On April 7, 1970, the legendary actor John Wayne wins his first—and only—acting Academy Award, for his star turn in the director Henry Hathaway’s Western True Grit.
Wayne appeared in some 150 movies over the course of his long and storied career. He established his tough, rugged, uniquely American screen persona most vividly in the many acclaimed films he made for the directors John Ford and Howard Hawks from the late 1940s into the early 1960s. He earned his first Oscar nomination, in the Best Actor category, for Sands of Iwo Jima (1949). The Alamo (1960), which Wayne produced, directed and starred in, earned a Best Picture nomination.
Wayne’s Oscar for True Grit at the 42nd annual Academy Awards in 1970 was generally considered to be a largely sentimental win, and a long-overdue reward for one of Hollywood’s most enduring performers. The Academy had failed to even nominate Wayne for any of his most celebrated performances, in films such as Stagecoach (1939), Red River (1948), The Quiet Man (1952), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) and especially Ford’s The Searchers (1956), considered by many to be the greatest Western ever made. In True Grit, Wayne played a drunken, foul-tempered but endearing U.S. marshal named Rooster Cogburn, who becomes an unlikely hero when he helps a young girl avenge the murder of her father. He would reprise the role in the film’s sequel, Rooster Cogburn (1975), opposite Katharine Hepburn.
Nominated for seven Oscars at the 42nd annual awards ceremony that night, John Schlesinger’s gritty urban drama Midnight Cowboy won in the Best Picture, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay categories. The film’s stars, Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman, were both nominated in the Best Actor category but lost out to Wayne. Richard Burton (as King Henry VIII in Anne of the Thousand Days) and Peter O’Toole (as the beloved schoolmaster Arthur Chipping in Goodbye, Mr. Chips) rounded out the category. It was the fourth of what would be eight career nominations (and no wins) for O’Toole.
In 1964, Wayne battled lung cancer, undergoing surgery to remove his entire left lung. He went public with news of his illness in hopes of convincing people to remain vigilant about cancer. In his last movie, The Shootist (1976), Wayne portrayed an aging gunfighter dying of cancer. Three years later, the great actor himself succumbed to stomach cancer at the age of 72 on June 11, 1979.