When Soviet Assassins Came After John Wayne

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.”

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 [1950] 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.

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.

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.”

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.”

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.