He was, quite probably, the most popular and beloved movie star of them all. More than that, he was an American icon- ranking with Washington, Lincoln and Davy Crockett.
John Wayne's last film was to be The Shootist. Actual figures vary because Wayne did so many obscure films early in his career, but it was around his 175th film. Co-starring Ron Howard and Lauren Bacall, Wayne's director was Don Siegel.
Wayne had hated and insulted Siegel back in earlier days, when someone mistakenly told him Siegel was a communist. John was a virulent anti-commie, but he found out that the rumor was untrue. He approached Siegel and said, “Kid, I owe you an apology".
Wayne had lived a very full life (an understatement!) and his 70-year-old body was quickly breaking down. The filming was very unsteady, due to the Duke's bad health. He had trouble breathing and there was an oxygen talk on the set for him to take breaths. There were bad coughing spells and Wayne missed several days shooting, necessitating the use of a double.
Wayne, like so many people in great pain, was moody, angry and often hostile. One day he blew up at the cameraman, bawling him out for not filming right and not paying enough attention to "lighting." Siegel then angrily told Wayne to leave the cameraman alone and take a look at the dailies (the previous day's footage). John did come in and watch the dailies and he was pleasantly surprised. "That's the best damn film of me I've ever seen. I love you and i hope you'll forgive me,” he said.
Unfortunately, The Shootist was a massive flop, grossing less than $6 million domestically. Wayne, not broke, but in need of money, was now forced to star in TV commercials- something he never did before. He filmed commercials for "Datril" (an aspirin subsitute) and "Great Western Savings & Loan."
The Duke had said, “Two lousy, crooked business managers done me in.” Wayne's bad investments had cost him a fortune. He was somewhat bitter, knowing that he deserved to be much more well-off after all the years of performing he'd put in.
Worse, Wayne was having some heart trouble. After a lifetime of heavy smoking, drinking, and eating rich, heavy foods, Wayne's body was suffering the consequences. He underwent a heart operation and actually got a pig's valve put on his heart. “I can oink with the best of them,” the Duke joked.
By this time, Wayne had lost a lot of weight. One of his closest friends, Maureen O’Hara, came to Wayne's house and spent three days with him. She made him laugh as they swapped stories and reminisced (O’Hara had been Wayne's leading lady in several films). Another close actress friend and co-star, Claire Trevor, visited, and remembered "He could barely walk".
Wayne's final public appearance was to be the 1979 Academy Awards. He had been diagnosed with cancer, and had actually had radiation treatments that morning. He was allowed a short rehearsal and then he took a nap, very sick and pretty tired. Wayne appeared that night and awarded the Best Picture Oscar to Coming Home (ironically, the Duke hated the film for it's anti-Vietnam war views).
After Wayne left the stage, he was greeted by his old pal, Sammy Davis Jr., who gave him a big bear hug. Davis later told a friend he regretted hugging Wayne so hard in his fragile condition. But Sammy was told, “Duke wouldn't have missed that hug for anything.” The idea of 125-lb. Sammy Davis Jr. worrying about hugging John Wayne "too hard" was a sad commentary on Wayne's failing health. In fact, Wayne was so frail-looking, he wore a wet suit under his tuxedo to beef up his appearance a bit.
Soon after this final appearance, John Wayne collapsed to the floor in anguish. The cancer spreading, his health rapidly deteriorating, Wayne was put in hospital. He hated it there, as he was denied his beloved drinks. “He liked to drink. I once saw him drink a bottle of tequila before a meal, and a bottle of brandy after a meal", his son Michael said.
Also, he missed his man-sized meals- he loved steaks and roast beef. Wayne also missed eating something else: his beloved Tootsie Rolls, his favorite sweet snack. It is reported that John Wayne actually broke down and cried sometimes as he sat in his painful confinement.
He was fading fast and family and friends came to pay their respects. Wayne's last few days were spent in a hospital bed, fading from unconsciousness to semi-consciousness. On June 11, 1979, with his several family members surrounding him, the Duke took his last breath. “Good bye, Dad", said his son, Patrick.
His daughter, Aissa, held his hand. As she held her father's hand, she asked him if her knew who she was. John Wayne, in response, spoke his final words: “Of course I know who you are. You're my girl. I love you."