This summer, the American Movie Classics channel used a marathon of John Wayne movies to promote its film preservation drive. The announcer kept referring to Wayne as ''an American icon'' and ''America's greatest movie hero.'' Well, he certainly made a lot of movies, and in the majority of them he was the lead actor. But as I watched, I was reminded again how much wider Wayne was in range and experimentation than we usually consider him. Not only would he play weak, he would do dubious characters and even die.
Now, leads who die are not rare. Some second leads like Robert Preston made a career of getting killed in their movies. Before he became a star on Broadway as Meredith Willson's ''Music Man,'' Preston was usually dead by the final fadeout. He even did a novelty music number about it on television and in nightclubs.
A-list stars still occasionally die -- like Charlton Heston in ''Midway'' and ''Earthquake'' and Jack Nicholson in ''The Shining'' and ''Batman.'' But after becoming an A-list actor in John Ford's ''Stagecoach'' in 1939, Wayne died or was seriously injured in a surprising number of films:
''Reap the Wild Wind'' (1942) -- killed by giant squid.
''The Fighting Seabees'' (1944) -- killed by driving bulldozer into oil tank.
''They Were Expendable'' (1945) -- wounded hand, hospitalized.
''Angel & the Bad Man'' (1947) -- shot, bed-ridden.
''Wake of the Red Witch'' (1948) -- drowned in diving suit.
''Red River'' (1948) -- shot in side.
''Sands of Iwo Jima'' (1949) -- killed by sniper.
''Flying Leathernecks'' (1951) -- badly broken arm.
''The Conqueror'' (1956) -- stab wound.
''The Wings of Eagles'' (19S7) -- crippled by broken neck.
''Legend of the Lost'' (1957) -- stab wound.
''The Alamo'' (1960) -- killed by Mexican lancer.
''The Longest Day'' (1962) -- broken leg.
''The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance'' (1962) -- alcohollsm.
''In Harm's Way'' (1965) -- badly broken arm, also severe wounds.
''El Dorado'' (1967) -- paralyzed gun hand, also leg wound.
''True Grit'' (1969) -- one-eyed alcoholic.
''The Cowboys'' (1972) -- killed by villain.
''Cahill, United States Marshal'' (1973) -- stab wound.
''The Shootist'' (1976) -- prostate cancer, killed in shootout.
Wayne also played downright unpleasant characters like Sgt. Stryker in ''Sands of Iwo Jima,'' Tom Dunson in ''Red River,'' and Ethan Edwards in ''The Searchers.'' He wasn't afraid to try offbeat roles, either. Remember the World War 2 German ship captain Karl Ehrlich in the ''Sea Chase''? How about U.S. Ambassador Townsend Harris in ''The Barbarian and the Geisha''? Who can forget him as Genghis Khan in ''The Conqueror''! Or his bit as the Centurion at Christ's crucifixion in ''The Greatest Story Ever Told''!!
So what kind of ''hero'' or ''icon'' does this make John Wayne?
With this surprising range of characters despite his limited acting ability, maybe we need to revise our ideas about him. For an ''icon'' he showed considerable vulnerability and weakness. But I think what we admired was his longevity as a screen presence. His first major role was in ''The Big Trail'' in 1930, his last in ''The Shootist'' in 1976. He was not nominated for an Oscar until 1949, and he did not win until ''True Grit'' -- twenty years later. He was not even nominated for ''Red River,'' ''The Searchers,'' or ''The Shootist'' -- all excellent work. He took critical blasts for patriotic efforts like ''The Alamo'' and ''The Green Berets,'' but the public continues to admire them. Wayne's presence was so strong, it still draws viewers over two decades after his death in 1979. (Which probably explains why AMC and Ted Turner's channels rerun his movies so often.)
Most of Wayne's characters believed in what they set out to do. They possessed a passion of vocation, a pride in what they did, and a strong sense of right and wrong (even when it didn't always agree with the law.) Yes, ''a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do'' -- even if it mixes patriotism with male chauvinism or right-wing conservative populism.
Wayne's characters usually made it clear where they stood, and they were willing to back their beliefs with fists, guns or life itself. In a world of increasingly fork-tongued, selfish cynicism, that's something we can still admire even if we disagree with the particulars.
For reference, see ''The Complete Films of John Wayne,'' Mark Ricci, Boris & Steve Zmijewsky.