After The Shootist was distributed in August 1976 to glowing critical reviews but disappointing rentals — nobody wanted to see American icon John Wayne battle incurable prostate cancer onscreen — the Duke was at a crossroads. Traditional westerns were going out of fashion besides Clint Eastwood’s The Outlaw Josey Wales and maybe Charles Bronson’s The White Buffalo.
Retirement was a sinful proposition for a man who abhorred most hobbies except sailing aboard the 136-foot World War II minesweeper converted yacht christened the Wild Goose, became anxious if friends were not nearby, and prided himself on being the first one to arrive on set. The Duke’s finances were precarious after an unscrupulous business manager and later son-in-law cheated him of untold millions. He could also be an easy mark for get-rich quick investment schemes and found it difficult to turn down fans who wrote to him requesting money to combat supposed ailments.
And most importantly, his health was declining. The removal of the entire upper lobe of his left lung and two ribs in 1964 had kept cancer in remission, but bronchial infections were tough to shake. For the first time in his 50-year career the Duke delayed a production and spent two weeks recuperating from the flu and an earache while frequent Eastwood collaborator Don Siegel staged the epic closing gunfight without him on The Shootist. Unable to wean himself off chewing tobacco or smoking cigars, coughing episodes would double him over in discomfort. An enlarged prostate gland created endless urinary urges. Insurance companies were hesitant to cover him for protracted location shoots.
A $2,000,000 ABC contract paid in installments between 1977 and 1979 for six two-hour network specials and two guest star spots on variety specials was a step in the right direction. So were commercials, which Wayne had a bit of familiarity with going back to August 1973. The genuine article, who hilariously conceded to a Harvard Lampoon student that his hair was not phony yet did not belong to him, permitted his name, likeness, and endorsement of a hair growth tonic called Hair Trigger and specified that he receive 10 percent of the net profit. It’s unknown if he contributed any exclusive video plugs for Hair Trigger.
Wayne booked a $200,000-a-year print and TV association with Datril 500 in November 1976, an aspirin substitute product by Bristol-Myers which competed briefly against Johnson & Johnson’s Tylenol. Company executives must have been delirious with joy to have one of the most masculine, trusted men in America urging folks to “ask your doctor about taking Datril 500.” Filming among the majestic buttes of Monument Valley, Utah — the Duke’s old stomping grounds in the company of crusty Searchers director John Ford — should not have put him in a foul mood. But having served as a director himself on passion projects The Alamo and The Green Berets, Wayne found his ideas for script alterations falling on deaf ears and an unprofessional crew who disregarded proper lighting and camera angles.
According to secretary-final companion Pat Stacy’s 1983 memoir Duke: A Love Story, “When the commercial was finally aired, Duke’s gardener protested — and I swear these are her words — ‘Why did they have to use that phony-looking background?’ When filming at a second location north of Flagstaff, Duke wanted a reference to the magnificent aspen trees in the background. The ad people almost went into cardiac arrest. ‘Aspen’ sounded too much like ‘aspirin!’ Things got so bad that Duke even made up a joke about it. ‘Next time we’ll do a commercial about the making of a commercial. We’ll show the meetings, discussions with attorneys and ad executives, and all the chaos I went through. Then I’ll step before the cameras and say, ‘This really gives you a headache. Take Datril 500. It’s strong medicine!’”
Stacy was not finished. “Over the next couple of years he’d receive hundreds of letters about those commercials, people writing in from all over to express disappointment, to wonder why he had ‘lowered himself’ to become a television salesman,” she wrote. “Duke’s answer to them all was terse and truthful: ‘I did it for the M-U-N-Y. But I guess I made a mistake. I’ll just have to find another way.’”
Marlene Dietrich, the Duke’s romantic liaison at the onset of World War II and leading lady [i.e. Seven Sinners, The Spoilers, and Pittsburgh], was merciless. “You can’t be King Lear and selling some kind of product a minute later,” the feminist sex siren was quoted as saying in Randy Roberts and James S. Olson’s thorough 1995 biography John Wayne: American. “John Wayne…dressed as a cowboy from head to foot…I think it’s the most ludicrous thing I’ve ever seen…a ‘he-man of the great outdoors’ on horseback with his hat and all the other trappings of a real cowboy on, praising the effect of a headache tablet. Too funny for words.”
It’s unclear how many Datril 500 segments were broadcast. The Morning News from Wilmin gton, Delaware, mentioned five 30-second commercials being shot for TV consumption in mid-December 1976. Only one is available on YouTube. In April 1977 the Duke was obligated to video another round of Datril 500 commercials. Whether he traveled on location or donned cowboy regalia or even a black tuxedo remains a mystery. Regardless, Wayne cancelled his option for another year of embarrassing pill endorsements.
Great Western Savings and Loan Association approached him at the end of 1977, offering better production values in the form of two-time Oscar-winning cinematographer Haskell Wexler [i.e. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and David Carradine’s Bound for Glory]. Wexler, an unabashed Leftist in direct opposition to the Duke, also directed the segments — shown only in California — and in vintage comments to the Detroit Free Press shed light on Wayne the human being. “Duke is formidable, there’s no two ways about it,” said Wexler. “He knows everything there is to know about film-making, and he doesn’t keep it a secret. He has a dominant personality. He wants to run things. He wouldn’t do the dialogue as it was written. He would alter the lines to suit his personality. He gave as much care to the commercial as he would for a feature film.”
Great Western granted the fading star respect and more money — $350,000 for 1977, $400,000 for 1978, and $450,000 in 1979 with two one-year options after that. Six Great Western commercials are on YouTube, including an endearing spot with youngest children Ethan and Marissa in sleeping bags. Locations ranged from Sutter’s Mill, Sequoia National Forest, Lone Pine, to rugged California coastline. Scroll below to watch the accessible commercials and comment if you know the whereabouts of the rest.
Aissa Wayne, The War Wagon protagonist’s eldest daughter with third wife Pilar Pallete, recounted a sobering conversation in her 1991 memoir John Wayne: My Father. “If Michael [Wayne’s firstborn of seven children] had been old enough to manage my money from the start, I’d never have had these problems. You’ve gotta find something you can fall back on. If I get sick, I don’t know what will happen to you kids.”
The Duke was only 72 years old but had chalked up assorted lifetimes when he succumbed to stomach cancer on June 11, 1979, at the UCLA Medical Center. Atop the Top Ten Money Making Stars Poll for four years, research from Wayne’s biographer Scott Eyman divulged that he “left an estate valued at $6.8 million, with real property valued at $1 million, personal property at $5.75 million, and annual income from personal property at $100,000. A careful reading of the will made it clear that most of the estate was in property — there was little cash. The actor’s Newport Beach home was sold in March 1980 for $3.48 million. Wayne’s ranch partner Louis Johnson sold the 26 Bar Ranch, the Red River Land Company, and the Red River Feed Yard in January 1980 for $45 million, half of which went to the Wayne estate.”