John Wayne Once Surprised Johnny Carson With a Walk-on Appearance on ‘The Tonight Show’

John Wayne once surprised Johnny Carson with a walk-on appearance on The Tonight Show, something not every Hollywood star could have gotten away with.

Why did Wayne tell Carson he stopped by the show unannounced? And on what other stage did the two icons appear not long before Wayne’s death a few years later? Read on to learn more.

John Wayne (center) visits 'The Tonight Show' with Johnny Carson (R) and Ed McMcMahon (L) in 1972
(l-r) Ed McMahon, John Wayne, and Johnny Carson | Paul W. Bailey/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank

John Wayne spent his final years in and out of treatment for cancer

Wayne is one of the greatest actors in Hollywood history by many standards, appearing in more than 200 films in a career that lasted more than 40 years, per his obituary in The New York Times.

Doctors treated Wayne for lung cancer more than a decade before his death. Some have linked his illness to his career and the “nuclear fallout” set of The Conqueror. But he also had a five-pack-a-day smoking habit before his diagnosis.

Whatever the cause of his ailment, Wayne told NYT he “licked” the lung cancer in 1964. The actor said he was “lucky” for early detection, adding he received yearly screenings.

At first, a statement said that Wayne was hospitalized for an old injury, but he explained that was because his people thought the news of his lung cancer could hurt his image. “But there’s a hell of a lot of good image in John Wayne licking cancer,” he explained, “and that’s what my doctors tell me.”

However, Wayne was later diagnosed with cancer of the lower abdomen and had to have his stomach removed in a nine-hour surgery, per his NYT obituary. In 1979, he died of cancer complications at 72.

John Wayne’s ‘Tonight Show’ walk-on surprised Johnny Carson and was his last appearance on the show

In 1976, Wayne stopped by The Tonight Show and surprised Carson and his co-host Ed McMahon with what would be his last visit. He was there for two reasons.

First, Wayne wanted to congratulate the beloved host on an article about him in the Wall Street Journal. “That was well deserved, and it was beautifully done,” he told Carson.

Second, Wayne was there to promote what would become his last movie to be released, The Shootist. His son later confessed he couldn’t watch the film after his father’s death because its plot — about an aging gunfighter dying of cancer — hit too close to home.

While Wayne was visiting The Tonight Show, Carson spoke with him a little about surviving lung cancer. The actor said he wouldn’t have given up smoking “cancer or no cancer” if he hadn’t learned that he was allergic to tobacco.

John Wayne and Johnny Carson appeared at the 51st Academy Awards together in 1979, Wayne’s last public appearance

In the months before Wayne died in 1979, he joined Carson on the stage of the 51st Academy Awards for what would become his last public appearance. The actor appeared emotional as he took the stage and received a standing ovation.

“That’s just about the only medicine a fella’d ever really need,” he shared after thanking the audience.

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