There’s probably no other individual in the history of Westerns who is as prolific as John Wayne. Wayne, who began acting as early as the 1930s, dominated cinema for decades as the stern, no-funny business character his fans loved.
Even at the end of his career, The Duke did everything he could to ensure his fans got the authentic John Wayne experience when they watched his films. For instance, when Wayne filmed Big Jake, he performed his own stunts despite his failing health.
When he starred in the iconic western, Wayne was in his mid-60s and dealt with some major health issues.
Big Jake also reunited several familiar faces from Wayne’s previous Westerns, including Richard Boone, Maureen O’Hara, Bruce Cabot, and Harry Carey, Jr., with whom Wayne had always admired. In addition, Big Jake was also a family project for Wayne. One of his sons, Michael, acted as the film’s producer and his two other sons had on-screen roles.
While Wayne’s career was coming to a close at the time, Wayne continued to do most of his own stunt work. Big Jake would be one of The Duke’s final eight films of his career, all of which two were westerns.
Sadly, when Wayne filmed Big Jake, his health was quickly declining. But, even though he knew this, Wayne was far from slowing down. On the contrary, Wayne was still riding high off his recent Oscar win for “Best Actor” for his performance in 1969’s True Grit.
In John Wayne: The Man Behind the Myth, the book’s author Michael Munn wrote about Wayne’s age and how he used it to his advantage in his acting career.
John Wayne rebrands himself
According to Munn, Wayne decided to maintain his tough guy persona in his films even though he continued to get older. However, some in his inner circle disagreed with that choice. For instance, Wayne’s friend and legendary director, Howard Hawks, thought that Wayne was ruining his own legacy. “You can’t play gunfighters at your age anymore,” he told his friend.
Despite this, Wayne continued to forge his own path. Knowing he had to do something, Wayne decided to re-brand his image as the veteran cowboy. With this, some of his best work was arguably his last.
Wayne reprised his role as one-eyed copper Rooster Cogburn in 1975’s True Grit follow-up Rooster Cogburn, which saw commercial success. His final film, The Shootist, would become one of the best westerns ever made.
George Sherman, who directed Big Jake, also acknowledged Wayne’s resiliency despite the changing times. “I knew that by 1970 Westerns had changed a lot,” Sherman once said. “I admired Duke for playing a character his own age, yet he was still the same tough character people liked.”