John Wayne ‘Exploded in Rage’ After Being Caught With an Oxygen Mask in His Final Years

by Taylor Cunningham

Towards the end of John Wayne’s career, a battle with cancer ended up taking a toll on his body and left him reliant on an oxygen mask. But he was unwilling to accept that he had new limitations while filming.

Despite his failing health, John Wayne was determined to continue working. And even after having a cancerous lung and two ribs removed in the 60s, he soldiered through.

Before his operation, he had already signed on to play John Elder alongside Dean Martin in The Sons of Katie Elder. But because of his subsequent recovery, he had to push the filming. And when he felt strong enough to head back to the set, he put on a toupee and a brave face and acted as though he were just as fit as he was in his 20s.

But in reality, John Wayne was struggling to make it through his days. Between takes, the Western legend relied on an oxygen tank to keep him moving. And with the movie’s location being 6,000 ft above sea level in Durango, Mexico, his time without the tank was particularly taxing.

On top of the compounding issues, John Wayne refused to give up his cigar habit. So, he wasn’t doing himself any favors.

Towards the end of his life, The Duke accepted his physical challenges more. And he even shared them with his fellow actors. But During The Sons of Katie Elder, he was still too proud to let on that he had limitations. And when someone saw him using his tank, it made him “explode in rage.”

Apparently, it was a photographer from The Globe named Gene Sysco who first noticed John Wayne wearing an oxygen mask. And when he did, he took a quick photo of the sight to publish for all the world to see.

Except, Sysco wasn’t very secretive about snapping the photos, and Wayne saw him. When he did, he began screaming, “you goddamned son of a b****! Give me that f***ing film!” according to Randy Roberts.

John Wayne Apologized for Losing His Cool After Being Spotted with an Oxygen Mask

Surprised by the reaction, Sysco immediately handed over the film. And the entire set fell silent, which made John Wayne realize that he had overreacted to the situation.

The actor carried on. But once he was done for the day, his guilt had gotten the best of him. And he made it a point to personally apologize to the photographer.

In front of everyone, he said, “I’m a grown man. I ought to be able to control myself better than I did today. I’m sorry.”

John Wayne wasn’t sorry enough to return the pictures of him in an oxygen mask though. He held on to those in order to keep his tough cowboy persona alive.

And until his death in 1979, Wayne continued to push himself past his limits by doing his own stunts and keeping up appearances.

As his Rio Lobo costar Jennifer O’Neil noted later, his efforts to maintain that reputation ended up ruining his career. By the time he worked with her, his body had taken such a hit that he couldn’t mount his horse or carry her up a flight of stairs without struggling for air.

“He became just completely exhausted,” she said. “He really struggled through it.”