Friday, June 21, 2024

The Other Oppenheimer Movie Connection: How John Wayne, Other Stars, Died from Cancer After Shooting a Film in Utah Several Years Later


Everyone is celebrating the movie “Oppenheimer” and that’s a good thing. Christopher Nolan did a great job.

But J. Robert Oppenheimer left another movie connection in the desert. Years after the bomb tests we see on screen, more and much large testing went on out there in Utah and New Mexico. The after effects were devastating not only to the people who lived there, but to a movie that was shot there.

The move was called “The Conqueror” and it wasn’t very good. Starring a miscast John Wayne — legendary from American Westerns — as Mongolian Emperor Genghis Khan. The movie was a critical and financial disaster. Producer Howard Hughes was so embarrassed by it he’s said to have bought up all the existing prints and took it out of circulation for years, (It turns up now on TCM.)

“The Conqueror” was often glibly referred to as “radio active.” This is why: It was shot around St. George, Utah, 137 miles from where above ground tests were conducted by the Atomic Energy Commission in Nevada from 1951 to 1963.

The result, many have speculated, was the consequent illnesses of at least 91 of the 220 people who worked on the film. Of the 91, 46 died from cancer. All the principals from “The Conqueror” succumbed to cancer, presumably from breathing the air, water, and minerals left poisoned by the AEC.

Here’s the list:

In 1960, actor Pedro Armendáriz was diagnosed with kidney cancer. He killed himself in 1963 after learning that his condition was terminal.

Also in 1963, director Dick Powell died at age 53 of lymphatic cancer. Powell was a huge star for decades, a best selling pop star aka crooner who transitioned to movies and became a TV icon on screen and a busy director/producer. He was married first to wise cracking Joan Blondell and then to June Allyson, beloved star of MGM musicals and comedies.

Susan Hayward, a top star of the time, was claimed by brain cancer in 1974 at age 57. She’d won an Oscar in 1959 after four nominations. Agnes Moorehead, who’d had a wildly successful second career on “Bewitched,” also died in 1974 from cancer. Actors Lee Van Cleef and John Hoyt were hit by cancer in 1989 and 1991, respectively.

Wayne died in June 1979 at age 72. He’d suffered from lung, throat, and stomach cancers. Because of his politics, Wayne had lost a lot of his luster during the anti war movement of the 60s and 70s. But he was a towering Hollywood figure, bigger than Stallone and Schwarzenegger rolled into one. He won an Oscar two years before his death, for “True Grit.”

I’m not the first to write this story. There are plenty of reports on line. People magazine— back when it was a real magazine– broke the story back in 1980, revealing the number of primary deaths and illnesses as well as those who visited the set including family members. They didn’t even get into how the radiation the people who lived in the area, and this was 43 years ago. Click on the People link above to read the comments by the stars’ family members at the time.

As good as Nolan’s movie is, there’s a conversation to be had now about the disastrous, lingering effects of Oppenheimer’s brilliance. The movie doesn’t endorse what the scientists at Los Alamos created, it just tells their story. But there are a lot of other stories to be told, going forward.

If you know anyone who was affected, please drop me a line at

Roger Friedman
Roger Friedman
Roger Friedman began his Showbiz411 column in April 2009 after 10 years with Fox News, where he created the Fox411 column. His movie reviews are carried by Rotten Tomatoes, and he is a member of both the movie and TV branches of the Critics Choice Awards. His articles have appeared in dozens of publications over the years including New York Magazine, where he wrote the Intelligencer column in the mid 90s and covered the OJ Simpson trial, and Fox News (when it wasn't so crazy) where he covered Michael Jackson. He is also the writer and co-producer of "Only the Strong Survive," a selection of the Cannes, Sundance, and Telluride Film festivals, directed by DA Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus.

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