Back in September 1964, John Wayne was set to re-team with Rio Bravo director Howard Hawks and co-star Dean Martin in The Sons of Katie Elder, which is on ITV4 this weekend. The Western saw four brothers, with Duke playing the eldest, return home to their mother’s funeral before avenging their father’s murder and winning back the family ranch. However, the shoot was delayed until January 1965 so that the Hollywood cowboy star could have a cancerous lung and two ribs removed. Following Wayne’s diagnosis at 57-years-old, he recommended Kirk Douglas play his role, but director Henry Hathaway was insistent that Duke should do the part. Despite a successful operation, the Hollywood legend would suffer with ill health for the rest of his life. Yet just four months after surgery, he still insisted on doing some of his own stunts on the new movie to show the public that he wasn’t slowing down.
One stunt included being dragged into a river and almost catching pneumonia, but narrowly getting away with a serious cold. In fact, if you watch that scene you can hear a child crying out “Come on Dad!” This was Wayne’s three-year-old son Ethan who was watching off-camera and knew his father wasn’t in the best of shape.
Duke shot this without a wet suit as he was already too fat for the role, something the crew were working overtime to hide. The scene took five days to film and after one particularly freezing take, the star took some vitamin C tablets, washed down with mescal. Spotting he’d been observed by reporters, he shook off the hit of the drink, smiled and said to them: “Goddamn! I’m the stuff men are made of!” His The Sons of Katie Elder co-star Dean Martin was really struck by his co-star’s tenacity.
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The stars of The Sons of Katie Elder (Image: GETTY)Martin told a reporter for Time: “Someone else would have laid around, feeling sorry for himself, for a year. But Duke, he just doesn’t know how to be sick. He’s recuperating the hard way. He’s two loud-speaking guys in one. Me, when people see me, they sometimes say, ‘Oh, there goes Perry Como.’ But there’s only one John Wayne, and nobody makes any mistakes about that”.
Hathaway made sure to reshoot scenes that had too much of Wayne’s gut on display, while his makeup man kept on top of things. This included redoing the star’s eyes, continuing to smear Nivea cream over his double chin and stying his hairpiece. Additionally, Duke’s trainer Ralph Volkie would rub the star’s aching muscles with Absorbine Jr pain relief which made the set smell. Nevertheless, it all paid off and the director’s wish for America to see John Wayne as they had known him worked a treat.
However, during filming Duke had to rely on an oxygen tank on set, which was particularly needed since their filming location of Durango, Mexico was 6000 ft above sea level. At one point he “exploded in rage” after a photograph of him using it was taken by Gene Sysco from The Globe.
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John Wayne ‘screamed in fury’ when caught using oxygen mask on set with Dean Martin (Image: GETTY)
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The Sons of Katie Elder poster (Image: GETTY)According to Randy Roberts’ John Wayne: American, the star threw a can at the photographer and screamed: “You goddamned son of a b****! Give me that f***ing film!” Sysco handed it over to Duke on the now deathly silent set, which made the star realise how much he’d overreacted and that he needed to apologise.
A few hours later in the motel dining room, Wayne walked over to the photographer’s table and said publicly: “I’m a grown man. I ought to be able to control myself better than I did today. I’m sorry.” However, the film remained with him, fearful that his public image would be tainted by seeing his face in an oxygen mask. After all, he felt it was crucial to reestablish his tough persona after such major surgery.
Even though he was reliant on the oxygen tank, actor George Kennedy recalled that although Wayne had stopped smoking cigarettes, he would continue to puff away on cigars despite now only having one lung.