John Wayne's political last days: Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter and a beautiful Oscars farewell

A Reagan endorsement, a White House invite -- and a star-studded send-off from Johnny Carson at the Academy Awards

Published November 28, 2014 6:30PM (EST)

John Wayne presenting the Best Picture award at the 1979 Oscars
John Wayne presenting the Best Picture award at the 1979 Oscars

You need a great gift. We have excerpts from some of the season's biggest entertainment biographies and memoirs all day -- guaranteed perfect for someone on your list. Excerpted from "American Titan: Searching for John Wayne"

His cough, which had never completely gone away, continued to get worse, a wet, sticky, grating hack that often bent him over and turned his face red. His voice had been noticeably hoarse during the filming of The Shootist, and after, his weight ballooned. He looked bloated and uncomfortable, and when he finally and reluctantly did go to a doctor, he was diagnosed with congestive heart failure, a complication of a defective mitral valve. He was put on digitalis and digoxin and, to rid him of his excess water weight, the diuretic Lasix. He was also given regular doses of potassium. That spring he was also diagnosed with having an enlarged prostate.

All the treatments and medications weakened him considerably, but he insisted he was fine and went on a publicity blitz for The Shootist. He appeared at an “All-Star Tribute to John Wayne,” to raise funds for a children’s hospital and also plug the film. He also campaigned for Ronald Reagan during his quest to win the Republican nomination and represent the party in that fall’s presidential election. When Gerald Ford won it, Wayne then actively campaigned for him.

After the 1976 election (Jimmy Carter won and Wayne promptly sent him a mailgram “congratulating the loyal opposition”), Wayne quietly checked in to Hoag to have routine surgery to relieve pressure on his urethra from the enlarged prostate. He was released from the hospital in time to receive an unexpected invitation from President-elect Carter to attend his inauguration.

The night of January 19, 1977, he spoke briefly but with great elegance at the preinaugural reception: “Good evening. My name is John Wayne. I’m here tonight to pay my respects to our thirty-ninth president, our new commander-in-chief—to wish you Godspeed, sir, in the uncharted waters ahead. Tomorrow at high noon, all our hopes and dreams to into that great house with you. For you have become our transition into the unknown tomorrows, and everyone is with you. I’m pleased to be present and accounted for in this capital of freedom to witness history as it happens—to watch a common man accept the uncommon responsibility he won ‘fair and square’ by stating his case to the American people—not by bloodshed, beheadings, and riots at the palace gates. I know I’m considered a member of the loyal opposition—accent on the loyal. I’d have it no other way.”

The applause filled Wayne’s ears with his favorite sound, the freedom of expression. For him, there would be no opposition to that as long as he lived.

However much longer that might be.

* * * 

During the reception, while President Carter was on the receiving the line of celebrities waiting to shake his and Vice President–elect Mondale’s hands, he broke away to personally thank Wayne for his kind words. It was a warm moment for him. He hadn’t voted for Carter, but he saw something of himself in the new president, someone who didn’t hold personal grudges, who could rise above an adversary to extend the hand of friendship. When President Carter wanted a new treaty with Panama that would grant them a greater measure of freedom and turn control of the Panama Canal over to the Panamanians, the Republicans opposed giving up the canal, but Wayne thought it was the right thing to do and supported Carter on this issue.

Less than a month after the inauguration, Wayne lost another of his close friends, a charter member of the old guard, when Andy Devine, a veteran of more than four hundred movies, died of leukemia. Devine was buried at Pacific View Memorial Park. After the ceremony, Wayne told his family that was where he wanted to be buried, overlooking Newport Harbor.

* * *

Wayne struggled on, battling his ailments, all the while believing he would make at least one more movie. He bought the rights to Beau John, an as yet unpublished novel by Buddy Atkinson he hoped to film with Ron Howard as his costar.

Early in 1978, President Carter invited Wayne to witness the signing of the Panama Canal Treaty, but he was too sick to attend. His mitral valve had deteriorated to the point where he had to have it replaced. He agreed to have open-heart surgery, an operation that itself might kill him, especially with only one lung to support him during and after it was performed. On March 29, 1978, the night of that year’s Oscar ceremony, where he was supposed to present an award, he was instead accompanied by Michael, Patrick, Aissa, and Pat Stacy (but not Pilar) to Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston to receive a pig’s valve to replace his worn-out one. The three-hour surgery on the seventy-year-old Wayne was performed the morning of April 3, 1978.

After a brief stay in the hospital, he felt well enough to be released, and by the end of April, he flew back to Newport Beach. All seemed well until he came down with hepatitis, which he likely contracted from blood transfusions during his heart surgery, and by a persistent fever. That May he checked back into Hoag. After this release, he spent most of his time recuperating on The Wild Goose, fighting what had become a new problem, a persistent burning heartburn and severe stomach pains that nothing would relieve. It became so bad that he finally had to check back in to Hoag, where the doctors told him they wanted to remove his gallbladder.

He didn’t want to have to go through the ordeal of another surgery and toughed it out through December, until the pain became unbearable and he agreed to the operation on January 12, 1979. However, before it could be performed, Wayne’s doctors urged him to transfer the surgery to UCLA. He suspected the worst and told Pilar, who agreed to meet with him at the restaurant she had opened in Newport Beach. They hadn’t seen each other for a while. Pilar recalled her first impression seeing him that day: “He was thin, too thin, and new lines of pain had drawn his face into a mask.” They made some awkward small talk, and at one point Wayne told her how much he had enjoyed their good times together. Then he admitted that he was very sick, that he couldn’t eat anymore, and that he was sure this time he was dying. He made her promise to take care of the kids. She was weeping when he got up and left. It was the last time she saw him in person alive.

* * *

He then checked into the UCLA Medical Center, and exploratory surgery confirmed his greatest fear. He had stomach cancer, and it had metastasized to his lymph nodes. Most of his stomach was removed, and he could only eat very small meals, six a day, to keep his energy up. Upon his release he returned to Newport Beach, where Pat Stacy became his twenty-four-hour nurse. Pilar stayed away.

One of the last things Wayne did was to make his son Michael the executor of the estate. He reluctantly submitted to radiation therapy, but there was no getting around it. He was riddled with stomach cancer that was eating him alive from the inside out.

Also, during this time, a bill to award John Wayne a Congressional Gold Medal was introduced in Congress by his friend Senator Barry Goldwater on May 22, 1979. Part of Goldwater’s testimonial included these words: “John Wayne has dedicated his entire life to America and I am safe in saying that the American people have an affection for John Wayne such as they have had for very few people in the history of America.” Maureen O’Hara, who attended the hearings, said, “John Wayne is not just an actor, and a good actor, he is the United States of America. I feel this gold medal should say just one thing: John Wayne American . . . I beg you to order the President to strike it.”

Others present were Elizabeth Taylor, Kathleen Nolan, who was then president of the Screen Actors Guild, and General Albert Coady Wedemeyer.

Congress took it under consideration.

* * * 

Sick as he was, Wayne had one more public appearance left in him he was determined to make. He had been invited by the Academy to present the award for Best Picture. Even if he had to crawl there, he swore nothing and no one was going to stop him making what he knew would be his final public appearance.

* * *

The Oscar ceremony took place April 9, 1979, at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in downtown Los Angeles. The host was Johnny Carson and the presentation was broadcast live to viewers around the world.

That afternoon, at 4:30, Wayne’s trailer pulled into the private parking area of the pavilion. Accompanied by his daughter Aissa, an extremely frail Wayne made it to the backstage area, where he received an ovation of appreciation and respect from the other stars and the show technicians and runners. He grinned and said, in a voice choked with emotion, “Hell, I’d have gotten sick before if I knew I’d get this kind of treatment.” He was led by Aissa to a bed where he could rest until, several hours later, he would be called onto the stage.

At the designated time, Wayne was led to his entrance spot while out front, Johnny Carson made the introduction. He was nervous, more so than usual, as the audience sensed something special was about to happen. A hush fell over the crowd as they waited for Carson to say something. “Last year,” he began, “an American institution stood right here and said some heartfelt words about another American institution.” The light went down and a clip of Bob Hope came up from the year before, the same night Wayne was entering the hospital for his heart operation. “Wayne,” Hope said, with that familiar side-of-the-mouth speech pattern, “we expect to see you amble out here in person next year, because nobody else can walk in John Wayne’s boots.” The lights went up and Carson said, simply, “Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. John Wayne.”

At first the crowd gasped. Wayne’s weight was down to 160 pounds and he looked thin and frail. His toupee looked too big for his head, and despite wearing makeup, he looked pale as a ghost. The place then erupted in cheers and stood as one as he slowly walked down a curved flight of stairs until he reached the microphone. He waited for the audience to sit before he started speaking, his voice a whisper of what it once was. He stood steadily on his own two feet, his face crinkled into a smile that hid his eyes until he spoke: “That’s about the only medicine a fella’d ever really need,” he said. “Believe me when I tell you that 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 a whole lot longer. My job here tonight is to identify our five choices for the outstanding picture of the year (producer) and announce the winner, so let’s move ’em out.” Wayne went on to mispronounce most of the names of the nominees. Michael Cimino came out Michael Chipino; Warren Beatty, Warner Beatty; Paul Mazursky, Paul Masurki.

Cimino, a onetime protégé of Clint Eastwood, and three others won for The Deer Hunter, a picture Wayne especially hated, but he kept his opinion to himself as he politely handed the brash young director his award. Then, before Wayne could leave, Carson came out and told him “a few friends want to say hello.” All the presenters and winners that night, regardless of their politics, came onstage to pay their respects to this Hollywood legend while the closing credits rolled and the orchestra played “That’s Entertainment.” Sammy Davis Jr. gave Wayne a big, warm hug as the broadcast ended.

Backstage, after the show, fistfights nearly broke out over the political polarities of many of the nominees. Hostile words were said, some shoving took place. Wayne, however, stayed above the fray, either oblivious to what was happening, uninterested, or simply too weary to do battle on this front. When someone asked Wayne for his opinion about what was taking place, he shrugged them off, saying, “Go ask Marlon Brando.”

Pilar watched the show on TV and had wept when Wayne came out, realizing that the end for him was very near.

He was exhausted by the time Aissa got him home and put him to bed. He was told by his doctors to stay in it, and this time he listened. Several friends came to visit, among them Henry Fonda and Maureen O’Hara, the last time they ever saw him. Pat Stacy tried to comfort him as best she could, but she knew it was close to the end, especially when he asked her for his .38 pistol so he could blow his own brains out.

According to Pilar, who couldn’t bear to be there at the end, “I really prayed that God would take him. I hated to see a man who was so strong and powerful in his lifetime deteriorate little by little by little.”

On June 11, 1979, barely awake, with his last breaths, Wayne converted to his first wife’s religion, Catholicism. Later that afternoon, surrounded by his seven children, he fell into a coma and never regained consciousness.

Excerpted from "American Titan: Searching for John Wayne" by Marc Eliot. Published by Dey Street, an imprint of William Morrow Publishers. Copyright 2014 by Rebel Road Inc. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

By Marc Eliot

Marc Eliot is the New York Times bestselling author of more than a dozen books on popular culture, among them "Cary Grant," "Walt Disney: Hollywood's Dark Prince" and "American Rebel: The Life of Clint Eastwood"

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