Although John Wayne endured decades of success as an actor, the Western star wasn’t without his own struggles. Off-screen and often in secret, the American icon dealt with health problems no one ever imagined.
In the last 15 years of his life, The Duke sadly suffered from several severe health conditions. As a former heavy smoker, doctors diagnosed him with lung cancer. As a result, they had to remove one of his lungs and a couple of ribs. Despite undergoing several surgeries, Wayne was still determined to maintain his macho persona. He even continued to do his own stunts and smoke cigars after the surgeries.
While continuously taking on roles he was too old for, he would also don a toupee. He also had to wear an oxygen mask.
However, in 1976, he starred in his final Western called The Shootist. The film also starred Lauren Bacall, Ron Howard, and James Stewart. Coincidentally, Wayne played the lead role of JB Books, who was a man dying from cancer. Tragically, that same disease would kill Wayne in real life just three years later.
After doctors diagnosed Duke with stomach cancer at 72, he volunteered for a vaccine study in an attempt to find a cure for his cancer. Sadly, his body was too weak to begin chemotherapy as well as an experimental treatment.
Although he couldn’t begin experimental treatment, it didn’t keep him from making public appearances. His last came on April 9, 1979, during the 51st Academy Awards. At the event, Wayne presented Best Picture. Although he wasn’t a nominee for the award, he received a standing ovation from the crowd after Johnny Carson invited him to the stage.
John Wayne’s final words
However, viewers found it strange when Wayne looked noticeably thinner. As it turns out, he wore a wet suit under his tuxedo to make himself look more muscular. Before announcing that year’s winner, he thanked the audience and gave a short speech.
“Thank you, ladies and gentlemen,” The Duke began. “That’s just about the only medicine a fella would really ever need. Believe me when I tell you, I’m mighty pleased that I can amble down here tonight. Well, Oscar and I have something in common: Oscar first came to the Hollywood scene in 1928, so did I. We’re both a little weather-beaten, but we’re still here and plan to be around for a whole lot longer.”
On June 11, 1979, Wayne passed away with his family around him just two months later. His daughter held his hand when he died and asked if he knew who she was, to which his reply would break your heart. “Of course, I know who you are,” he told her. “You’re my girl. I love you.”