John Wayne, one of the most famous movie stars in the world, stood in the middle of my father's Newport Beach pharmacy in 1973 shocking the daylights out of a group of Japanese tourists.
According to the dozen or so middle-aged businessmen, who, oddly, jumped onto green plastic waiting chairs for a better photo-op, John Wayne was "Mr. Duck." Politeness flew out the window as they grabbed his arms, and even -- poor man -- his neck, scampering like mescaline-wired mice for a photo and autograph.
John Wayne said what he always seemed to say in these bizarre instances. "You know, I kinda had a feeling you might ask for an autograph," he mumbled in his most heroic John Wayne cadence. "So I took the chance and already wrote out a few." He dug deep into his top left jacket pocket producing pre-autographed slips. "I hope you don't mind." He shook hands with each stunned man - yes, every one - while a half-dozen more fans filled up the store and acted as if they'd spotted Zeus.
In today's dim fealty to celebrity, I imagine John Wayne an original prototype; an Elvis among impersonators. After all, John Wayne practically invented the iconic actor who can't really act; the larger-than-life persona barnstorming the world's subconscious; calculating masculinity, promoting a cool, conservative swagger that shows up, even today, in the eccentricities of someone like George W. Bush.
But Wayne's an American idol, pared-down, sturdy, and as adaptable as a Shaker box. From the eye of a Los Angeles journalist having now viewed pampered celebrity for decades, he remains the consummate star. Wayne recognized his shadow-less power, the cartoon-ish passions he produced -- and from my vantage point as a kid clerking at the family business where he was a regular customer -- I watched him interact for years with an often loony public. His mannerly icon foot never slipped once.
At least for me, John Wayne answers the vexatious question: Just what do stars owe their public anyhow?
Besides, at this point in his life, John Wayne was a very sick man. He had lung cancer and by 1978 open heart surgery. Wayne's list of about a dozen and a half medications was penned on a handy, small piece of paper taped by the electric prescription typewriter. It seemed to grow daily. But regardless of his shoddy health, he enjoyed his poison like any good cowboy.
This was the game we had going. His doctor -- who most likely had just given him another tongue-lashing for his smoking -- forbade any pharmacy employee to sell Wayne cigarettes. So I'd stand at the cigarette-and-candy counter, chit-chatting with this man who reduced doctors and nurses to jumping up and down on waiting chairs shouting, "It's John Wayne! It's John Wayne! I'm going to die!"
Then it came. "Take any candy bar you want for yourself, dear,'" he'd say softly, "and hand me a couple packs of Marlboros.'" Inevitably, his secretary appeared to scuttle the deal, or another employee would swoop down and grab them out of my hands, shaming: "Mr. Wayne. You know better. You're not supposed to smoke." He was any exam-cheating kid caught in mid-act. I knew how desperately he wanted those cigarettes.
Even my father, who had zilch time for star-biz, came minorly unglued in his presence. Wayne's 6'4" frame always hung over the high prescription counter, arms folded, head resting on his hands.
"Kas," he'd greet my dad, who religiously dumped the phone or would quickly abandon the typewriter and bolt to greet him. And my gentle, unfazable father would whack Wayne's hand in a power handshake, shout "Duke!" and play-wrestle him to the ground. Cringing, I can't imagine why he did this, or why Duke Wayne put up with it for years, but that, apparently, was John Wayne, and how he took his job as world famous icon.
No single piece of mania stood out until one day Wayne approached the counter and stood next to a big-bucks surgeon, perhaps in his middle thirties. The doctor muttered softly, "Hi, Duke." Wayne said hi back, continued with his business and then vanished. The surgeon suddenly burst into tears, water and fantasy streaking down his face. "All I've ever wanted to do my whole life is say hello to John Wayne," he sobbed. "It went so well, I can absolutely die as we stand here and I'd be happy. I'd be so happy." That's a direct quote.
By the late 70's, the man was often so sick, even from my puny vantage point, I cannot tell you. He had no buffer -- no eight-man J.Lo entourage -- to protect him from the public. Once, I stood outside our fabulously tacky, tiny back washroom, while John Wayne was sick inside. I heard him heaving, and planted myself outside with a cardboard box, just in case.
He was white and wan when he came out and there was a store full of people -- doubtless many zealot fans -- and he dropped himself into one of the back lunch chairs, akimbo. I couldn't decide whether I should stay or leave him in peace, but I decided to stay. We were both silent for a few minutes. Finally, he stood and said, "Thanks, kid," tapped my nose, closed his jacket, looked as if he was going to have a brain hemorrhage and walked out to greet the crowds.
The last time I saw John Wayne was a few weeks before his death. He'd had a second surgery for stomach cancer and the disease decimated his bulk. He stood at the countertop, his face now barely nipping the top, and to see him was a physical shock. He stayed but a minute, said good-bye, and clearer than I can see anything, there he strode out the door against a backdrop of dark-pink evening clouds, legendary, unmistakable death all around him.
Today, I sometimes stop by John Wayne's grave site -- it's only a few feet from where my father is now buried -- and I notice no notes, no fan flowers, no Jim Morrison-like poems. He's alone now, bothered by no one, though I'd say he's earned his celebrity rest.
Janet Kinosian is a longtime journalist who has written for the Los Angeles Times, Reader's Digest, People and LIFE among many and provides media consulting at www.janetkinosian.com.
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