More Hollywood Myths

Was John Wayne's cancer death caused by filming downwind of the Nevada Test Site? ...and other Hollywood rumors.

by Brian Dunning

Filed under Health, Urban Legends

Skeptoid #238
December 28, 2010
Podcast transcript | Listen | Subscribe
 

John Wayne, The Conqueror
John Wayne as Genghis Khan
in The Conqueror
(Photo credit: Public domain)

Today we have a few more myths to follow up our previous episode on legends from the silver screen. Many of you responded with some others, most notably the claim that John Wayne's cancer death was the result of one particular movie shoot in the fallout zone of the Nevada Test Site. We'll look at that one in pretty good detail, but here are a few lighter tales to start with.

The Wizard of Oz and Pink Floyd

The story goes that if you watch The Wizard of Oz while listening to Pink Floyd's album Dark Side of the Moon, there are moments where they appear to synchronize, where certain lyrics seem relevant to the action onscreen. This combination has been popularly dubbed Dark Side of the Rainbow.

The band members and engineer Alan Parsons all deny it. It's one of those cases where for every moment that does seem to match up, there are 100 other moments that don't; and no clear agreement among believers on what matches and what doesn't. People have claimed many such matches between various movies and albums. I'm not going to try and talk you out of this one. They're both works of art, and art is in the eye of the beholder; but if you want someone (who knows) to admit it was done deliberately, you're going to have to keep waiting.

Three Men and a Ghost

There's one myth that I almost didn't include because I was trying to stick to classic Hollywood and this was such a stupid movie and an even stupider myth, but it seems to have grown long enough legs to warrant a mention. In Three Men and a Baby, the story goes that the ghost of a boy is visible standing in some curtains in the background. Screen caps are all over the Internet if you want to take a look. But one of the deleted scenes shows a better view of the object, and it's a near life-size cardboard cutout of Ted Danson wearing a tux and top hat. Viewed out of focus and from across the room, the top hat looks like a young boy's mussed-up hair. If you try to look this up on the Internet, it's almost impossible to find a page that does not also give the explanation; so I doubt you can find anyone who's heard of this myth but doesn't know about the cardboard cutout. Nevertheless, Ted Danson's indomitable star power seems to keep this one near the top of every list of Hollywood legends.

Buried at the Magic Kingdom

This one isn't about a movie, but since Disney is a movie studio, I'll include a myth about their Magic Kingdom theme parks. The story goes that there are people buried at the parks, possibly including Walt Disney himself, said to be cryogenically preserved under Disney World.

The stories are completely untrue, in fact I couldn't find any credible evidence worthy of examination. If there is any, let me know. Walt himself was cremated, and his ashes reside at Forest Lawn in Los Angeles. But this leads us to a creepy fact that almost confirms the rumor: On many occasions, Disney security has caught guests scattering the ashes of deceased Disney fans at theme parks. Most of the evidence of this is anecdotal, as you're not likely to see Disney sending a press release to the newspapers. But once when police were called when a woman was seen doing this at the Pirates of the Caribbean ride, Disney employees began emailing bloggers and columnists who follow Disney that it happens quite frequently.

So although you won't find anyone officially buried at the Magic Kingdom, the remains of its most enduring fans... are everywhere.

The Superman Curse

There are various versions of the so-called Superman curse, centering around the idea that anyone who plays Superman meets an untimely end. It's also said that George Reeves, the original television Superman, went crazy and thought he could actually fly, and tossed himself from a building. That one's easily disproven: George Reeves died of a gunshot wound ruled a suicide, but like so many suicides, enough of his loved ones said that "he'd never do such a thing" that dark rumors of murder and hit men persisted, as promoted by the 2006 movie Hollywoodland.

Although bigscreen Superman Christopher Reeve was paralyzed and died nine years later, his career flourished in the seven years since he'd last played Superman; and when he died, he died a much beloved philanthropist and spokesman. Even George Reeves' career was doing well; the TV show had been renewed for another season when he died and was very successful.

The other Supermen also serve as evidence that playing Superman is less of a curse than a blessing. The original movie serial Superman, Kirk Alyn, was successful enough that he was typecast and chose to leave the industry, happily retiring to Arizona. Dean Cain of Lois & Clark is alive, well, and happy, as is Tom Welling of Smallville. Bud Collyer played Superman on the radio for 11 years, and in cartoons for two years, and went on to have a full and successful career.

We should all be so super lucky to be stricken with such a super curse.

John Wayne and the Nevada Test Site

So now we come to the big one, the myth that dozens of people asked me about since the first Hollywood Myths episode came out. Supposedly, John Wayne's death from cancer was caused by his work in the Utah desert in 1954 on the 1956 Howard Hughes film The Conqueror, a movie widely regarded as Wayne's worst. The location near St. George, Utah, is notorious for being downwind from the Nevada Test Site, where a large number of atomic weapons had been detonated in prior years, and thus was the recipient of much radioactive fallout. Wayne's co-stars Susan Hayward and Agnes Moorehead also died of cancer; in fact, by the time People magazine checked up on all 220 cast and crew for a 1980 article, 91 of them had contracted some form of cancer, and 46 had died of cancer.

People's inspiration was apparently a 1979 article in the tabloid The Star by Peter Brennan who merely speculated about the coincidence without doing any real research. It was repeated by such newspapers as the New York Post (August 6, 1979) and the Los Angeles Times (August 6, 1979). People went a step further, talking to a few experts and managing to track down the history of the cast and crew. This article was what really started the story; in fact, virtually anything you might find about this story takes its quotes directly from People. One of the most often borrowed was from an enthusiastic fallout activist, Dr. Robert Pendleton at the University of Utah, who said:

With these numbers, this case could qualify as an epidemic. The connection between fallout radiation and cancer in individual cases has been practically impossible to prove conclusively. But in a group this size you'd expect only 30-some cancers to develop. With 91, I think the tie-in to their exposure on the set of The Conqueror would hold up even in a court of law.

But it didn't, at least not for residents of St. George, Utah, often referred to as the "downwinders", when attorneys went door-to-door in the 1970's. The Times of London reported that some 700 such lawsuits were unsuccessful. However, ten years after the People magazine article, the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act was passed and has since paid out over $1.5 billion, including many payments to people who had only to prove that they lived in certain counties during a certain time period, and had one of a list of approved diseases. Although this makes it sound like the link must have been proven, science doesn't depend on what politicians were able to convince bureaucrats to do.

And what science has found, contrary to what's reported in virtually every article published on the subject, is that any link between the film crew's cancers and the atomic tests is far from confirmed. First of all, the numbers reported by People are right in the range of what we might expect to find in a random sample. According to the National Cancer Institute, in 1980 the chances of being diagnosed with a cancer sometime in your lifetime was about 41%, with mortality at 21.7%. And, right on the button, People's survey of The Conqueror's crew found a 41.4% incidence with 20.7% mortality. (These numbers make an assumption of an age group of 20-55 at the time of filming.)

A 1979 study in the New England Journal of Medicine found no consistent pattern of correlation between childhood cancers and fallout exposure in the Utah counties, with the exception of leukemia. For reasons unknown, leukemia rates were about half that of the United States at large, but after the fallout period, this increased to just slightly above the normal rate. The authors were unable to correlate either leukemia or other cancers to fallout. Considering that the film crew spent only a few weeks there, instead of their whole lives like the people who were studied, it seems highly unlikely that they were affected.

But we can't make that declaration for certain. The data we have for the film crew is totally inadequate. Most crucial factors are unknown, like age, age of incidence, types of cancer, heredity, dose-response, and other risk factors each may have had — like John Wayne's smoking of five packs a day. And, of course, "cancer" is not one disease; it is hundreds of different diseases. Plus there's an obvious alternate explanation: The cast and crew simply got old in those intervening decades.

Tip Skeptoid $2/mo $5/mo $10/mo One time

What about Dr. Pendleton's gloomy remarks? In an email to researcher Dylan Jim Esson, a colleague of Pendleton's, Lynn Anspaugh, said that Pendleton's reported comments were uncharacteristic and she thought they were more likely the result of media sensationalism. According to her analysis of the fallout readings from the time and place of The Conqueror's filming, she calculated that the crew received no more than 1 to 4 millirems of radiation, which was less than normal background levels. Pendleton himself had recorded high levels of radiation only when a fallout cloud was directly overhead the day following a test, and normal at other times. The most recent tests had been more than a year prior to the filming, so Anspaugh's calculations are not surprising.

From all the data we have, it was perfectly safe for the film crew, and their reported cancer histories show no unusual ill effects.

So there we have it, another line of evidence that Hollywood myths are all just a part of the show. Please let it continue, for as the early writer Wilson Mizner once said, "In Hollywood they almost made a great picture, but they caught it in time."

Brian Dunning

© 2010 Skeptoid Media, Inc. Copyright information

References & Further Reading

Esson, D.J. "Did 'Dirty Harry' Kill John Wayne? Media Sensationalism and the Filming of 'The Conqueror' in the Wake of Atomic Testing." Utah Historical Quarterly. 1 Jun. 2003, Volume 71, Issue 3: 250-265.

Jackovich, K., Sennet, M. "The Children of John Wayne, Susan Hayward and Dick Powell Fear That Fallout Killed Their Parents." People. 10 Nov. 1980, Volume 14, Number 19: 42.

Lyon, J., Klauber, M., Gardner, J., Udall, K. "Childhood leukemias associated with fallout from nuclear testing." New England Journal of Medicine. 22 Feb. 1979, Volume 300, Number 8: 397-402.

Shaw, M. "Was The Movie The Conqueror Really Cursed? A Look At Radiation Paranoia." Health News Digest. Interscan Corporation, 14 Sep. 2009. Web. 25 Dec. 2010. <http://www.gasdetection.com/news2/health_news_digest225.html>

Wagner, S. "The Truth About the Superman Curse." About.com. The New York Times Company, 19 Sep. 2005. Web. 28 Dec. 2010. <http://paranormal.about.com/od/humanenigmas/a/superman_curse.htm>

Yoshino, K. "A ride to the great beyond at Disneyland." Los Angeles Times. 14 Nov. 2007, Newspaper.

Reference this article:
Dunning, B. "More Hollywood Myths." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, Inc., 28 Dec 2010. Web. 25 Oct 2014. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4238>

Discuss!

10 most recent comments | Show all 25 comments

I guess the way you can recognise a sceptic is their gratitude for having a misapprehension corrected. I too thought Picnic at Hanging Rock was an impressionistic tale based on a true story.

Thanks, John for putting me right on this. It remains a superb film. Sublime artistry can make fiction grip us more than reality and it can be hard to let go. I owe "Sherlock Holmes" one of my useful sceptic insights - "Look for what is missing" - It's in "Silver Blaze":

"Is there any point to which you would wish to draw my attention?"
"To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time."
"The dog did nothing in the night-time."
"That was the curious incident," remarked Sherlock Holmes. (Conan Doyle)
AND
"When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth". (Conan Doyle)

The greatest Hollywood myth was the feasibility of isolationism. Bravo "Casablanca" for ending that myth:

"Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship - FADE OUT"

Phi, Sydney
March 24, 2011 11:45pm

Your critique of the cancer "myth" surrounding Conqueror is short on rational argument. There may be a Hollywood myth here, but nothing in your piece would tilt a skeptic one way or another. Each paragraph carries either misleading innuendo (failed lawsuits by Utah residents somehow prove downwinders were unharmed by fallout), mischaracterization or basic ignorance of statistics (your flawed conclusions from the National Cancer Institute study) or contradiction (after noting the lack of evidence to convincingly determine whether radiation harmed the crew, you nonetheless trumpet that, "from all the data we have," the production was "perfectly safe for the film crew." Essentially then, you hype your own contrarian position with as much show and as little substance as some of those you criticize.

Twain, Richmond Va
May 28, 2011 10:42pm

Amen Twain. There's one difference though: this man is a Scientist!!

Rob, Los Angeles
June 16, 2011 8:40am

So Twain, you admit there is no evidence to connect the cancer to the radiation. No data suggesting the radiation caused any harm. And that the lawsuits failed (because this too indicates a lack of evidence to support the view). There is no evidence to suggest the production was unsafe, and evidence that there was no other ill effect suffered.

So why should we shift from the null hypothosis? What evidence is there that the Cancer Mr Wayne suffered was from limited exposure that does not seem to have effected anybody else, and not the statisitcally more likely smoking?

If you have any evidence to shift the argument away from the null hypothosis, go ahead and post it. Otherwise, "there is no evidence of danger" and "there is a more likely cause", with "no evidence of anybody else suffering ill effect" pretty much lead to the "contrarian" view.

Tom H, Kent
June 16, 2011 9:06am

The funny thing is Tom, the only evidence of mild background and living space contamination without extrapolation is a beneficial one. In fact there is enough data to be a cohort study.

I'd look to Marion's age, when he was born, his diet, lifestyle. After all that compare the population studies into exposure and ingestion/inhalation.

Henk V., Sin City, Oz
October 13, 2011 1:13am

Now here is a very good EB

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2477708/

would I use it as a guideline for public radiation (external) exposure?

No.

Material this good should be set aside for other comparisons

Mud, Sin City, Oz
October 25, 2011 11:08pm

I don't know anybody who claims that the Wizard of Oz/Dark Side of the Moon synchronization was intentional. Instead, I've only ever heard people claim that it exists. Personally, I have yet to check it out, but I think I'd like to.

Ben, Columbus, OH
December 14, 2012 12:08pm

The downwinders in St. George actually succeeded in several different lawsuits. And the incidence of cancer was much higher than other populations of similar size. Especially when you factor in the non-smoking/drinking atmosphere.

And I hate to mention it, but my little town has a 200% higher rate of cancer than other populations of similar size, especially when you factor in the non-smoking/drinking atmosphere. But we weren't downwinders. We lived on top of a tailings dump for nearly 50 years. The truth is that long-term exposure to radiation is not good for you.

Did John Wayne get cancer from it? Probably not. He wasn't there very long. But there's no absolute proof that it didn't cause issues either. And cancer is not the only issue that radiation exposure causes. Heart disease is a nasty side-effect too. But it does tend to have to be major or long-term exposure. I don't think that John Wayne qualified for this.

Sara, Salt Lake City
January 21, 2013 5:45pm

For reshoots, Hughes had 60 tons of soil from the location shipped to a soundstage in Hollywood, furthering whatever exposure, and now in a concentrated, enclosed structure. The year previous to the filming of the movie, there were several bombs detonated in testing, two above ground that cause significant fallout. Worth mentioning.

Mo, Los Angeles
July 24, 2013 10:34am

I agree with MO reply July 24, 2013. Don't trust Government reports. Read the book "Empty Harvest" by Bernard Jensen and Mark Anderson published 1990. I remember as a child in Los Angeles the numerous tests and warnings to stay indoors.

Val, Ft. Lauderdale, Florida
August 10, 2014 4:15am

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