John Wayne didn’t know this would be his last public appearance. Neither did the country. But the guy who played the hero in nearly every iconic movie was weeks away from his death.
It was April 9, 1979. John Wayne was the final presenter at the Academy Awards. And the crowd at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion gave Wayne such a loud, overwhelming ovation it almost as if they were cheering on the biggest winner of the night.
Wayne, really, always was the winner, although he won only one Oscar in his career.
Before he introduced John Wayne, host Johnny Carson played a clip from the 1978 Oscars. The video was of Bob Hope sending his best wishes to Wayne, noting that Wayne was in Boston instead of the 50-year anniversary of the Oscars. Hope said he hoped the Duke would be able to make it in 1979.
“Nobody else can walk in John Wayne’s boots,” Hope said.
Cue John Wayne walking down the stairs to the stage. As the crowd cheered him, the cameras panned the audience, showing stars like Gregory Peck and Warren Beatty on their feet.
John Wayne soaked in the attention as he tried to keep his composure. Finally, he said “thank you” and the crowd sat down
“That’s just about the only medicine a fellow would ever need,” Wayne told them.
He said “I’m mighty pleased I can amble down here tonight.
“Oscar and I both came on the Hollywood scene in 1828,” he said. “We’re both a little weather-beaten, but we’re still here and plan to be around for a whole lot longer.”
Three months before the Academy Awards, Wayne had entered the hospital for a routine gall bladder surgery. But doctors discovered a malignant tumor and removed his entire stomach during an operation that stretched on for nearly 10 hours. And two weeks after his Oscar appearance, Wayne was hospitalized again, this time for complications from the flu.
But John Wayne stood strong during his final appearance. He introduced the five films that were up for best picture. They were “Deer Hunter,” “Heaven Can Wait,” “Midnight Express,” “An Unmarried Woman,” and “Coming Home.”
John Wayne named “Deer Hunter.” Then he handed the Oscar to the “Deer Hunter” crew, saying “here’s another one.” The movie won five Oscars. The movie, set during the Vietnam War, starred Robert De Niro and Christopher Walken, with Meryl Streep in a supporting role.
The best picture was the final award of the night. Johnny Carson walked over to John Wayne and said “There are a lot of friends backstage who want to say hello.”
Then he told the crowd good night. The show was over.
John Wayne died on June 11th. It was his third stint in the hospital that year. Doctors had hoped to treat him with experimental chemotherapy, but Wayne’s body was too weak. Wayne’s fans were heartbroken, but he’d given them one final appearance so that they could remember him as he was.