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Old, Ailing, Yet Undeterred: John Wayne Revamped His Roles To Continue Acting

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No one ages backwards; we all grow old. And so did John Wayne. However, rather than allow his advancing age and concomitant health problems end his iconic place in the movie industry, especially in the new era of cinema that accompanied the ’70s, John Wayne tweaked his roles and continued to excel. The first time in which he tested his new age-specific role is the 1971 movie Big Jake. That film, among other things, gave him the chance to continue exhibiting his great skill gracefully. And as expected, despite the physicality of his role, the Duke didn’t disappoint.

As a matter of fact, the last eight movies in which Wayne acted were some of his best. Starting with Big Jake, he continued to exhibit his iconic Western tough guy image in movies, but with subtle tweaks to make it suited for his age. He still acted in roles that were so physical many thought he would eventually destroy his legacy with poor performances, among them his friend and legendary director, Howard Hawks; Hawks was said to have commented to Wayne, “You can’t play gunfighters at your age anymore.” But the Academy Award for Best Actor would not slow down.

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John Wayne Saved The Best For Last

IN OLD OKLAHOMA, (aka WAR OF THE WILDCATS), John Wayne, 1943

People were anxious to know what sort of role Wayne would play or grow into in his final days. But not many saw an “aging Cowboy” image coming. With this new approach, Wayne acted in movies that became some of his best work, including 1975’s Rooster Cogburn, a follow-up movie to the 1969 blockbuster True Grit. Rooster Cogburn hit a home run commercially, as did his last movie, The Shootist, where he was cast as J. B. Brooks — a terminally ill gunslinger.

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RELATED: These Were John Wayne’s Five Favorite Movies of All Time

Big Jake was a movie that reunited Wayne with familiar faces — Maureen O’Hara, Bruce Cabot, and Harry Carey, Jr., among others — from his beloved Western genre, and it also unveiled movie-making as a family affair for the Wayne family. One of his sons, Michael Wayne, was among the movie producers while two of his other sons shared the stage with him in the movie.

The Truth About John Wayne’s Health

McQ, John Wayne, 1974

Wayne didn’t decline to play some tough moments in the movie Big Jake, determined to take on his own stunts regardless of how many times he had to do them. However, he could not conceal his frailty, as one of his costars, Richard Boone, revealed.

TRUE GRIT, John Wayne, 1969

Boone played antagonist John Fain, the man Wayne’s Jacob McCandles hunts down in Big Jake, and he has this to say about Wayne’s condition: “About the only thing Duke couldn’t do was run. He didn’t have the stamina anymore, which God knows comes to us all. But his biggest problem was breathing. He always had an oxygen tank nearby, and he used it often. But he never wanted his public to know. It wasn’t vanity. He just didn’t want to let his fans down, so no one was allowed to take photographs of him using his oxygen.”

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