With Paul Newman yet another Hollywood star succumbs to cancer – the death rate from cancers of all forms in the movie community, if my memory is reliable, is staggering – so I Googled it, using various search parameters, thinking there must have been research into the phenomenon, but answers came there none. (If I’ve missed something, please let me know.)
One movie, with an absurdly high death rate from cancer among cast and crew has been examined (in the book The Hollywood Hall of Shame by Harry and Michael Medved, which dealt with movie flops rather than the incidence of cancer). This was The Conqueror, a Howard Hughes project filmed in the area around St. George, Utah in 1955 – of the over 200 cast and crew, 91 subsequently contracted cancer, over three times the average rate for the US, and 46 died of it, including stars John Wayne, Susan Hayward, and Agnes Moorehead, and director Dick Powell. In the town of St. George, around half of the population contracted cancer.
The source of the problem, of course, was the US atomic bomb testing programme in neighbouring Nevada, which contaminated vast tracts of the West. In the 4 years before filming commenced on The Conqueror, the US military had tested no fewer than 34 nukes in Nevada, culminating, in 1953, with the 11-nuke series of Operation Upshot-Knothole (it never seemed to occur to the military to give their tests more appropriate names, like Operation Fuckwit-Dickhead), the prevailing winds hauling away the resulting fallout to drop it down-range on unsuspecting American citizens who, living in fear of Soviet nukes, were nailed by their own country. Operation Teapot, a 14 nuke sequence, took place in the first half of 1955, and may well have coincided with filming.
In the case of Upshot-Knothole, much of the radioactive crap found its way in to an area called Snow Canyon, near St. George, which got its own share, and where, tragically, The Conqueror was filmed two years later. And, to add insult to injury, producer Howard Hughes had 60 tons of radioactive Snow Canyon dirt shipped back to Hollywood, for use in retakes. Doubtless, that crap lingered for many years, and may still be kicking around. And the really scary, mind-bogglingly dumb thing is that everyone knew about the radiation – there’s even archive film of Wayne checking out the set with a Geiger counter – and yet it apparently didn’t occur to anyone to think Oh shit – we’re fucked! Mind you, this was in an era when, all over America (and to a lesser degree here in the UK), you could blithely zap your child’s feet with radiation in shoe-store fluoroscopes! The kids, of course, got a short blast – the unfortunate staff, for whom no-one had thought to provide shielding, got to spend their entire working day alongside the machines (there was still a school of thought, at that time, that said radiation was in some way beneficial – human stupidity, when there’s money to be made, knowing no bounds at all).
The Nevada Test Site (stats from Wikipedia), between 1951 and 1992, tested no fewer than 1,021 nukes, of which 921 were subterranean, though that by no means guaranteed that radioactive material wouldn’t be released into the atmosphere. And what I find spectaculary insane is that the NTS is now a tourist attraction – what the hell is that doing for cancer rates, especially among the staff? In addition, ground zero of Operation Teapot is now used for anti-terrorist training against radiological attacks on the transport infrastructure. I’m not sure if that’s ironic or plain stupid.
The problem is, with the Nevada testing programme, is that if you check out a map of the US, it had the potential to contaminate – and probably did – huge tracts of the western US, depending on the strength and direction of the wind. In Nevada, and the states bordering it, especially in and around Monument Valley on the Utah-Arizona border, an awful lot of Westerns and other outdoor-action movies, not to mention TV series, have been shot over the years so, really, it’s no surprise at all that people like Newman are still dying of cancer, and no doubt many more will continue to do so.
And let’s not lose sight of the fact that actors and celebrities are simply the conspicuous end of the cancer death spectrum – how many ordinary people have died hideous and painful deaths as a result of the nuclear testing programme, and what deranged fuckwit ever though that it was a good idea in the first place?