A team of hitmen tracking down a Hollywood star may seem like the premise for an outlandish thriller, but then truth is often stranger than fiction. Yes, apparently that’s exactly what happened to movie legend John Wayne, who somehow found himself becoming a target of Joseph Stalin. However, when the notorious Soviet dictator decided to take out Wayne, he didn’t reckon on Duke’s resourcefulness.
Wayne, of course, was a Western icon and war film hero famous for his swaggering presence in pictures such as True Grit and Sands of Iwo Jima. He became so well-known, in fact, that in 1975 even Emperor Hirohito from Japan wanted to meet him. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev had that pleasure, too.
And the star’s legend grew over more than 170 films – many of which were successful. At one point, Wayne shifted more tickets at the box office than anyone bar Clark Gable. Interestingly, both men began their respective rises to fame at about the same time, although Wayne’s career endured for years longer than his contemporary’s.
Famously, the ever macho Wayne also preferred to be known by his nickname of Duke – a moniker that had come courtesy of a childhood neighbor. The man dubbed the young Marion Morrison “Little Duke,” as he had gone everywhere with a family pet called – you guessed it – Duke.
Wayne even began his career as Duke Morrison, although that soon changed. After the actor was cast in 1930’s The Big Trail, you see, it was decided that he needed a new name. And while director Raoul Walsh suggested Anthony Wayne – after the Revolutionary War general – the studio curiously thought that this suggestion was “too Italian.”
After the fledgling star received his brand-new screen name, though, he became instantly recognizable across the world. Wayne came to symbolize America in many respects – something that the man himself would go on to recognize. And as his career went from strength to strength, he started to pick roles that matched that image and rejected those that didn’t.
Most famously, Wayne portrayed rugged characters – often cowboys or outlaws. After appearing in The Big Trail, he had honed his craft in a string of small Western movies, building up to the film that would bring him his big break. This came in 1939 with the release of John Ford hit Stagecoach – an acclaimed epic that won Wayne considerable plaudits from critics.
And thanks to his performances in movies such as Red River and The Searchers, Wayne arguably came to embody America’s frontier past. Perhaps his defining role, though, was as True Grit’s grizzled lawman Rooster Cogburn – a part that saw Wayne finally scoop the Best Actor Oscar.
The Academy Award was far from the only honor that Wayne would receive, either, as in 1979 he was presented with the Congressional Gold Medal. This is one of the two most prestigious decorations given out to American civilians, with the actor achieving the other accolade the following year when President Jimmy Carter posthumously granted him the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Two decades on, the American Film Institute even saw fit to place Wayne on its list of the “Greatest American Screen Legends.” And his legacy endures through the several places that have been named in his honor – the most notable of these being, perhaps, John Wayne Airport in California’s Orange County.
Wayne’s trenchant conservative views are arguably part of that legacy, too. And this was despite the fact that the star paid little mind to political matters during his early years – something that would lead Henry Fonda to claim, “When we first made movies together, the Duke couldn’t even spell politics.” In the 1940s, though, Wayne earned a place on the board of the Screen Actors Guild, after which he became aware of the more left-leaning aspects of Hollywood.
It seems, moreover, that Wayne became interested in politics after being denied entry into the military during World War II. He was said to have been downcast at his rejection and reportedly never felt wholly comfortable about playing military heroes when he hadn’t actually served. Consequently, then, he looked for other ways in which he could display his fierce patriotism.
So, towards the end of the war, Wayne became a founder of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals (MPA), which aimed to take on Hollywood’s leftist fraternity. And while there’s talk that the actor only joined the organization to keep some of his rightwing buddies happy, he nevertheless served as MPA’s president from 1949 through 1952 – when Red Scare hysteria had America firmly in its grip.
Studio bosses pleaded with Wayne to step back from politics, telling him that it would end his career to court controversy. When the opposite happened, though, the star seemed to have the last laugh. Reportedly, he once said, “When I became president of the Alliance, I was 32nd on the box office polls, but last year  I’d skidded up near the top.”
During his time with the MPA, Wayne also worked on a “blacklist” intended to destroy the careers of purported communists. And legend has it that this endeavor ultimately came to the attention of the Soviets – in particular, noted Russian movie director Sergei Gerasimov.
Wayne had tasted the anger of communists before, having previously been sent anonymous threats. But when a friend suggested that the actor could back off a bit on his red-baiting, he was adamant, allegedly responding, “No goddamn commie’s gonna frighten me.” Yet Gerasimov had the ear of someone who was not just any “goddamn commie.”
And debate still rages about how anti-red Wayne was in reality. Unlike a number of his contemporaries, he showed a willingness to forgive former communists if they were repentant – most notably welcoming Edward Dmytryk back into Hollywood after the director had recanted his leftwing political stance.
Nonetheless, Wayne’s work for the MPA showed which side of the fence he was on. And this was what Gerasimov is said to have reported to Stalin when he returned to Moscow. Supposedly, the Soviet leader was all ears when Gerasimov gave him the lowdown on both the blacklist and Wayne’s fierce attacks on communists.
Yet the Soviet dictator was perhaps not in the best frame of mind to receive this news. Stalin was in his 70s at the time, and the stresses of World War II had left him ailing. Some thought that he’d even had either a stroke or a heart attack shortly after the conflict had ended; in any case, he apparently barely bothered with actually governing the Soviet Union.
Instead, Stalin was said to gather his cronies to watch movies – and not just Soviet-made productions, either. By some accounts, the leader had a penchant for European and U.S. films, including detective and boxing flicks. Stalin was also said to have been keen on the work of Charlie Chaplin – although apparently not The Great Dictator – as well as some of Jimmy Cagney’s big-screen outings.
But Stalin supposedly appreciated cowboy films above all others. Indeed, his successor, Nikita Khrushchev, is said to have once claimed, “[Stalin] used to curse [cowboy movies], give them a proper ideological evaluation and then immediately order new ones.” And as John Ford westerns apparently had a special place in the dictator’s heart, it’s likely he knew Wayne’s screen work pretty well.
In fact, Stalin may well have seen himself in some of Duke’s characters. In his 2003 work Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar, Simon Sebag Montefiore hinted as much, writing, “Stalin regarded himself as history’s lone knight, riding out with weary resignation on another noble mission. [He was] the Bolshevik version of the mysterious cowboy arriving in a corrupt frontier town.”
And the aging strongman reportedly didn’t draw the line between fantasy and reality. In a subsequent piece for Sight and Sound magazine, filmmaker Grigori Kozintsev wrote of the dictator, “Stalin didn’t watch movies as works of art. He watched them as though they were real events taking place before his eyes – the real actions of people.”
So, somewhat curiously, Stalin sent Gerasimov to attend a peace conference in New York. And when the director returned, he had plenty to say about Wayne’s behavior. What’s more, these details apparently left Stalin so furious about what he heard that he decided to take action. The plan was simple, too: a KGB hit team was to go to Hollywood and take John Wayne out.
Then, when news of the plot reached America, the authorities took heed and offered Wayne some protection. Yet the actor was having none of it. In his 2001 work John Wayne: The Man Behind the Myth, Michael Munn claims that Wayne had responded, “I’m not gonna hide away for the rest of my life. This is the land of the free, and that’s the way I’m gonna stay.”
Apparently, the KGB hit squad really did turn up in Hollywood. And after having found out that Wayne kept an office on the Warner Brothers lot, the Soviets are said to have gotten through security by pretending to be FBI agents. Obligingly, they even received directions to find Duke.
But as we mentioned, the FBI was fully aware that the foreigners had come for Wayne. So members of the bureau lurked nearby – out of sight – as the star and a writer called James Grant took their places in the front of the office, trying to maintain a pretense of normality.
Then the would-be murderers apparently came into Wayne’s office. But before they could complete the mission that Stalin had set for them, the feds went into action, jumping out and grabbing the bad guys. Yes, before the two hitmen could even touch a hair on Wayne’s head, they allegedly found themselves weaponless and cuffed.
After that, the FBI agents supposedly bundled the Soviets into cars and traveled to a beach out of town. There, the captives were taken to the surf and forced to their knees, awaiting what they may have feared would be their executions. But when weapons were fired, there was a twist: they were loaded with nothing more dangerous than blanks.
However, this terrifying experience was a mere taste of what awaited the KGB men back in Russia – where failure would surely not be tolerated. So, the duo chose to defect on the spot. And the watching Wayne was characteristically cool, telling the Soviets, “Welcome to the land of the free” before driving off and leaving them to the American authorities.
You may think that after that attempt, Wayne would have changed his mind about receiving protection from the FBI. Yet that wasn’t the case; instead, he knocked back an offer of guards, as he believed that it would set his family on high alert. As a compromise, Wayne changed residences, relocating to a place that was surrounded by a high wall.
Still, even if Wayne was secure at home, there were other ways and means by which Stalin could track him down. Bearing that in mind, the actor’s stuntman buddy Yakima Canutt decided to take action. Specifically, Canutt and his friends infiltrated communist groups in southern California in order to find out what was going on and whether Wayne was still in danger.
In the process, the group discovered that the thwarting of the previous murder attempt seemingly hadn’t put off the KGB altogether. Allegedly, there was also a scheme to attack Wayne on the set of the film Hondo in Mexico in 1953 – although this plot was ultimately foiled, too.
Then, in 1955, the stuntmen apparently found out that KGB agents were hiding at a printing company in Burbank, California. In response, then, Canutt and his crew gave the Soviets a beatdown and sent them packing. After that, the agents were put on a plane to Moscow – and, reportedly, that was the last anyone ever heard of them.
How did the story of Wayne’s brush with the KGB come to light? Well, Munn claimed that the tale had been recounted to him by none other than Orson Welles in 1983. In 2003 the biographer added to The Guardian, “Mr. Welles was a great storyteller, but he had no particular admiration for John Wayne.”
And Welles may have had impeccable sources, too. Supposedly, the director had heard about the Wayne plot from filmmaker Sergei Bondarchuk, who in turn had been told by another Russian movie man named Alexei Kapler. Bondarchuk hadn’t believed the news, though, until he’d spoken to Gerasimov, who gave assurances that the tale was legitimate.
Wayne himself would receive first-hand confirmation of the attempt on his life from an even better authority: Khrushchev. The Russian leader met with the star during a visit to the U.S. in 1959, and on that occasion he supposedly told Wayne that the plot had indeed been real.
While at a 20th Century Fox event, Wayne had apparently taken Khrushchev to one side and questioned him as to why the Soviets had wanted him dead. To this, Khrushchev reportedly told him, “That was the decision of Stalin during his last five mad years.” And the politician confirmed that he was certain the danger was past, continuing, “When Stalin died, I rescinded the order.”
Still, Wayne was supposedly not completely safe from communist foes. Khrushchev is said to have explained that Chinese leader Mao Zedong had also known all about the plot – and that it may have given him the idea to eventually succeed where Stalin had completely failed.
And one rumored incident suggests that Mao did indeed have it out for Wayne. While Duke was visiting a Vietnamese village in 1966, he allegedly came under fire from a sniper who was subsequently caught by the U.S. military. Peculiarly, though, the would-be killer was not Vietnamese but Chinese – and he had apparently carried out the attempted hit on Mao’s behest.
More recently, though, Wayne has come under fire for his opinions – even though he passed away back in 1979. After an old interview resurfaced on social media, users were shocked at the ways in which the late actor expressed himself. And it’s safe to say that his words haven’t aged well.
John Wayne remains one of the most iconic actors to ever grace the silver screen. And even to this day, the star defines the Western genre like no one else. But it seems that there was also a lesser-known dark side to Wayne that not many of his fans know about. In fact, when you hear what the movie legend had to say for himself during his lifetime, you may be completely shocked.
Yet the image that most associate with Wayne is that of the all-American hero. Resplendent in cowboy hat and spurs, the actor wooed leading ladies and audiences alike as the charismatic lead of films such as Stagecoach, The Searchers and True Grit. That said, Wayne sometimes jumped genres, as Sands of Iwo Jima, The Quiet Man, and The Longest Day all prove.
Still, Wayne is indubitably best known for his Western movies, with one biographer, Ronald L. Davis, perhaps best summing up that fact. “John Wayne personified for millions the nation’s frontier heritage. Eighty-three of his movies were Westerns, and in them he played cowboys, cavalrymen and unconquerable loners extracted from the Republic’s central creation myth,” Davis wrote in his 1998 work Duke: The Life and Image of John Wayne.
Throughout his prolific career, Wayne made more than 170 movies, in fact, and ultimately walked away with the Best Actor Academy Award for his portrayal of Reuben J. “Rooster” Cogburn in True Grit. But there were so many other iconic performances that helped define Wayne’s legacy. And the star himself was aware of his significance. “I was America to them,” he once said in reference to his legions of fans around the world.
But just as a country – any country – can be flawed, so was Wayne. Despite his status as a screen legend, he was outspoken on several sensitive topics. And one particular interview with Playboy magazine in 1971 reveals some particularly unsavory views – ones that threaten to distort the lens through which Wayne is now regarded.
What’s more, those comments have since spread far and wide – well beyond those who are familiar with Wayne’s films and his persona. And as a result, the actor’s status as an American icon could be in real jeopardy – especially in an era where legacies can be undone in what may seem to be just a matter of days.
Perhaps, though, it helps to understand the era in which Wayne grew up. He was born Marion Morrison in 1907 – originally with the given middle name of Robert. However, Wayne’s parents ultimately switched that moniker to Mitchell when they had a second son. And the name change ultimately proved to be a fitting one, as the young boy’s paternal grandfather, also known as Marion Mitchell Morrison, had been an American Civil War veteran.
Then the Morrison family moved from Iowa, the state of Wayne’s birth, to California. It was in the Golden State, in fact, that the future actor became known as “Little Duke.” A local firefighter, you see, had noted that the youngster never went anywhere without his faithful dog Duke. And, famously, that particular nickname stayed with Wayne his entire life.
Finally, upon completing high school, Wayne applied to the U.S. Naval Academy – although he wasn’t accepted. Ultimately, then, he won a football scholarship to the University of Southern California, where he took studies preparing him for law school. But after an injury put paid to Wayne’s football career, he went on to lose that scholarship, and this left him with no other option but to drop out of college.
Specifically, Wayne had sustained a shoulder injury while bodysurfing. Yet the young man’s luck changed when his football coach Howard Jones secured him a position as a prop boy and movie extra at the local film studios. Jones had struck up a friendship with the silent Western movie actor Tom Mix and had called in a favor in order to secure Wayne the position.
Mix collaborated frequently with the director John Ford, too, and so Wayne started working with the pair of them. It was also through Mix that Wayne got to know legendary lawman and icon of the American West Wyatt Earp, who was hired as a consultant for the early Western movies. And, interestingly, Wayne later claimed that he had modeled the way in which he talked, walked and behaved on screen on Earp.
Then, after Wayne had his foot in the door in Hollywood, he started to develop an influential friendship with Ford, who later directed the star in some of his most memorable movies. And to begin with, Wayne secured a few uncredited roles in pictures such as Bardelys the Magnificent, Brown of Harvard, and Salute. Soon, though, things were to change.
Interestingly, Wayne was only once credited under his real name – or at least as close to it as it would ever be. This came by way of Fox’s 1929 production Words and Music, which saw him referred to as “Duke Morrison.” And when the actor secured his first starring role a year later, he had adopted the screen name by which he would go on to become famous.
That part was in The Big Trail – a Western, of course. The movie’s director, Raoul Walsh, had spotted Wayne – then still known as Marion Morrison – moving studio equipment while carrying out his role as a prop boy. And Walsh was seemingly taken with the aspiring star, too, as he quickly cast him in the big-budget picture. Nevertheless, a change of name was apparently in order, and the filmmaker had some suggestions.
Walsh first put forward “Anthony Wayne” in tribute to a famed Revolutionary War general. However, the head of Fox Studios, Winfield Sheehan, is said to have rejected the new name under the grounds that it sounded “too Italian.” Instead, Sheehan recommended John as an Anglo-Saxon alternative. In that way, John Wayne was born, and the man who began to go under that moniker hadn’t even been part of the decision-making process.
Yet The Big Trail flopped. While it is now remembered by critics as a significant movie, it wasn’t well-received at the time. And as the star, Wayne’s career duly suffered. In fact, for the next decade, the actor was relegated to mere bit parts in bigger pictures and leading roles in the types of films that played second fiddle in Hollywood.
Indeed, many of Wayne’s movies throughout the 1930s were deemed “Poverty Row” productions. This was the name given to films made by the number of smaller budget studios that popped up in Hollywood on the back of the industry’s success. Nevertheless, the actor continued to make a name for himself within the ever-popular Western genre, appearing in what he later estimated to be 80 such movies – albeit with little success at first.
But all of that changed with 1939’s Stagecoach. Directed once more by Wayne’s friend John Ford, the film catapulted the actor to stardom. The war years didn’t dampen his celebrity, either. Yet Wayne’s failure to serve his country during World War Two, was, according to his third wife, Pilar Pallete, one of the most painful episodes of his life. “He would become a ‘superpatriot’ for the rest of his life trying to atone for staying home,” Pallete later said.
As Wayne’s career continued to go from strength to strength, moreover, his political sympathies became ever more overt. Wayne had long been a Republican, but he became more active for the cause in 1944 by becoming part of a Hollywood group that set up the conservative Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals. He also became the alliance’s president in 1949.
Wayne was also an ardent anti-communist and often expressed support for the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). This House of Representatives organization targeted those individuals who had at any time expressed socialist sentiment or views that could be loosely identified as such. Wayne even went on to portray a HUAC investigator in 1952 movie Big Jim McLain.
Wayne’s stance against communism was famed, too. Although he was never actively associated with the governmental efforts to weed out supposed sympathizers, he was known to ostracize actors and movie industry workers who he deemed to have communist leanings. This activity was known as blacklisting, and it’s looked upon poorly through the lens of history. In fact, even at the time, some noted the sinister nature of the practice.
Then, later on, Wayne was also a supporter of the hugely unpopular Vietnam War, which the U.S. fought in varying degrees of intensity between 1955 and 1975. Indeed, the star was single-handedly responsible for the 1968 movie The Green Berets, which was the only Hollywood-produced movie to support the war effort. Ultimately, then, Wayne’s opinions set him apart from most of those with whom he usually worked.
Yet these strong beliefs never really alienated Wayne from his audience or from the rest of Hollywood. His career and persona arguably transcended the movie business, in fact, with the result being that the actor arguably came to signify something uniquely American.
Naturally, then, Wayne was mourned when he died from stomach cancer in 1979. The actor left behind seven children from three marriages, along with many more grandchildren. And just two weeks before his death, he was awarded one of the two highest honors that could be bestowed upon a civilian by the U.S. government: the Congressional Gold Medal.
Just a year after his death, Wayne was also awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Jimmy Carter. That completed the set for the actor in terms of the most prestigious civilian awards available. Posthumously, a school, an airport, a trail and a highway were all renamed after the actor, too, while a statue was ultimately erected of Wayne in Beverly Hills.
So, despite some of the questionable political beliefs that Wayne had harbored and actively spoken of during his lifetime, his legacy was secured. His movies are still ubiquitous on TV networks around the globe, in fact, and he is still seen by many as the quintessential American patriot. Even so, the Playboy interview that Wayne gave in 1971 now threatens to besmirch the actor’s image.
The piece in question was thrown back in the spotlight in 2019 after screenwriter Matt Williams shared shots of the article via his Twitter account. And owing to the attention Williams’ tweet received, Wayne’s reputation may now have been irreparably damaged.
Wayne addressed a number of topics in the broad-ranging interview, starting with movies that he believed were “perverted.” One such film that he referenced – and while using an offensive slur – was Midnight Cowboy, which features a homosexual storyline. “Wouldn’t you say that the wonderful love of those two men in Midnight Cowboy, a story about two fags, qualifies?” Wayne asked the journalist from Playboy.
Next up on the political agenda was communism – a belief system that Wayne had condemned innumerable times throughout his career as an influential public figure. “The communists realized that they couldn’t start a workers’ revolution in the United States, since the workers were too affluent and too progressive. So the commies decided on the next-best thing, and that’s to start on the schools, start on the kids. And they’ve managed to do it,” Wayne stated, when asked about liberals.
Then the actor was asked a question about the political activist Angela Davis, to whom he had referred in a previous answer. Specifically, the interviewer asked Wayne if he believed that Davis was discriminated against because she was black. “With a lot of blacks, there’s quite a bit of resentment along with their dissent – and possibly rightfully so. But we can’t all of a sudden get down on our knees and turn everything over to the leadership of the blacks,” Wayne replied.
Wayne wasn’t done on the subject, either. “I believe in white supremacy until the blacks are educated to a point of responsibility. I don’t believe in giving authority and positions of leadership and judgment to irresponsible people,” the actor said. Even viewed in their historical context, these comments were highly controversial.
And Wayne continued to voice opinions that may seem callous today. “I don’t feel guilty about the fact that five or ten generations ago, [black] people were slaves. Now, I’m not condoning slavery. It’s just a fact of life, like the kid who gets infantile paralysis and has to wear braces so he can’t play football with the rest of us,” he added.
The star also weighed in on affirmative action – a policy whereby opportunities are offered to those who have been previously discriminated against. “I will say this, though: I think any black who can compete with a white today can get a better break than a white man. I wish they’d tell me where in the world they have it better than right here in America,” Wayne stated.
And after being asked how he felt Native Americans had been portrayed in his films, Wayne was similarly dismissive. He responded, “I don’t feel we did wrong in taking this great country away from [Native Americans], if that’s what you’re asking. There were great numbers of people who needed new land, and the Indians were selfishly trying to keep it for themselves.”
As a card-carrying supporter of the Republican Party, Wayne was already an outlier among those in his industry. However, even taken relatively out of context, these views are difficult to dismiss as just being “of their time.” And Wayne’s historical comments have understandably seen a huge backlash launched against the star, who has now been dead for over 40 years.
Indeed, the interview’s reposting on Twitter has seemingly caused fresh outrage. For example, when writing for the The Orange County Register in 2019, journalist David Whiting called for John Wayne Airport to be renamed. “What was okay in 1978 when supervisors named JWA [John Wayne Airport] is not necessarily okay in today’s world – and perhaps it never should have been acceptable,” the journalist explained.
And in his call for action, Whiting expressed exactly what it was about Wayne that had consolidated his opinion. “For many years, I have been troubled with the decision to name an airport after John Wayne because of his bigoted views on African Americans, the LGBT+ community and Native Americans,” he added.
In October 2019 students at the same college Wayne himself attended – the University of Southern California – also called for the removal of a campus exhibit that had been dedicated to the screen legend. Wayne’s son Ethan, however, has defended his father’s comments. “It would be an injustice to judge someone based on an interview that’s being used out of context,” he said to CNN.
Regardless, Williams himself told The Washington Post why he believed the actor’s comments were still so relevant. “I think a lot of people recognize that those are views that are still pretty common today, even if people aren’t as blatant about it. And [Wayne’s] kind of held up as this ultimate American hero,” the screenwriter said.
Somewhat ironically, then, Wayne’s tombstone in California’s Pacific View Memorial Park Cemetery features a quote from that very same Playboy interview. “Tomorrow is the most important thing in life. Comes into us at midnight very clean. It’s perfect when it arrives, and it puts itself in our hands. It hopes we’ve learned something from yesterday,” the memorial reads. As it happens, though, some of the other comments that the actor made that day may well prove more enduring.