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Death of the Duke: The real story
June 26, 2008 - Jody Murphy
Do you know how John Wayne died?
Stomach cancer killed him in 1979, right? Yes - and no.
Wayne may have been killed by making a bad movie. Really.
Have you ever seen the 1956 film "The Conqueror?" Awful, terrible film. Probably the worst film The Duke ever made.
Our hero, the man who rode tall in the saddle for sooo many great westerns was cast in "The Conqueror" as Genghis Khan, a role - with a cheesy dialogue - originally designed for Marlon Brando.
In addition to Wayne, the film also starred Susan Hayward and Agnes Moorehead. And it was financed by Howard Hughes. Despite the star power the picture was a big-budget fiasco that turned into both a critical and commercial flop - one of the biggest of the decade.
That's not even half the story.
Of the 220 people who worked on the film in St. George, Utah, 91 had contracted cancer by the mid-1980s. And 46, including Wayne, Hayward, Moorehead and director Dick Powell died as a result.
The location was about 140 miles downwind of the U.S. government's Nevada test site, a site where the feds, in 1953, had tested 11 atomic bombs. It's believed winds blew much of the radioactive fallout into the canyonlands of Utah, where filming took place.
Two years later the cast and crew of "The Conqueror" were stomping around and breathing the hot dirt during 13 weeks of filming.
After filming, Hughes had 60 tons of the radioactive dirt shipped back to Hollywood to use for retakes.
The bomb tests and subsequent radioactive fallout was no big secret, people were simply unaware of the harm. There are pictures Wayne holding a Geiger counter on the set. No one took the radioactive threats seriously.
Stomach cancer killed Wayne in 1979, but some might forget he also was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1964. Wayne, who was a smoker, survived that bout - though it cost him a lung.
Experts, who looked at the statistics, 91 of 220 people contracting cancer, described the numbers as "epidemic."
There is no smoking gun the radioactive fallout from the tests led the deaths of those associated with the film, but it would seem a pretty safe bet.
If nothing else you can amaze and impress your friends with this little factoid of knowledge about The Duke.
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The Duke, an American Icon