John Wayne suffered years of ill health during his final couple of decades. The heavy-drinking and smoking star had a lung and some ribs removed in 1964 due to a cancer diagnosis.
During his last years, Duke struggled through his more physically challenging roles, secretly relying on an oxygen mask and even being hospitalised on his last movie The Shootist.
Yet by early 1979, he was dying from stomach cancer and wore a wetsuit under his tuxedo at the Oscars in his last public appearance.
Just weeks before his death on June 11, 1979, fellow Hollywood legends banded together – including those opposed to his conservative political views – in a striking showing of amazing kindness.
READ MORE: John Wayne wore wet suit under tuxedo at last public appearance before death
John Wayne’s last public appearance was at the Oscars where he wore a wet suit under his tuxedo
On Wayne’s 72nd birthday on May 26, 1979, he was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal after Hollywood stars, both Republicans and Democrats, supported the award with statements praising Duke as an American icon and patriot.
This was especially touching given the clashes the dying star had had with some of the actors over the years on movie sets. Although the wiser among them like Kirk Douglas knew never to speak politics with Wayne.
Those who shared statements in support of the award included the latter, Frank Sinatra, Maureen O’Hara, Elizabeth Taylor and James Arness. He also received tributes from a couple of US presidents, plus a posthumous awards from another.
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Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford
Former President Gerald Ford wrote: “John Wayne’s contribution to this Nation has reached far beyond the entertainment industry where he is deeply respected and admired. His untiring efforts to improve conditions within our country and relations with other countries have made him a legend in his own lifetime. Striking a gold medal in his honor is a well-deserved and appropriate tribute. I urge the House to concur with the Senate and pass the special bill to authorize this medal.”
And future President Ronald Reagan said: “I can simply say that there is no one in America I can think of more deserving of the special honor you are now considering than John Wayne. There is no one who exemplifies the devotion to our country, its goodness, its industry and its strengths better than John Wayne. Duke Wayne’s service to our country, not only in his chosen profession, but as a public servant in the truest sense of the term, certainly qualifies him for this honor. It will be a tribute not only to John Wayne, the man, but also to those high standards and ideals to which he is dedicated.”
Wayne was also posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom on June 9, 1980 by President Jimmy Carter.