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How Did John Wayne Die?

How Did John Wayne Die?
Photo credits: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Hollywood lost one of its great leading men the day that John Wayne died. The actor passed away on June 11, 1979, at the age of 72-years-old.

It’s easy to imagine the actor passing away on some sun-bleached prairie, gun in hand as he faced down a group of bandits. But Wayne died in the UCLA Medical Center in California on a summer afternoon. The on-screen cowboy had lost a battle to something much more nefarious and invisible. Wayne died from complications related to stomach cancer.

The battle for survival was gruesome and lengthy and took everything that Wayne had. The actor had been in the hospital since May 2 of that year in an attempt to beat the cancer. Doctors removed part of Wayne’s lower intestine on that day. That January, the actor also had a large portion of his stomach removed when doctors discovered the cancer.

Despite his best efforts and multiple surgeries, Wayne couldn’t beat the cancer. It claimed the life of one of Hollywood’s greatest actors.

John Wayne and ‘The Shootist’

Perhaps, his cancer scare was on Wayne’s mind when he filmed “The Shootist,” which ended up his final role. Wayne had developed lung cancer in 1964. The actor was an avid smoker, whose habit only picked up under the pressures of Hollywood. To beat his first bout with cancer, Wayne had a rib and part of his lung removed.

‘[I had] cancer of the lung —and I’ve licked it,” Wayne said. “My advisers all thought it would destroy my image… But there’s a hell of a lot of good image in John Wayne licking cancer—and that’s what my doctors tell me.”

During a press conference in 1964, Wayne advocated for cancer research and early detection for cancer.

“I thought to myself: ‘I was saved by early detection,” Wayne said at the conference. “Movie image or not, I think I should tell my story so that other people can be saved by getting annual checkups.’”

The actor would live another 15 years in remission. During that time, he starred as J.B. Books, a gunfighter with cancer hoping to go out in a blaze of glory. Wayne would die only a few short years after making the film. It’s hard to say what Wayne would have preferred other than to live. The actor lived life to the fullest while he could, and despite his flaws, there will never be anyone else like him.