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 recupera
ing 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.
PROC. BY MOVIES