John Wayne was an American folk hero by reason of countless films in which he lived bigger, shot straighter and loomed larger than any man in real life ever could.

His death in Los Angeles on Monday at the age of 72 deprived the world of the last active survivor and exponent of the classic American action film. In the more than 200 features in which he appeared in a career that spanned half a century. "Duke" Wayne projected an image of rugged, sometimes muleheaded and always formidable masculinity.

His name was synonymous with the Western and, beyond that, with Hollywood and with what many Americans would like to believe about themselves and their country. He became a figure whose magnitude and emotional conviction took on an enduring symbolic importance.

Mr. Wayne's films earned about $700 million. For 25 consecutive years, he was listed among the top 10 box-office attractions of American films. His only Academy Award came late in his career for his role as the cantankerous Marshal Rooster Cogburn in "True Grit" in 1969. The critic as well as the public thought it was well deserved.

Perhaps no Hollywood actor had a more distinctive appearance - a slightly tilted stance and a loping stride, an emphatic, syncopated way of speaking which delighted many a minic, professional and amateur, and an awesome physical presence. His physicality was expressed most engagingly, perhaps, in a peerless ability to kick in locked doors.

In an interview in 1976, Mr. Wayne described the typical here he portrayed:

"The main I played," he said slowly, "could be rough, he could be immoral, he could be cruel, tough or tender, but" - his hand hit the table smartly - "he was never petty or small. Everyone in the audience wants to identify with the kind of character. He may be bad, but if he's bad, he's BAD. He's not just a petty little whiner."

Mr. Wayne died of cancer at 8:35 p.m. (Easter time) at the UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles. His death was announced three hours later by Dr. Bernard R. Strohm, the hospital administrator. The actor's seven children were at his bedside at the end.

The character Mr. Wayne played on the screen and the gallantry and stubborness with which he fought repeated illnesses in recent years wre evoked in the messages of sympathy that came from around the world.

In a statement issued by the White House, President Carter said that "in an age of few heroes" Mr. Wayne was "the genuine article."

"But he was more than just a hero." the president said. "He was a symbol of many of the most basic qualities that made America great. The ruggedness, the tough independence, the sense of personal conviction and courage - on and off the screen - reflected the best of our national character. It was because of what John Wayne said about what we are and what we can be that his great and deep love of America was returned in full measure."

U.S. District Judge Joseph H. Young of Baltimore, the chairman of the board of the American Cancer Society, said, "In his long and continuing battle against cancer, John Wayne provided inspiration to patients throughout the world. The hope he instilled in their hearts will continue to live. In real life, he demonstrated the same courage and positive attitude that characterized his roles in so many films."

Actor Charlton Heston said of Mr. Wayne, "He was - and is - an American institution. It's not surprising that, to the end, Duke gave an example of courage that made him more than an actor and friend."

Among other Hollywood colleagues of Mr. Wayne to comment were Bob Hope, who said, "We've lost a big one, a jumbo in this business." Jack Lemmon said, "John Wayne was bigger that life, but he never abused it." Lloyd Nolan described him as "a magnificent man." Elizabeth Taylor issued a statement through the Washington office of her husband, Sen. John Wayne (R.-Va.), which said Mr. Wayne "was to America and the whole world what people hoped Americans were really like: tough, strong, loyal, just - and never with arrogance but with true humility."

Jack Valenti, the president of the Motion Picture Association of America, said, "The Duke is dead, which means the tallest tree in the movie forest had just been felled. There, won't ever be anyone like him."

Among others who expressed their sorrow were James Steward, who starred with Mr. Wayne in his last film, "The Shootist," about a gunfighter dying of cancer.Stewart said, "John Wayne was probably the most admired actor in the world."

From his home at San Clemente, Calif., former President Richard M. Nixon issued a statement saying Mr. Wayne was "true grit on and off the screen."

Newspapers around the world carried news of the actor's death on page one. France's three television networks announced that they would run some of his best-known films as tribute.

Mr. Wayne received an unusual honor from Congress before his death, a gold medal that has been awarded to only 83 other persons.Among earlier recipients were George Washington, Andrew Jackson and Robert F. Kennedy.

Mr. Wayne's last public appearance was on April 9, when he presented the Oscar for last year's best picture to "The Deer Hunter." He received a standing ovation form the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences when he appeared on the stage and allowed as how that was "just about the only medicine a fellow'd ever need."

He was hospitalized for the final time on May 2. President Carter made a visit to his bedside and Queen Elizabeth II of England sent greetings. Dr. Strohm, the administrator of the UCLA Medical Center, said Mr. Wayne sometimes refused medication so that he could spend more time with his children. He said he lapsed into a coma about 24 hours before he died.

In his last 15 years, when his films became less frequent, Mr. Wayne became almost as well known for his battle against cancer and for his conservative political views as for his work in front of the cameras.

In September 1964, Mr. Wayne, a chain-smoker, developed a persistent cough. Tests disclosed a maglignant tumor in his left lung, which surgeons removed. Mr. Wayne chose to promote early detection and treatment of cancer by calling a press conference in December 1964 and announcing, "I have licked the 'Big C.'"

In April 1978 he underwent surgery for the replacement of a heart valve. Last January, he again had surgery for what was described as a gallbladder condition. Cancer was found in his stomach and it was removed.

Although he was considered a conservative in politics because of his backing of Bary Goldwater, Ronald Reagan, and the war in Vietnam, Mr. Wayne occasionally would take issue with "the picture of me as an extreme rightist Republican.

"In my own mind I'm liberal to the point where I will listen to every point of view, which takes me out of the extremist class on both sides," he said in the 1976 interview. "And I have as much love for my fellow man, and I enjoy them as much as anyone. Yet I've have criticism of my pictures because of critics trying to criticize my political inclinations instead of my pictures."

In recent years, Mr. Wayne's image as a reactionary softened. In 1974, he appeared in Cambridge, Mass., in an armored personnel carrier at the invitation of the Harvard Lampoon and said it waslike " being invited to lunch with Borgias." He favored ratification of the Panama Canal treaties. Last week, he sent a mail-gram to House Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill urging Congress to pass legislaton to put the accords into effect.

He once gave an interview to The Advocate, a California-based gay newspaper, which quoted him as saying, "A man has the right to live his life as he wishes."

Mr. Wayne starred in Hollywood action films beginning with a grandiose Western epic, "The Big Trail," and ending with "The Shootist" in 1976. Although he enjoyed success in many non-Western roles - at one time his identiy as a movie soldier probably took precedence over his identity as a movie cowboy - Mr. Wayne's fame and appeal are likely to rest on such Western as John Ford's "Stage-coach," "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon," "Rio Grande," "The Searchers," and "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance," Howard Hawks' "Red River" and "Rio Bravo," and Henry Hathaways's "North to Alaska" and "True Grit."

At once the most venerable and durable of Western stars, Mr. Wayne sustained this genre by the force and clarity of his personality years after other stars of his generation had abandoned it. Although some critics have felt that Mr. Wayne did little more than play himself in his movies, the image he projected was one he devised with considerable art. His walk and his manner of speaking, for example, were copied from his friend Yakima Canutt, the stunt man.

Film historian David Thomson wrote that "Wayne's sincere wrong-headedness may yet obliterate the fact he is great screen actor . . . It is a matter of some . . . importance that the student of film appreciate that Wayne is an actor of noble bearing. Good enough to survive innumerable bad films, he is a presence that makes meaning and appearance exactly congruent - one can ask for no more."

The legend of John Wayne began on May 26, 1907, in Winterset, Iowa, when a son was born to druggist Clyde L. Morrison and his wife, Mary, a native of County Cork, Ireland. He was christened Marion Robert Morrison, but his name was changed to Marion Michael Morrision after the birth of a brother, Robert Emmett Morrison.

Plagued by lung congestion, Clyde Morrison moved to Southern California on the advice of his doctor. He tried farming for two years and then, in 1916, the family moved to Glendale, a suburd of Los Angeles.

Young Marion held jobs as a newspaper and delivery boy. He also managed to impress his teachers as a bright student and to develop a passion for movies. He sometimes saw as many as five films a week.

At Glendale High School, he achieved renown as a ferocious "running guard" on the football team. He also maintained an "A" average, developed into a debating champion, wrote for the school newspaper, chaired the senior dance, and served as senior class president. Recruited by the legendary coach Howard Jones, he accepted a football scholarship at the University of Southern California. A shoulder injury and the distraction of a romance with a young woman named Josephine Saenz, who became his first Wife in 1933, prevented him from becoming in integral part of Jones's "Thundering Herd" teams of the late 1920s. However, USC of football led inadvertently to his movie career.

Jones, a friend of Tom Mix, arrange summer jobs for several football players through Mix. Following his freshman year, Mr. Wayne and another player went to work as prop men at the Fox studio. Mr. Wayne was assigned to a sentimental melodrama called "Mother Machree" being directed by John Ford, then 31.

Their friendship began in a style that now sounds like a cliched situation form some vintage two-fisted action melodrama. Ford decided to goad the young prop man by asking, "You one of these football players?" and insisting he get down in a crouch, after which Ford kicked his arms out from under him.

Not content to let well enough alone, Ford challenged Mr. Wayne to "take him out" in the open field. Mr. Wayne obliged, with a running tackle that took the breath out of Ford. Shaking it off, Ford announced, "I'm hungry, kid. Let's go eat something."

Years later, Mr. Wayne reflected that such rough play became a conscious aspect of the movie personality he tried to embody. "I made up my mind," he said, "that I was going to play a real man to the best of my ability. I felt many of the western stars of the 1920s and 1930s were too goddamn perfect. They never drank or smoked.They never wanted to go tobed with a beautiful girl. They never had a fight. A heavy might throw a chair at them, and they just looked surprised and didn't fight in this spirit.

"They were too goddamn sweet and pure to be dirty fighters. Well, I wanted to be a dirty fighters if that was the only way to fight back. If somebody throws a chair at you, hell, you pick up a chair and belt him right back. I was trying to play a man who gets dirty, who sweats sometimes, who enjoys really kissing a gal he likes, who gets angry, who fights clean whenever possible but will fight dirty if he has to. You could say, I made the western hero into a roughneck."

While working as a prop man, Mr. Wayne made his film debut in a walk-on at the end of Ford's "Hangman's House" in 1928. He also played bit parts in Ford's "Salute" in 1929 (appealing with another refugee from USC football, Ward Bond) and "Men Without Women" in 1930 before being chosen by director Raoul Walsh to star as the wagon train scout in "The Big Trail." Walsh insisted that "Duke" Morrison, as Mr. Wayne was known at the time, change his name to something deemed more suitable for a leading man.

The nickname "Duke", which became standard for friends, admirers and detractors, derived from a pet airedale of the same name. "John Wayne" evolved from Walsh's fondness for the Revolutionary War general, "Mad" Anthony Wayne.

When one associate argued that "Anthony Wayne" sounded "too Italian" adn "Tony Wayne" sounded like a girl, another made history by asking rhetorically, "What's the matter with just plain John?" Mulling it over the producer of "The Big Trail," Sol Wurtzel, announced, "John Wayne, It's American."

While Wayne's acting was understandably unpolished, he was a beautifuly camera subject. The plot of "The Big Trail" puts a banal strain on the pictorial spectacle, but in retrospect it seems an undeserving flop.

Fox cast him in secondary roles in two minor pictures, then dropped his option. Mr. Wayne signed a five-year contract with Columbia, the first of several pacts at a number of studios that kept him playing supporting roles in modern stories and leads in "B" western features and serials for a decade.

According to some film historians, Mr. Wayne was the first of the singing cowboys in the early 1930s, a character called Singin' Sandy. Embarrassed at being dubbed on both vocals and guitar, Wayne managed to talk his way out of such roles. Perhaps his best known standard vehicles of this period were eight installment of the "Three Mesquiteers" series made at Republic in 1938-39.

Mr. Wayne was rescued from "B" western drudgery in 1939 when Ford cast him in "Stagecoach" as the Ringo Kid, the lean, soft-spoken, determined young outlaw, seeking the murderers of his father. Oddly enough, this was the first western Ford had made in 13 years. It made filmmaking history, suddenly elevating the western to "A" movie status for another generation, and it remains one of the most vividly characterized and visualized examples of the genre.

Mr. Wayne had signed a five-year contract with Republic shortly before being loaned to Ford and Producer Walter Wanger for "Stagecoach," which made which made him a star.Republic made some attempt to upgrade its productions with Wayne and profited by lending him to other studios for more interesting movies, such as Ford's "The Long Voyage Home," Tay Garnett's "Seven Sinner's" (the first of three amusing sparring matches with Marlene Dietrich) and Cecil B. De Mille's "Reap the Wild Wind."

Republic did launch Mr. Wayne as the scourge of the Japanese in "The Fighting Seabees," the first of several war melodramas in which his heroism was so assertive that two generations of American fighting men would be instructed not to behave like John Wayne when actually near the sound of battle. "Seabees" was released in 1944. The other key titles in Wayne's cycle of war movies were "Back to Bataan" in 1945, "Sands of Iwo Jima" in 1949 (for which he won his first Oscar nomination) and "Operation Pacific" and "Flying Leathernecks" in 1951.

Mr. Wayne had worked for Ford again in a 1945 MGM film about PT crews entitled "They Were Expendable." Three years later they were reunited for their second western collaboration, "Fort Apache." It followed by "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon" in 1949 and "Rio Grande" in 1950, completing an eleagic trilogy about the U.S. cavalry in the Indian Wars in which Mr. Wayne became the sustaining image of military virtue.

No less a military man than Gen. Douglas MacArthur told Mr. Wayne, who never served in the armed forces himself because of an injury and because of his four children, "Young man, you represent the cavalry officer more than any man in uniform."

Mr. Wayne's most successful western of 1948 was not "Fort Apache" but "Red River," the first in a rewarding series of collaborations with Howard Hawks. This rousing saga of a cattle drive the alienates Mr. Wayne from his foster son, played by Montgomery Clift, added mythic elements of relentlessness and paternal authoritarianism to his identity as a western hero. Cattle baron Tom Dunson was Mr. Wayne's most fanatic, unyielding character to that time and remains one of his most impressive and convincing performances.

"Red River" proved an enormous box-office hit and led to the first of what became routine appearances by Mr. Wayne on the Motion Picture Herald's annual list of box-office favorites. His popularity was reinforced by "Fort Apache" and a non-western romance, "The Quiet Man," directed on location in Ireland by Ford and released in 1952. The last of Mr. Wayne's Republic pictures, it was also the floundering studio's greatest commercial success.

Mr. Wayne moved to Warner Bros., where his first vehicle was the shameless "Big Jim McLain," an absent-minded attempt to get the studio off the hook for wartime propaganda embarrassments such as "Mission to Moscow" by reversing field and pretending to be militantly anticommunist. Slack as the movie was an complacent as Mr. Wayne seemed in the role of an investigator for the House Committee on Un-American Activites, one is obliged by other indications to conclude that his militant anticommunism was absolutely sincere.

Mr. Wayne had helped found the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals in 1944. Similar impulses and convictions would lead him into the polemical fantasyland of "The Green Berets" in 1968.

His best vehicles in the latter half of the 1950s were Ford's "The Searchers," which extended the antisocial, fanatical characterization he had first, depicted in "Red River" and Hawks' poky but amiable "Rio Bravo." In the latter he was an admirably social tower of strength, a sheriff trying to rehabilitate an alcoholic deputy (Dean Martin) while standing off a family of lawbreakers. His success permitted him the grandiose indulgence of "The Alamo," in which he played Davy Crockett and invested a reported $1.2 million of his own money, along with an undeniable but dreadfully stilted patriotic fervor.

Mr. Wayne, who also directed the epic, declared that he wanted "to recreate a moment in history that will show this generation of Americans what their country stands for." Unlike "The Green Berets," which was destined to do business despite being vilified by most of the critics, "The Alamo" seemed to induce a stupor in reviewers and customers.

Mr. Wayne could take consolation for the disappointing box-office performance of "The Alamo" in a string of hits for other directors: "North to Alaska,"which pleasantly kidded the growing monolithic qualities in his physique and personality; "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance," in which he enriched the routines of impressionists by referring to James Stewart repeatedly as "Pilgrim"; Hawks' colorful "Hatari!" shot on location in Africa, and "McClintock," a rowdy Western comedy-melodrama incidentally remarkable for a long speech expressing sympathy with the plight of the Indians.

The controversy and antagonism Mr. Wayne succeeded in arousing with "The Green Berets," a peculiarly dated and oblivious impression of the war in Vietnam even when first released, gradually dissipated after his performance as the crusty olf marshal, Rooster Cogburn, in "True Grit" a year later. It was the grace note of his career, a robust and stirring valedictory performance.

Mr. Wayne's popularity and appetite for work made it impossible for him to quit on a triumph like "True Grit" but, in the annals of western film history, it is bound to be cherished as the closing chapter of the great starring career that began 30 years earlier with "Stagecoach."

Mr. Wayne had four children, Michael, Toni, Patrick and Melinda, by his marriage to Miss Saenz, which ended in divorce in 1946. His second wwife was Esperanza Baur. They were divorced in 1953 and in the following year he married Pilar Palette, by whom he had three children. Aissa, John Ethan and Marisa. He had been separated from Miss Palette since 1973. Mr. Wayne also is survived by 21 grandchildren.

The family, which announced that funeral services would be private, suggests that expressions of sympathy be in the form of contributions to the John Wayne Memorial Cancer Fund, c/o UCLA Medical Center, Los Angeles, Calif. 90024. CAPTION: Picture 1, John Wayne during filming of "True Grit" in 1969. AP; Picture 2, Wayne in first starring role, "The Big Trail" (1930), with Marguerite Churchill.; Picture 3, As the Ringo Kid in 1939 western film classic, "Stagecoach," with Claire Trevor AP; Picture 4, At 51st annual Academy Awards presentations in Los Engeles on April 9.; Picture 5, As a member of Southern California freshman football team in mid-'20s.; Picture 6, With Kim Darby in Wayne's 1969 Academy Award-winning role in "True Grit."; Picture 7, In "Sands of Iwo Jima" (1949). Actor Forrest Tucker is at right. AP