The Most Famous Tributes To John Wayne Just Weeks Before He Died

Few Hollywood figures are as legendary as John Wayne. The Duke went from being an extra and stagehand in the late 1920s to leading man and action star who garnered loads of awards over his 50-plus-year career, particularly multiple best actor wins for 1970's "True Grit." Typically featured in Westerns and military movies, Wayne came to represent a particular idealized version of rugged American individualism to the point where he practically embodied America itself. 

Tributes to Wayne before his 1979 death reveal as much. "He is an authentic chunk of Americana," fellow actor Kirk Douglas wrote, as Express quotes. "For over half a century, Mr. Wayne has served honorably as America's symbol to the world of the highest morals and prudent standard of our society," Frank Sinatra said. Ronald Reagan, five months before he announced his fourth presidential bid, said "there is no one who exemplifies the devotion to our country, its goodness, its industry and its strengths better than John Wayne." Reagan's quote stands out because it illustrates another facet of John Wayne and his legacy: He was very politically involved, pro-America, and a "well-known conservative and anticommunist," as Biography puts it.

Those tributes all stem from a specific honor that John Wayne received toward the end of his life — the commissioning of a Congressional Gold Medal, the highest honor bestowable on a U.S. civilian. Other recipients include Aaron Copeland, Thomas Edison, Robert Frost, Walt Disney, and more. The timing of this honor was providential, and gave prominent people the chance to deliver some pre-posthumous tributes to the Duke.  

Maureen O'Hara called him her dearest friend

Born in County Dublin, Ireland in 1920, Maureen O'Hara was often called upon to play tough, determined women alongside John Wayne. In fact, the two of them starred in five movies together, three of them Westerns. On- and off-screen, O'Hara and Wayne held a close relationship. Per Cowboys & Indians, Wayne once called O'Hara "the greatest guy I ever knew." Regarding Wayne, O'Hara once said (per IrishCentral), "It would be nice if all people could be honest and as genuine as he is. This is a real man." This was high praise from O'Hara, who spoke rather dimly of other Hollywood actors. According to the Irish Examiner, she called Rex Harrison "rude, vulgar and arrogant," George Montgomery "positively loathsome," and said that working with Jeff Chandler was like "acting with a broomstick."

When Wayne was nearing the end of his life, O'Hara spoke in favor of his Congressional Gold Medal. "I have known John Wayne for 39 years, and in those 39 years I have called him my dearest friend — my best friend ... To the people of the world, John Wayne is not just an actor — and a very fine actor — John Wayne is the United States of America," she said, as Cowboys & Indians quotes. She concluded: "I beg you to strike a medal for Duke, to order the president to strike it. And I feel that the medal should say just one thing: 'John Wayne, American.'"

Kirk Douglas admired his professionalism

Kirk Douglas was another legendary actor who delivered a tribute to John Wayne before he died. The two of them had starred in three movies together — "The War Wagon," "Harm's Way," and, "Cast a Giant Shadow" — where they disagreed on political issues but worked well together. As Express quotes Douglas, "We have never seen eye-to-eye, on a lot of things. But professionally, I think he's one of the most professional actors I've ever worked with." He continued, "We get along very well, we never discussed politics, but he's the first guy on the set, he's the hardest worked I've ever worked with." Wayne seemed to reciprocate the feelings — except when Douglas chose to play Vincent van Gogh in 1965's "Lust for Life." He chastised Douglas, saying, "We should never play those kinds of weak, sniveling characters. They have no dignity!"

When 1979 rolled around Douglas spoke up in favor of Wayne's Congressional Medal of Honor. As Express quotes him, "I strongly believe that John Wayne should receive the Congressional Medal of Honor. He is an authentic chunk of Americana. His personal and artistic life represent the best qualities of America admired by people around the world. He has always been a strong force for the American way of life." Douglas went on to say that Wayne typified this way of life in both private and public spheres, and ended by calling him a "great American."

Frank Sinatra said Wayne represented America

Singer Frank Sinatra was another individual who didn't get along with John Wayne but ultimately respected the actor — at least by the end. And much like Kirk Douglas, the reasons for their acrimony were political in nature. As Far Out Magazine explains, Wayne was a supporter of the disturbingly-named House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), which in true McCarthyistic style investigated potential communist sympathizers beginning in the late 1930s. Wayne considered Sinatra one such person. When asked about an apparently openly communist screenplay, Wayne once said of JFK, "Why don't you ask Sinatra's crony — who's going to run our country for the next few years — what he thinks of it?" At one point Sinatra and Wayne almost got into a brawl at some gala after the singer called out the actor for "blasting off his mouth."

And yet, over time the two apparently wound up getting along pretty well, as evidenced by a picture on Instagram of the two men hanging out in their spare time. Per Express, Sinatra spoke well of Wayne toward the end of Wayne's life. "For over half a century, Mr. Wayne has served honorably as America's symbol to the world of the highest morals and prudent standard of our society," he said at the Duke's Congressional Medal of Honor event. "No man's lifetime of work has better expressed the land of the free and the home of the brave." Sinatra finished by alluding to "The Star-Spangled Banner," calling Wayne a "star-spangled man whom so proudly we hail."

Gerald Ford called him a 'legend'

John Wayne's deep feeling about the United States' ideals, role, and identity led him to get involved not just in politics in general, but presidential campaigns. As a conservative, he supported Republican presidential candidates like Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Ronald Reagan. Much like his relationships with Kirk Douglas and Frank Sinatra, Wayne was ultimately gracious toward those with whom he disagreed. When Jimmy Carter won the presidency, Wayne said in a speech (per John Wayne Enterprises), "I'm pleased to be present and accounted for in this capital of freedom ... to watch a common man accept the uncommon responsibility he won fair and square by stating his case to the American people, not by bloodshed, beheadings and riots at the palace gates."

While Wayne and Ford didn't have a close relationship, the actor supported him when he won the Republican bid for presidency. Per John Wayne Enterprises, after Ford took the White House and pardoned Nixon in 1974, the actor wrote the head of state saying, "Many thanks for your respect and feelings for the human dignity of Mr. Nixon ... Here's one you can count on." Five years later Ford wrote in support of the Duke (per Express): "John Wayne's contribution to this Nation has reached far beyond the entertainment industry where he is deeply respected and admired. His untiring efforts to improve conditions within our country and relations with other countries have made him a legend in his own lifetime." He also called the medal "well-deserved and appropriate."

Ronald Reagan called him a 'true public servant'

John Wayne and Ronald Reagan were fellow actors long before Reagan was elected governor of California in 1966. In fact, Wayne did a little 11-minute "get out and vote" short film, "The Victory Squad," with the politician that year in support of his gubernatorial candidacy. They didn't always agree, however, like when Reagan opposed the Panama Canal Treaty of 1977. As The New York Times reported, Wayne very tersely and bluntly wrote Reagan (in part), "Now I have taken your letter, and I'll show you point by goddamn point in the treaty where you are misinforming people. If you continue these erroneous remarks, someone will publicize your letter."

Nonetheless, Reagan also spoke up in favor of Wayne receiving the Congressional Medal of Honor in 1979, one year before the politician was elected president. He said that no one deserved the medal more than the Duke, and like others, he identified the actor with a set of very American values. He said (per Express) "There is no one who exemplifies the devotion to our country, its goodness, its industry and its strengths better than John Wayne. Duke Wayne's service to our country, not only in his chosen profession, but as a public servant in the truest sense of the term, certainly qualifies him for this honor."