John Wayne’s final years: ‘Exhausted’ Duke’s secret oxygen mask discovery left him furious

John Wayne discusses the Hollywood 'blacklist' in 1974

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John Wayne was born 115 years old ago this week and died at the age of 72 back in 1979, after a long career of 179 film and TV productions. During his last couple of decades, Duke was plagued with ill health after having a cancerous lung and two ribs removed in the mid-1960s. His operation saw his new movie with Dean Martin, The Sons of Katie Elder, stalled until he recovered. Yet despite his struggles, the Hollywood star was determined to carry on, sucking in his gut and wearing fresh toupees to play characters often much younger and fitter than he was at 57-years-old. 

With just one lung, Wayne had to rely on an oxygen tank to sustain him, which was a real difficulty for him considering their filming location of Durango, Mexico was 6000 ft above sea level. Nevertheless, this didn’t stop him from puffing away on cigars even though he had given up on cigarettes.

His The War Wagon co-star Kirk Douglas recalled a year later seeing a fragile Duke using the mask for the whole of their flight to their Mexican set, having previously been unaware of just how bad his condition had become. Yet it was on The Sons of Katie Elder where the risk of it all being publicised that left the Western star furious.

One day on set, The Globe photographer Gene Sysco snapped him secretly gasping for air into his mask, which caused Duke to “explode in rage”.

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 gave it back to Duke on the now dead silent set, which made the actor realise just how much he’d overreacted to being photographed.

It was just a few hours later in the motel dining room where 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.”

Despite this, Duke kept the film as he wanted to protect his public image as a tough American cowboy on the big screen. 

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 reestablishing his tough persona after such major surgery.

Following his Best Actor Oscar for 1969’s True Grit, the star was said to be extremely tired when exerting himself on the set of Rio Lobo, his second remake of Rio Bravo with Howard Hawks.

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Although Wayne would often still insist on doing his own stunts during this period, for Rio Lobo fight scene much was filmed with his double alongside off-camera sounds of scuffling. His co-star Jennifer O’Neill remembered how Duke struggled to carry her up the stairs.

She said in an interview years later: “He became just completely exhausted, he really struggled through it.” By his mid-sixties, the cowboy star was coming to the end of his Western career with films like Cahill US Marshall.

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Suffering from emphysema on his remaining lung, Duke was very weak and forced to use a stepladder to climb onto his horse and had a double for distance riding shots.

In 1973, the year Cahill US Marshall was released, his longtime collaborator director  John Ford died of cancer. At the time Wayne told journalists: “I’m pretty much living on borrowed time.”

Following the not as well-received movie, Wayne made just two more Westerns in True Grit sequel Rooster Cogburn, with Katherine Hepburn, and his final movie The Shootist. The latter saw him play a terminally ill gunfighter in the 1976 movie, foreshadowing his own death from cancer just three years later.

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