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365 Days of Oscar: John Wayne’s Last Appearance

Forty-five years ago today, the 51st Academy Awards ceremony took place at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. The Deer Hunter won five awards at the main awards ceremony, including Best Picture, while another film about the Vietnam War experience, Coming Home, took home three.

The ceremony was produced by Jack Haley Jr. and notably, Johnny Carson hosted the show for the first time. Sammy Davis Jr. and Steve Lawrence performed a medley called “Oscar’s Only Human” which was composed of movie songs that were not nominated for Best Original Song.[10] Initially the academy’s music branch protested the segment and urged that it be dropped from the ceremony, but it was kept after Haley threatened to leave his position as producer and pull Carson from emcee duties. This was the final public appearance for Jack Haley, the father of producer Jack Haley Jr., who presented the Best Costume Design with his Wizard of Oz co-star Ray Bolger.

It is also remembered for being the final public appearance of Oscar-winning actor John Wayne, where he was given a standing ovation before presenting the award for Best Picture. At the designated time, Wayne was led to his entrance spot while out front, Johnny Carson made the introduction. He was nervous, more so than usual, as the audience sensed something special was about to happen. A hush fell over the crowd as they waited for Carson to say something. “Last year,” he began, “an American institution stood right here and said some heartfelt words about another American institution.” The light went down and a clip of Bob Hope came up from the year before, the same night Wayne was entering the hospital for his heart operation. “Wayne,” Hope said, with that familiar side-of-the-mouth speech pattern, “we expect to see you amble out here in person next year, because nobody else can walk in John Wayne’s boots.” The lights went up and Carson said, simply, “Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. John Wayne.”

At first the crowd gasped. Wayne’s weight was down to 160 pounds and he looked thin and frail. His toupee looked too big for his head, and despite wearing makeup, he looked pale as a ghost. The place then erupted in cheers and stood as one as he slowly walked down a curved flight of stairs until he reached the microphone. He waited for the audience to sit before he started speaking, his voice a whisper of what it once was. He stood steadily on his own two feet, his face crinkled into a smile that hid his eyes until he spoke: “That’s about the only medicine a fella’d ever really need,” he said. “Believe me when I tell you that I’m mighty pleased that I can amble down here tonight. Well, Oscar and I have something in common. Oscar first came to the Hollywood scene in 1928—so did I. We’re both a little weather-beaten but we’re still here, and plan to be around a whole lot longer. My job here tonight is to identify our five choices for the outstanding picture of the year (producer) and announce the winner, so let’s move ’em out.”

On June 11, two months after the ceremony, he died from complications from stomach cancer at age 72.

This article is part of a special year-long series of anecdotes, reflections and thoughts about the Academy Awards.