California, around 1 pm on a Sunday afternoon some 16 years ago. When I left Duke’s Encino home after the baptism party, it was 8:00 am the next day – and the host was still singing with the mariachi band in his living room. Everybody, including half the musicians, had dropped by the way side, but Duke was still going until noontime at least.
Incidents like these have helped make Wayne one of the most colorful movie legends since the heyday of silent stars Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford. Wayne’s 150-odd movies, in a career spanning 50 years, have grossed a half-billion dollars or more. As a result, the people around him begin to panic when he gets sick.
At the time of his cancer operation, the press releases from his producers said that John Wayne was in Good Samaritan Hospital in Los Angeles for treatment of an old leg injury resulting from a fall on his yacht. I must confess, I believed it. Tough guys like Duke never get sick. They just get drunk and fall down. Unsuspecting, I dropped by the hospital one afternoon to visit, but was told by a nurse, “Mr. Wayne is having no visitors.” “Let that son of a bitch come in,” I heard that familiar voice bellow from his room. I had barely sat down next to his bed when he blurted out, “Well, I licked the Big C.”
Then he went into detail about how his habitual six packs of cigarettes a day had resulted in a lung tumor the size of a baseball. Surgeons had no alternative but to remove the entire lung. Duke always had a cigarette cough, and one night, while he was recuperating, he started hacking so violently that his stitches burst. That alone might have killed him. But he snapped back.
At the hospital, Duke apologized for the phony press releases. “Those bastards who make pictures only think of the box office. They figure Duke Wayne with cancer isn’t a good image. I was too doped up at the time to argue with them, but I’m telling you the truth now. You know I never lie.”
When my exclusive story broke around the world, public reaction was tremendous. Thousands of cancer victims and their relatives wrote to the actor. All the letters said the same thing – that Duke’s fight against the dread disease had given them so much hope.
Some 14 years later, when the star entered Massachusetts General Hospital, the same scenario was repeated. The original press stories said Duke had respiratory trouble, pneumonia, bronchitis – you name it. Then, at Duke’s insistence, the public learned the truth: He had undergone open-heart surgery. These days, four assistants work around-the-clock to open more then 100,000 pieces of fan mail to Wayne, Many from victims of heart disease. They will be happy to know that Duke’s voice is back to normal. The defective valve was replaced by one from a pig. “Now not only can I talk,” says Duke, “but I go around saying ‘oink, oink.'”
Duke has such a strong constitution that he’s already back in excellent health, though on doctor’s orders he is taking it easy for a few more weeks. Every morning he rises at around 6:30 and strolls for a mile or two around his Newport Beach, Calif. neighborhood, doing a mile in about in about 20 minutes. One recent weekend, he took his yacht – a converted mine-sweeper he calls “The Wild Goose” – on a trip across the channel to Catalina. He was at the helm during most of the trip and did some fishing too.
Fishing has long been a hobby. Once he and his son Patrick caught what they later discovered was the biggest Mahi-Mahi (That’s Hawaiian for Dolphin) on record. They weighed it, but it never made the record books. Duke, with his tremendous appetite, had eaten part of the fish by the time the boat docked. “Hell, we knew it was big, but we didn’t know it was the biggest,” he shrugs. “It tasted great.”
After his enforced convalescence is over, Duke plans to start working with scriptwriters on a new movie. It’s the story of a contemporary family with Wayne as the patriarch. “It could take place in the 30’s or the 40’s or now, but damn – it’s funny.” he insists. The movie, from an unpublished novel, is called Beau John.
As a friend of Duke’s who has read the galley proofs says that if the movie is as good as the novel, it could net a second Oscar for Wayne. His first was for his performance as Sheriff Rooster Cogburn in the 1969 movie True Grit.
“We’ll probably shoot the picture this fall if we get the script ready in time.” Duke says. “It is not a western, although it could go that way. There’s no patriarchal story that won’t fit into a western background.
Wayne has always believed in the western as an art form, and even compares the genre to Homer’s “The Land” and “The Odyssey”. Certainly no one has done more then John Wayne – the last cowboy- to make it so. A list of his films from Stagecoach to The Shootist is in itself a history of the American film western. His family and friends are sure there will be more westerns in the old cowboy’s future.
John Wayne may be tough, but he’s not too tough to indulge in a little sentiment. He admits the outpouring of good wishes sent by fans concerned about his illness “made me cry.”
Yet he is tough enough to insist that nothing will keep him down long. “I’m a greedy old man.” he says bluntly. “Life’s been good to me, and I want some more of it.”
By James Bacon
From US Magazine, June 27, 1978