Did Nuclear Fallout Kill John Wayne and Susan Hayward?

New book, ‘Who Nuked the Duke?’ details 1950s atomic testing program and impact on filming of ‘The Conqueror’ and the lives of its stars.

John Wayne faced two memorable encounters with “Dirty Harry.” Many Wayne fans know that turning down nukeddukethe title role in the film of that name would go down as his biggest lost opportunity of the 1970s. The film series would make Clint Eastwood a superstar and earn him a small fortune.

Wayne’s lesser-known encounter with Harry came roughly 20 years earlier when he stood on the hallowed grounds of Snow Canyon Utah, filming his fated epic ‘The Conqueror.’ Many suggest this encounter would prove even more troubling than the loss of a movie role. Some say it may very well have cost him his life.

Thus begins the saga of Who Nuked The Duke?, a 295-page new book from Aplomb Publishing and San Francisco author John William Law, suggesting that this single event marked a turning point in the dramatic tale in the making of Wayne’s 1954 epic The Conqueror.

Who Nuked the Duke? surmises that the atomic blast of Harry in 1953 would be a lighting rod – or ground zero – of the events that followed for those surrounding the film. The problematic blast would be known as “Dirty Harry” after detonating too close to ground and sucking up “dirty” debris into its massive mushroom cloud.

“The morning of May 19, 1953 started off a bit overcast, but overall an ordinary spring day for the residents of St. George, Utah,” says Law. “But it was far from that. In fact, it would be a day that would mark a dramatic change for the community and anyone who might inhabit the local surroundings for the foreseeable future.”

Law writes that even though the cast and crew of The Conqueror would not set foot in Utah for another year, the deadly fallout had already amassed in the area where the film would be shot and the intensity of the radioactive land spelled doom for not only the movie stars, but for the supporting cast, crew and local community that came out as film extras or to watch the stars at work. “The movie was filmed largely in an area called Snow Canyon, a place that acted, in many ways, like a reservoir for nuclear fallout,” says Law. “Because the government would only support nuclear detonations when winds were directing blasts away from Los Angeles or Las Vegas, Utah became immediate the focal point for collecting nuclear debris after the blasts.”

While Law writes in detail about the large number of blasts and problems the Atomic Energy Commission faced, the Harry blast in 1953 was unique. “Many blasts left radioactive fallout across the region,” says Law. “But Harry was unique for two reasons – first, it was a problematic blast because it was detonated too close to the ground, creating excessive radioactive fallout. Secondly, a striking shift in the winds, just before the blast went off, put the fallout on a direct collision course with the community of St. George, Utah and notably, the Snow Canyon area,” explains Law.

For cast and crew of The Conqueror, this meant months filming in a region soaked in Harry’s radioactive fallout. In the years that followed dozens would be diagnosed and die of cancer related illnesses. “Susan Hayward suffered terrible effects from cancer and John Wayne fought the disease secretly for years,” adds the author.

Why so much mystery and fascination surrounding the tale? Law believes it stems from the facts of the case and timing of the events. “Many of the key figures in the story smoked and it was easy to suggest that smoking was the cause of their cancers. In addition, government denials of responsibility kept facts hidden. And because the story is told over a 30-year period, it’s a puzzle that took years to piece together.”

For Law the book took roughly 10 years to research and write and it’s only recently that he feels the story has finally come to an end. “The book spans decades, from the end of World War II through the Cold War of the 1950s and 60s and really doesn’t end until 2004 when the Nevada Test Site – what Law calls “the most radiated piece of land on the planet” – transitioned to a historical site offering public tours.

Many of those surrounding the film suffered horrific deaths from cancer, says Law and the book aims to look back at a dark but fascinating period in movie history. “The book is also a look at the nuclear testing program and its impact on a community, under the guise of patriotism and government security and secrecy. Who Nuked the Duke? is packed with photographs, including a 13-page photo spread of filming, in a perfect-bound, 295-page paperback book that retails for $17.95. In addition, standard and enhanced eBook editions are available. Copies are available wherever books are sold. To find out more, visit www.aplombpublishing.com.

About the author: John William Law is a native of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and graduate of Temple University’s School of Journalism and Communications. He has worked as a reporter and editor for daily, weekly and monthly news publications and is the author of numerous books including “Alfred Hitchcock: The Icon Years,” “Curse of the Silver Screen” and “What Ever Happened to Mommie Dearest?”. His book “Alfred Hitchcock: The Icon Years” was named Best Non-Fiction: Biography in 2011 in a national book competition.








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