The most important American of our time is John Wayne,” critic Eric Bentley once declared. Did Stalin agree? A new biography makes the surprising assertion that Wayne was the subject of repeated assassination attempts by Soviet agents as well as Chinese and American Communists.
According to Michael Munn, author of John Wayne: The Man Behind the Myth, Wayne told him in 1974 that “the Communists have been trying to kill me since 1949,” the year that Wayne emerged as one of Hollywood’s leading anti-Communist activists. Citing interviews with the late Orson Welles, the late Peter Cushing, and the late stuntman Yakima Canutt, Munn explains that Wayne was targeted because “in Stalin’s warped mind, the Americans had invented some new secret weapon, more subtle than a nuclear bomb.” Enthusiastic, if vague, Munn describes three incidents: In 1952, KGB agents masquerading as FBI men attacked Wayne’s office on the Warner Bros. lot but were captured by the Duke himself, helped by screenwriter James Edward Grant and two real FBI agents. A year later, American Communists—impersonating detectives sent by Wayne’s estranged wife to the Mexican location where the star was filming—sought to break into his house. In 1955, stuntman Cliff Lyons infiltrated a cell of commie fanatics still acting on the now deceased Stalin’s orders and, together with Canutt, foiled their plot to kill the Duke.
Wayne kept these events secret, Munn says, to protect his family. Not so the widely reported incident during the star’s June 1966 trip to Vietnam, when a marine base came under sniper fire while Wayne was signing autographs. According to Wayne, according to Munn, the shooter turned out to be an elite Chinese agent trying to collect a bounty placed on the star’s head by rival superstar Mao Tse-tung.