John Wayne Almost Died Filming Movies — Twice

John Wayne made his film career playing tough, often ornery, but always honest men unafraid of danger, whether as a cowboy, soldier, or in other roles. But in at least two instances, Hollywood and reality collided when the Duke came face to face with death. During filming of two different movies in the 1960s, he barely escaped serious injury. He may have been treated horribly on the set of "Stagecoach" by director John Ford, who was also the actor's friend, but at least the filmmaker didn't nearly get Wayne killed.

The same can't be said for the team behind the 1964 film "Circus World" in which a controlled fire during a scene involving a giant circus tent quickly got out of control. Wayne barely escaped before part of the tent top collapsed. Then four years later, during the filming of "Hellfighters" in May 1968, a catering truck overturned onto Wayne's trailer. Luckily, neither the star nor his makeup artist, who were both inside the vehicle at the time, were injured.

A burning tent could have killed the Duke

In 1947, before either of the films in which he could have died were made, John Wayne's wife nearly murdered him. Esperanza Baur, drunk and in a jealous rage, shot at the movie star with a pistol, but missed. Probably not surprisingly, they eventually divorced. More than a decade after Baur tried to shoot Wayne, the actor had an even closer brush with death. On December 26, 1963, while filming a scene in Spain for "Circus World," a period piece about an American circus touring Europe, he barely escaped with his life.

In the scene, Wayne was supposed to rush into the more than 100-yard-long circus tent and put out a fire, but just as the cameras began to roll, the wind kicked up and the flames suddenly spread. Amid the intense heat and billowing smoke, he was still in character and apparently unaware of just how dangerous the fire was. He also hadn't heard the director, Henry Hathaway, tell everyone to leave. Wayne remained inside while the rest of the cast and crew fled. When he finally realized just how serious it was, he got out. Wayne was coughing horribly and his eyes were red from the smoke. Members of the special effects crew quickly extinguished the blaze. "If they had not flushed out the downdraft flames, the whole tent would have burned and come down on all of us," Hathaway told the Associated Press afterward. "It was a narrow escape."

A catering truck smashed into John Wayne's trailer

About four years after John Wayne's first on-screen brush with death, he was in Wyoming filming "Hellfighters," a movie about oil rig firefighters. Considering his run-in with flames in 1963, it was a bold choice. While the movie star got pretty close to the intense heat from the burning oil rigs during filming — the crew had to keep him doused in water for his own protection — it wasn't the fire, but a catering truck that nearly took him out this time. On May 24, 1968, during a lull in filming, Wayne was in his trailer's dressing room with his makeup man David Grayson when an out of control food service truck suddenly smashed into the vehicle. The collision buckled the RV's steel frame and smashed its windows. Wayne came out to assess the damage. "Oh hell, there goes the soup," the Duke remarked when he saw the ruined catering truck.

While neither incident actually killed the film star, there's been speculation that the 1956 Hollywood blockbuster "The Conqueror" may have played a part in his demise. They filmed the movie in Utah over 100 miles downwind of a Nevada government atomic bomb test site. Dozens of the cast and crew eventually developed cancer, including the Duke. Although he was a heavy smoker, John Wayne's tragic death was due to stomach cancer that he developed 15 years after beating lung cancer that required doctors to remove one of his lungs and four ribs.