Being John Wayne: A Role The Iconic Actor Never Mastered

John Wayne is the quintessential actor of 20th Century Hollywood. Often playing cowboys or cavalrymen, Wayne has acted in well over 100 movies. Infamous for his love of acting and dedication to his career, Wayne always pushed himself to do better due to feelings of inadequacy that stemmed from his home.

The Legend, The Duke

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John Wayne came from humble beginnings and he might have felt that his breakthrough in acting was all luck – being in the right place at the right time. Read on to understand why Wayne might have felt this way and what he might have been doing had he not become an actor.

Humble Beginnings

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Born Marion Mitchell Morrison on May 26, 1907, the future actor spent half of his childhood in his birthplace of Winterset, Iowa. At the age of seven, Wayne’s family relocated to Southern California and eventually settled in Glendale, a northern Los Angeles suburb where Wayne’s father found work as a pharmacist.

While attending middle and high school in Glendale, Wayne worked at an ice cream shop and was an active member of the Order of DeMolay, a youth group of the Freemasons. Wayne excelled academically in high school, where he was a member of the debate team and president of the Latin Society.

A Boy And His Dog

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Before he was known as John Wayne, Wayne was also known as Duke. The nickname stuck with him throughout his whole life. But just how did he acquire such a name? As a child, Wayne’s constant companion was the family’s Airedale Terrier named “Big Duke.” On his way to school local firefighters would always see Wayne and his dog together, so they eventually began calling him “Little Duke.”

Morrison preferred “Duke” to his birth name, “Marion,” so people just began to refer to him as Duke all the time. Although he would later be known as John Wayne, he always considered his name to be Duke.

A Football-Playing Lawyer?

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Having played football for Glendale High School’s league champion team in 1924, Wayne sought to play football throughout college. After not getting accepted into the U.S. Naval Academy, Wayne attended the University of Southern California on a football scholarship where he majored in pre-law.

Unfortunately, his college football career was cut short after a bodysurfing accident broke his collarbone. No longer able to play, Wayne lost his scholarship and had to drop out of college. Although he was terrified to notify his coach, football legend Howard Jones, Wayne was apparently still in his good graces since Jones found other options for him.

Started From The Bottom

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Jones had connections to the entertainment industry at the time and found Wayne work as a prop boy and extra at Fox Film Corporation. Through silent Western film star Tom Mix, Wayne met famed lawman and gambler Wyatt Earp, who he credits as the inspiration behind his walk, talk, and persona as the actor John Wayne.

He eventually made his way into bit parts, given by director John Ford, with whom Wayne maintained a long lasting friendship. At this point (throughout the 1920s), Wayne was still known as “Duke” and has only been credited as “Duke Morrison” once throughout his whole career, in a 1929 film called Words and Music.

What’s In A Name?

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So how exactly did John Wayne come to be known as such? While working as a prop boy he was discovered by director Raoul Walsh, who cast him in the starring role for the 1930 film The Big Trail. Because “Duke Morrison” sounded more like the name of a stuntman and not a leading actor, the filmmakers began brainstorming a star-worthy name.

Walsh at first wanted to go with “Anthony Wayne,” but the Fox executives thought it sounded “too Italian.” Walsh then thought of “John Wayne” and the name stuck. Apparently, Wayne himself wasn’t even present for any of that discussion, but he got a raise and was paid $105 a week.

The Big Fail

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The Big Trail featured John Wayne in the lead role of Breck Coleman, a trapper who travels the Oregon Trail to avenge the murder of his friend. The role was John Wayne’s first starring role, although he had a reputation of being a B-movie actor, playing bit parts in low-budget commercial films.

The Big Trail ended up being a big fail at the time too, costing over $2 million for its use of hundreds of extras and its innovative camera technology. It was filmed in standard 35-mm, but also on 70-mm Grandeur film to give the views of the American southwest justice. But because not all theaters were equipped with the technology to show Grandeur film, only a handful of people were able to really appreciate the film. Thus, The Big Trail was a box office flop.

The Making Of An Actor

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Although the film in which he had his first lead role was a failure, John Wayne was promoted to small parts in A-pictures. He continued to act in lead roles for low-budget Westerns, estimating to have done around 80 horse operas throughout the ’30s for Monogram Pictures and Mascot Pictures Corporation.

Around this time, Wayne was mentored by stuntmen on how to ride horses and perform other skills seen in Western films. At this time, Wayne reluctantly took on the role of a singing cowboy. The bit was a success, but Wayne did not like singing and eventually told the studio he was working for to find another singer because he was an action star.

A Star Is Born

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Director John Ford began to shop Stagecoach to many big Hollywood studios but in the 1930s the innovation of sound films made Westerns out of vogue, so nobody wanted to back the project. Ford also insisted on using John Wayne—then still a B-movie actor—which gave the studios even more of a reason to resist.

Reluctantly, independent producer Walter Wagner helped fund the project, giving Ford a little over half of what he was asking for, on the condition that top billing was given to Claire Trevor, who was more famous than Wayne in 1939. The film turned out to be a huge success—making a profit of nearly $300,000—and was a career breakthrough for John Wayne.

He Felt That He Failed His Country

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Soon the 1940s came around and so did World War II. War efforts called upon people from all sectors of life and while many people from Hollywood were enlisted into service, Wayne was exempted due to his age. Although he constantly wrote to John Ford saying that he wanted to enlist and join the same unit, Wayne kept postponing due to his contractual obligations to the studio.

Although Wayne toured with the USO to U.S. bases and hospitals, his failure to participate in the war would reportedly be one of his biggest regrets in life. According to the U.S. National Archives, Wayne did submit an application to serve in the OSS (Office of Strategic Services), but he never received his acceptance letter because it was sent to Wayne’s estranged first wife, who never told him about it.

From Woman To Woman

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John Wayne was married three times over the course of his life. Wayne was fluent in Spanish and coincidentally, all of his wives were of Hispanic descent. Wayne met his first wife, Josephine Saenz, while he was still a relatively unknown actor. Together they had four children: Michal, Mary, Patrick, and Melinda. While still married to Saenz, Wayne met his second wife, Esperanza Baur, while on vacation in Mexico. Wayne’s first marriage was already on the rocks and after his first divorce, he married Baur.

The second marriage turned out to be pretty volatile due to Baur’s jealousy over Wayne’s dedication to his work. They shared no children and went through a contentious divorce. The day that divorce was finalized, Wayne married his third wife, Peruvian actress Pilar Pallete. Pallete bore Wayne three more children—Aissa, John, and Marisa—and although they were separated in the years before his death, they never divorced.

An Affair To Remember

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While Wayne’s marriages never seemed to work out due to his career dedication, another reason―perhaps the biggest―was because of Wayne’s illicit extramarital affairs. The most notable affair Wayne had was with Hollywood icon Marlene Dietrich, with whom he’d be on and off for almost 20 years.

According to an Express report on Scott Eyman’s biography of Wayne, “When Wayne came on set Dietrich would leap into his arms and wrap her legs around him and he told friends that she gave him the best sexual experience of his life.” Of his other notable affairs was that with actress Merle Oberon and his former secretary Pat Stacy, with whom he lived in the final years of his life.

Old Habits Die Hard

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Wayne was known to drink quite a lot. So much so, in fact, that filmmakers allegedly would have to shoot all of Wayne’s scenes before noon, since by the afternoon he was “a mean drunk,” according to biographer Sam O’Steen. But worse than his drinking habit, was his smoking habit.

As a chain smoker since he was a young adult, Wayne would reportedly blow his way through five packs a day! As a result, of course, he was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1964, undergoing an operation in which doctors removed his entire left lung and four ribs. Interestingly enough, the surgery was a success and Wayne survived.

John Wayne Was A Superpatriot

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John Wayne had a reputation throughout Hollywood for being a staunch conservative Republican and was very vocal about his anti-Communist views. Although he supported Vice President Richard Nixon during the 1960 presidential elections, Wayne expressed his support after JFK ended up winning that election saying, “I didn’t vote for him but he’s my president, and I hope he does a good job.”

His widow explained after his death that his patriotism was out of guilt from not being able to participate in WWII: “He would become a ‘superpatriot’ for the rest of his life trying to atone for staying home.”

Freedom Of Speech Taken Too Far

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John Wayne’s vocalness about his Republican ideals, however, sometimes got him into hot water. His 1971 interview with Playboy was the best example of this. Not only did he support the Vietnam War (much to the dismay of younger fans at the time), Wayne had some unnerving thoughts on race relations in America:

“I believe in white supremacy, until the blacks are educated to a point of responsibility. I don’t believe giving authority and positions of leadership and judgment to irresponsible people … I don’t feel we did wrong in taking this great country away from [the Native Americans] … Our so-called stealing of this country from them was just a matter of survival. There were great numbers of people who needed new land, and the Indians were selfishly trying to keep it for themselves.”

The Reason He Worked So Hard

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In the wake of success, there were some people that Wayne could not win over. Of all people, it turned out to be his own mother. Although Wayne liked to shower his loved ones with gifts, Express reports that “[his] mother Mary was cold and hypercritical no matter how successful he became. She accepted Wayne’s frequent generosity with a sneer.”

Wayne’s father didn’t live long enough to see what a phenomenon his son had become. It is perhaps because of this, that Wayne was so dedicated to his craft over his relationships. But all that working so hard eventually came at a price.

The Big C

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When Wayne had lung cancer in the ’60s, he coined the term “the big C.” Because he was advised against speaking publicly about his disease due to fear of losing acting jobs, Wayne held a press conference in which he said he beat his lung cancer, calling it “the big C.”

Unfortunately, it would come back in his stomach and Wayne even enrolled in a cancer vaccine study to help fight it. His efforts turned out to be fruitless, as he succumbed to his stomach cancer on June 11, 1979, at the age of 72.

Leaving Behind A Legacy

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After Stagecoach made him a star, John Wayne never slowed down. Over the span of his career, Wayne starred in 142 movies. While many Hollywood studios clamored to get Wayne in the lead role of their movies, he would often turn down a role if he found that it didn’t match up with his morals or American ideals.

He even dabbled in directing; his most famous work being The Alamo for which he was nominated for an Oscar for Best Picture. He would eventually go on to win an Oscar in 1969 for what is arguably one of Wayne’s best—if not the best—film he’s ever acted in…

An Actor Of Humility

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John Wayne starred in True Grit as U.S. Marchal Reuben “Rooster” J. Cogburn. He won an Academy Award for Best Actor, which was the only Oscar he has ever received throughout the span of his career. Of course Wayne, as hard working and dedicated as he was to his craft, felt that the award was undeserved.

On some accounts, as he was receiving his award from presenter Barbara Streisand, he allegedly whispered in her ear, “beginner’s luck.” Later that night, he went to the door of actor Richard Burton, who was also nominated that night for Best Actor, and told him, “You should have this, not me.”

John Wayne Isn’t Real

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Although he felt his Oscar was undeserved, Wayne took the role of Rooster Cogburn to heart, saying it was “my first decent role in 20 years – and my first chance to play a character role instead of John Wayne.” As iconic as he was, John Wayne always felt that the moniker and the career that stemmed from it wasn’t his true self.

John Wayne reportedly once admitted, “The guy you see on the screen really isn’t me. I’m Duke Morrison and I never was and never will be a film personality like John Wayne. I know him well. I’m one of his closest students. I have to be. I make a living out of him.” Unbeknownst to the public, being John Wayne and battling his inner demons was something the Duke struggled with until the end of his life.

They Wanted Him Dead

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As we all know by now, John Wayne was a staunch patriot for the United States, so it’s no wonder that he was very anti-communist, especially during the era in which he hit his prime. Well, Soviet leader and closet film buff Joseph Stalin caught wind of Wayne’s anti-communist sentiments during the ’40s and wanted him dead. Stalin ordered two KGB hitmen to do the job in 1951.

Luckily the FBI was ahead of the game at the time and had John Wayne’s back. They were able to avert John Wayne’s assassination and other assassination attempts that followed.

An Unlikely Friendship

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Almost ten years later, the next Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev was on his way to visit the United States. Upon touching down at LAX, Khrushchev had two requests: to visit Disneyland (of course) and to meet the legendary John Wayne. Due to the Cold War at the time and security concerns, the Soviet leader didn’t get to visit the Happiest Place on Earth, much to his dismay.

But fortunately, the LA Times reported in 1999, he did get to meet John Wayne. Upon meeting him, Khrushchev took Wayne aside and said, “I’m told that you like to drink and that you can hold your liquor.” “That’s right,” Wayne replied before matching Khrushchev shot for shot and having a conversation about Russian vodka and Mexican tequila. That Christmas, Khrushchev sent Wayne cases of Vodka and Wayne returned the hospitality by sending Khrushchev cases of Tequila.

Changing His Stance

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While John Wayne earned a reputation outside of his Hollywood career as a staunch Republican, many might be surprised to learn that he actually harbored many socialist ideals when he was younger. In his controversial 1971 Playboy interview, he admitted to being a socialist when he was in college:

“I know all about that. In the late Twenties, when I was a sophomore at USC, I was a socialist myself—but not when I left. The average college kid idealistically wishes everybody could have ice cream and cake for every meal. But as he gets older and gives more thought to his and his fellow man’s responsibilities, he finds that it can’t work out that way—that some people just won’t carry their load… I believe in welfare—a welfare work program. I don’t think a fella should be able to sit on his backside and receive welfare.”

When Coming To America, Meet John Wayne

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In 1975, Emperor Hirohito of Japan came to the United States. Upon arriving in California and being asked if there was anything in particular that he wanted to see, Emperor Hirohito simply said, “John Wayne.” According to author Leticia Lakusiewicz, Hirohito enjoyed Wayne’s old-time Westerns for their “strict moral code and showdowns with good and evil, [which] had the same moral clarity as Akira Kurosawa’s samurai films.”

Despite the fact that John Wayne has starred in war films that obliterate Japanese armies, both he and Emperor Hirohito were honored to have met each other, having a small conversation as Wayne offered Hirohito his autograph.

The Movie That Angered Many

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The late ’60s marked the height of the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. Wayne, the robust political supporter that he is, directed and starred in 1968’s The Green Berets. The film was obvious in its political stance and it expressed Wayne’s anti-communist and pro-Vietnam sentiments during a time when much of the U.S. was opposed to being involved in the war.

Many younger John Wayne fans at the time were dismayed at his pro-military stance towards Vietnam. The Green Berets was based on a novel of the same name by author Robin Moore, who was bought out by Wayne for $35,000 after the Pentagon wanted to prosecute Moore for revealing classified information.

A Closet Book Worm

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John Wayne enjoyed a wide range of free-time activities when he wasn’t busy working. One of those things was reading classic works of literature. One of his favorite books was Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield. Whenever he closed a business deal, Wayne would often be heard saying, “Barkis is willing!” which is a quote from David Copperfield’s Mr. Barkis.

His two other favorite novels were The White Company and Sir Nigel by author Arthur Conan Doyle. The historical novels take place during the Hundred Years’ War, which suggests that Wayne’s interest in period novels may have something to do with why he is talented at playing roles of certain time periods.

A Cheater In More Ways Than One

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John Wayne was also known to enjoy a good game of chess, especially during downtime on set. His affinity for chess also earned him a reputation as a cheater, since he was accused on more than one occasion of altering the game to benefit his win!

Actor Robert Mitchum once divulged that Wayne’s big hands allowed him to slyly move chess pieces around while making other moves. When Mitchum finally had the courage to call him out on it, Wayne replied, “I was wondering when you were going to say something. Set ’em up, we’ll play again.”

Fondness For Fishing

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As manly as he is often thought to be, it should come as no surprise that John Wayne was also an avid fisher. His son Ethan told USA Today, “As he became more well known, the boat was really a place where he could get away. He loved being on the water. He loved to fish and hike and snorkel and go abalone diving. It’s what he did for recreation.”

One of Wayne’s favorite possessions was his yacht, the Wild Goose. Docked in Newport Harbor, in 2011 the Wild Goose became listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places.

An Eye For Antiques

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We bet you’d be shocked to hear this next one. He was a man of machismo with a hidden soft and sensitive side. From that side sparked another interest: antiquing. Yes, you read that right! Your favorite Hollywood cowboy had an affinity for dated home furnishings and he even enjoyed decorating!

Biographer Scott Eyman told Inside Edition, “He loved to go antiquing. He enjoyed decorating a house. He’d walk into a room and say, ‘The chair goes here, the couch goes here. The TV can go here.” Perhaps he might have turned to interior decorating had acting not taken off!

The Early Exposure

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Being the son or daughter of an actor can have its perks—just ask John Wayne’s son Ethan. Ethan Wayne was always welcome on the sets of his father’s films. The younger Wayne told USA Today, “In between (takes), he always made time for me as a little boy to come in and get a hug or sit on his lap. He was very open that way. But he expected you not to walk through someone’s eye line or mess with the camera.”

Of the behind the scenes shenanigans he witnessed, Ethan divulged that there were a lot of card games that went on. “He was always playing gin rummy or bridge or whatever the game of the day was.”

Not A Wily Cowboy In Real Life

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John Wayne was very much unlike the characters that he often played. As we’ve previously mentioned, he even admitted himself that “John Wayne” was just a character he played on and off the screen and his son Ethan can attest to that as well. While he was often seen riding horses in the wild west, Ethan Wayne told USA Today that his father preferred the ocean.

“He wasn’t a cowboy,” Ethan said, “we lived at the beach. He was an actor. He could just represent that archetype very well.” John Wayne was a very good actor indeed, since he portrayed cowboys and countrymen to a tee. But that skill didn’t always come easy.

John Wayne Was An Egghead

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When John Wayne was first starting out as an actor, there were some people who really criticized him. That criticism must have pushed him to be the great actor that he ended up becoming. One of those critics was director John Ford, who worked with Wayne for 1939’s Stagecoach. Apparently, Wayne was so frustrated with the way Ford directed that he was quoted as saying, “I was so [expletive] mad I wanted to kill him.”

While filming Stagecoach, Ford allegedly yelled at Wayne, “Don’t you know how to walk? You’re as clumsy as a hippo. And stop slurring your dialogue and show some expression. You look like a poached egg.” Unbeknownst to Wayne at the time, Ford said to others, “He’ll be the biggest star ever.”

Training For His Roles

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For the way he portrays cowboy characters, John Wayne owes most of his thanks to actor and stuntman Yakima Canutt. The two met while Canutt was acting as Wayne’s stunt double for The Shadow of the Eagle in 1932. Canutt admired Wayne’s willingness to learn and attempt his own stunts and the two worked together to pioneer stunt and screen fighting techniques that are still used today.

Wayne said of Canutt, “I spent weeks studying the way Yakima Canutt walked and talked. He was a real cowhand.” Wayne copied Canutt’s walking style, and drawling, hesitant speech.

The Unexpected Fear

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Despite the fact that most of his career took place on horseback, it is a little-known fact—and quite surprising, actually—that John Wayne was actually afraid of horses. Many who read this may find this hard to believe, but Wayne had a fear of horses according to biographer Garry Willis, who wrote John Wayne’s America: The Politics of Celebrity.

Wayne apparently only associated with and rode horses while filming. But behind the scenes, horses were not a part of his life. In his book, Willis writes that Wayne “hated horses, was more accustomed to suits and ties that to jeans.” Do you believe that this is true?

Don’t Do These Things Around Mr. Wayne

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Among John Wayne’s many little off-screen quirks, superstition was a big one. The deeply superstitious actor was very particular about the way certain things were placed or how they were done, according to some sources.

Telegraph reports that “Among the many things… that made a volatile Wayne fly off the handle was the act of anyone leaving a hat on top of a bed. Also, no one in his family was ever allowed to pass salt directly to Wayne, it had to be placed on the table instead and then he would reach for it.”

Not A Hair Out Of Place

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One of the many consequences that John Wayne suffered from old age was balding. Although he took measures to keep up his appearance in his later years (he reportedly had an eye lift), he wasn’t shy about his baldness. In fact, he was very upfront about it and the fact that he wore a toupée from time to time.

In 1974 at nearly 70 years old, he made an appearance at Harvard University, where one student asked about the origins of his “phony toupée.” John Wayne had the best response: “It’s not phony. It’s real hair. Of course, it’s not mine, but it’s real.”

The Film That Lost Him A Lot Of Money

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Probably the biggest pursuit of John Wayne’s career was The Alamo, which he directed, produced, and was the lead actor. Wayne played Davy Crockett in this historical epic about the Battle of the Alamo in 1836.

This film ended up having mixed reviews and didn’t do so well at the box office. Wayne had invested a lot of his own money to make the film and lost it all when the movie didn’t perform well in theaters. He ended up having to sell his rights to the film to United Artists. It was only after they re-released the film that Wayne was able to make back his money.

Another Box Office Flop

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Another one of Wayne’s more unsuccessful films was 1956’s The Conqueror. In this film, John Wayne starred as Genghis Kahn, who falls in love with a rival’s daughter which incites war between the two nations. Although the film had an ensemble cast, it went down in history as one of the worst films ever made.

While most critics say that John Wayne was horribly miscast, others today might say that he should not have taken the role at all, as it is a serious case of the whitewashing of ethnic characters. But perhaps the worst result of The Conqueror were the effects that were felt after the film was made.

The Cancer-Causing Movie

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The Conqueror was filmed in Utah near St. George, which was geographically downwind of the U.S. government’s Nevada National Security Site. That is where they tested many nuclear weapons throughout the ’50s. While the filmmakers knew of the tests and the government assured them that there was no threat to public safety, they were in for quite the shock in the following years.

Many people who worked on The Conqueror were later diagnosed with cancer and died as a result. Director Dick Powell and actors Susan Hayward, Agnes Moorehead, and Pedro Armendariz were all diagnosed with the Big C. Armendariz even took his own life upon learning that his cancer was terminal. John Wayne, too, was diagnosed and passed away due to cancer, although some say it was not contracted as a result of The Conqueror.

The Award He Deserved

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Today John Wayne is widely regarded as an American icon, which is why he was posthumously recognized with many respectable awards following his death. Wayne was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal on May 26, 1979, and his family accepted it on his behalf the following year.

Many of Wayne’s friends and colleagues vouched for him to earn the award, including Elizabeth Taylor, Frank Sinatra, Katharine Hepburn, and more. They all testified to Congress to support Wayne’s earning the award. President of the Directors Guild of America Robert Aldrich said, “Because of his courage, his dignity, his integrity, and because of his talents as an actor, his strength as a leader, his warmth as a human being throughout his career, he is entitled to a unique spot in our hearts and minds.”