Jay Silverheels was one of the most famous and successful Canadian actors in the history of Hollywood. For decades, The Lone Ranger and his trusty sidekick Tonto were pop culture symbols as universally identifiable as Mickey Mouse. Although several different actors took their hand at portraying Tonto, none were as well known as Jay Silverheels. A Mohawk from Six Nations of the Grand River in Ohsweken just outside Brantford, Ontario,1 Silverheels was born into poverty and literally fought his way out of it by becoming a middleweight boxer, placing well in Golden Glove competitions. While Silverheels was to become an international star, well paid and in steady demand, he remained in the eyes of the Canadian government what he was in the eyes of the make-believe cowboys in his films: A not-so-trusty “Injun,” not worth half that of a white man.
Jay Silverheels fled to the United States to pursue a show business career. For his fellow Natives in Canada there was no such luck. As Silverheels made his way South, Aboriginal children across Canada were rounded up, taken from their families and put into government schools, regarded as “dirty” and “godless” and forcefully taught Christianity. At the same time the adult Native population was denied the right to vote for similarly racist reasons. No wonder Tonto left Canada for life with The Lone Ranger.
By the time the nineteen sixties rolled around Native people across Canada were finally granted voting rights. At the same time, Silverheels was being stripped of his status as a reliable Hollywood character actor by increasingly vocal pressure groups sick and tired of the chronic, stereotyped caricatures of Native Americans in popular culture.
FROM CANADIAN RESERVATION TO HOLLYWOOD STUNTMAN
Although Jay Silverheels sounds like an authentic Native name it was, in reality, the name he chose for showbiz. No, mister smart-aleck, Silverheels was not born Avi Fromstein, but Harold J. Smith in 1912. His father, George Alexander Smith, had been the most decorated Native soldier in the Canadian regiment of World War One, fighting in the name of the country that treated his race as second class. Living in Southern Ontario young Harry Smith naturally gravitated to lacrosse, a sport that rivaled hockey for the most popular team sport in Canada. Most anthropologists agree that lacrosse itself was created and played by Aboriginals across North America many years before the arrival of Europeans and that it was initially not played for recreation but as a gentlemanly way to resolve disputes between tribes. Silverheels was adept enough that he eventually became a member of the National Lacrosse Team. His broad stature had him fairing well not just in lacrosse but also wrestling and boxing. In the thirties it was his pugnacious ability that allowed him to travel beyond the reservation to compete in a far-off exotic locale like Buffalo.
The large mouthed screen comedian Joe E. Brown was in the audience when the Canadian National Lacrosse Team played in Los Angeles. Brown saw something charismatic in Silverheels and spoke to him after the game, encouraging him to give acting a try. Silverheels had grown into not just Canada’s highest scoring Lacrosse player, but the highest paid. He could afford such a whim for the time being. Brown helped Silverheels find his first job in Hollywood, working as a stunt man. Silverheels performed stunts in a 1937 musical starring Basil Rathbone called Make a Wish (1937) filmed on the RKO backlot. Make a Wish was the only script contribution Gertrude Berg ever made to films. Berg went on to be the most successful woman in male-dominated radio and became one of the biggest success stories of early television when her dialect radio sitcom The Goldbergs came to TV. Make a Wish takes place at a summer camp and it is believed that Silverheels was used as the stand-in horse rider in one sequence. After this short gig Silverheels returned to lacrosse and boxing (some sources say he remained in Hollywood after his first visit, but the dates of specific bouts contradict them). In 1939 he returned to Hollywood where he was still in contact with Joe E. Brown, who again lined him up with a handful of uncredited stunt stints. He subsidized the new career with lucrative busboy work.
Silverheels did not have to wait long to jump from low budget RKO B-movies to a big-budget motion picture at a major studio. In 1940 he was hired to play an anonymous Indian in the Warner Brothers swashbuckling epic The Sea Hawk starring Errol Flynn and Claude Rains, a film of greater significance than anything Joe E. Brown himself had ever been in. Later in the year Jay returned to RKO where he played “Indian” in an enjoyable musical comedy called Too Many Girls. Too Many Girls had been a Broadway hit starring Cuban musician Desi Arnaz. It was the only Broadway role ever done by Arnaz and his understudy was Van Johnson. In the biography Van Johnson MGM’s Golden Boy (2001, University Press of Mississippi) author Ronald L. Davis wrote amusingly of Too Many Girls, “During the show’s weeks preparation Van was surrounded by homosexuals.” When RKO turned it into a cheapie piece of fluff they wrote in two of their contract players, Lucille Ball and a young Ann Miller. It was, as you may already have surmised, the moment that Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz met for the first time.
Alongside Jay Silverheels was an actor playing another character billed as “Indian” in Too Many Girls. Much like the hero of our story, Iron Eyes Cody was billed in film credits with a Native American sounding pseudonym. Most assumed that Iron Eyes Cody was a full-blooded American Indian as his name may have indicated. Although Cody spent his entire career taking on Indian roles he was actually Espera Oscar DeCorti , his parents recent Italian émigrés prior to his birth. Iron Eyes Cody portrayed Indian characters in at least one hundred and eighty two different film and television productions and did everything in his power to make sure it was propagated that he was a full-blooded Native American. He even married a Native woman and adopted two Native children. He designed all the Indian costumes for the 1954 western Sitting Bull and played the “Crying Indian” in the Keep America Beautiful campaign of the early seventies. In 1996 a Louisiana newspaper challenged Iron Eyes Cody in an editorial after he had received an award from a Native American organization. The paper stated that he was a fraud, an Italian man profiting from a Native guise2. Cody rebuked them with a scathing denial that he was anything but one hundred percent Native American. The newspaper had based their claims on a birth certificate and other documents courtesy of Iron Eyes’ half-sister. In subsequent years it has been acknowledged by the definitive industry outlets (Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, IMDB etc) that Cody was, indeed, Italian. The varied stories of life with his parents on a reservation in his 1982 autobiography have long since been debunked. Despite building his career around what was the red equivalent of Hollywood blackface, he was a tireless advocate for Native American social issues for most of his life. His heart was in the right place, but perhaps DeCorti is the shining example of well-meaning liberalism taken to its ultimate extreme.
Hudson’s Bay (1941) positioned Jay Silverheels in the campy 20th Century Fox story of his home country and home province with Paul Muni hamming it up in the role of a French-Canadian fur trader. In the book Hollywood’s Canada by Pierre Berton (1975, McClelland and Stewart), the author was appalled at the disconnect between Muni’s adeptness at playing Frenchmen of France but his ineptitude at playing a Frenchman from Quebec – and surely Quebeckers probably felt just as aggravated with an Anglophone actor portraying a Francophone as Native people felt about whites doing their “Injun” act. Wrote Berton, “Something happened to Paul Muni when he attempted the role of the explorer, Pierre Radisson, in a picture about the founding of the Hudson’s Bay Company. He could play Émile Zola, the Frenchman, with ease and with distinction but the stock role of the happy-go-lucky French-Canadian was too much for him. He could not rise above the clichéd characterization, which had been the hallmark of Canadian outdoor movies since the beginning. [Paul Muni] always regretted that he had accepted the part.”
Silverheels shared the set with several Native and non-Native actors playing the parts of anonymous Indians peppered throughout the film. Most of the real Natives in the movie had short careers in Hollywood as they were either unable to find decent work or were simply unable to deal with the racism. Sonny Chore who spent six busy years playing mostly non-verbal, uncredited parts would leave Hollywood for a much more dignified vocation, that of “Injun wrestler.” Also working on the set of Hudson’s Bay playing the part of “Chief” was the prolific actor Chief John Big Tree. Big Tree of The Seneca Nation had always been a busy film actor, going back to the heyday of silent westerns. Chief John Big Tree was probably more famous than any other Native actor around… but not by name. Big Tree posed for artist James Fraser whose work appeared on the well known “Indian Head Nickel.” The same line-up of Natives and pretend Natives was retained by 20th Century Fox for the next oater out of their gate, Western Union (1941), one of three westerns made by Fritz Lang – or as Louis B. Mayer used to call him “that German son of a bitch.”
Silverheels had by now already worked at three of the major studios and moved on to his fourth with the Universal motion picture This Woman is Mine (1941) another fur trading “epic.” Silverheels and actor Chief Yowlachie were the two real Aboriginals amidst the sea of white extras in red make-up. Yowlachie acted in Hollywood films for forty years, from 1925 to 1965. Prior to films he was a respected opera singer under his real name Daniel Simmons. Again, despite having a name that didn’t live up to the expectations of white stereotypes, he was in reality a Native American from the Yakima tribe.
The throngs of white extras were the first to arrive on the set of any western film. Burnt cork was the primary method of creating the blackface effect for white minstrel acts and was fairly simple to apply. But for white people that Hollywood cast as Native American, it was something called Bole Armenia or Armenia Bole (later sold as a red hue of paint called Armenian Bole) that was evenly distributed over the skin. Armenia Bole is a type of red clay that when mixed with water turns into a light paste. Iron Eyes Cody’s first job in Hollywood was not as an actor but as a supervisor in the make-up department, overseeing the shades of Armenia Bole, ensuring (ironically) that they looked authentic. It had been used as a race changing make-up in the theater as early as 1850. However, like blackface, white actors just couldn’t hide their true honky nature behind the get-up. This photo shows Armenia Bole being sprayed on James Cagney while Iron Eyes Cody supervises (click to enlarge). Historically, before it was being used to miraculously turn white actors into Hollywood “Injuns,” Armenia Bole was prescribed by doctors to cure diarrhea.
Non-Natives playing Natives at the expense of Native American actors getting the job was an obvious bone of contention for the Indian actors in Hollywood. Most American Indians in filmland had to instead find jobs as extras. Those with special skills were able to find work behind the scenes on western films advising non-Native actors on how to speak and act authentically or in some instances how to properly ride a horse or shoot a bow and arrow. In this 1958 episode of What’s My Line the guest was Rodd Redwing, a Native actor frustrated by the lack of proper roles who was instead working behind the scenes teaching white western actors how to convincingly handle firearms. Towards the end of the segment comedian Jonathan Winters asks Redwing, “Why don’t the Indians win more of the pictures?” Redwing responded frankly with what was less an answer and more of a political statement, “Hollywood doesn’t think that Indians are the type so they always have someone else play the Indian.” Host John Charles Daly laughed and quickly changed the subject.
Racist beliefs were also used to justify having white people portray Natives in film. In the ancient book Making the Movies by Ernest A. Dench (1915, Macmillan Company), the author had this to say:
It is only with the last two or three years that genuine Redskins have been employed in pictures. Before then these parts were taken by white actors made up for the occasion. But this method was not realistic enough to satisfy the progressive spirit of the producer.
The Red Indians who have been fortunate enough to secure permanent engagements with the several Western film companies are paid salary that keeps them well provided with tobacco and their worshiped “firewater.”
It might be thought that this would civilize them completely, but it has had quite the reverse effect, for the work affords them an opportunity to live their savage days again, and they are not slow to take advantage of it.
They put their heart and soul in the work, especially in battles with the whites, and it is necessary to have armed guards watch over their movements for the least sign of treachery …
Even today a few white players specialize in Indian parts. They are past masters in such roles, for they have made a complete study of Indian life, and by clever makeup they are hard to tell from real Redskins. They take leading parts, for which Indians are seldom adoptable.
To act as an Indian is the easiest thing possible, for the Redskin is practically motionless.
Jay Silverheels had worked steadily since his arrival in Hollywood and made his mark at most of the major studios. Then in mid-1941 Silverheels took his first of several jobs at “The King of the B’s” Republic Studios, appearing in what they did best: the Saturday morning serial. Jungle Girl (1941) was/is a classic example of the quintessential serial, full of preposterous situations, explosions, falling rocks, sinister witch doctors, underground caves, vicious lions, and an excess of people in gorilla suits. Jay Silverheels is probably in this scene somewhere but it’s hard to tell.
Silverheels was on set with Lucille Ball and Iron Eyes Cody again in Valley of the Sun (1942) along with a Native actor named Chris Willow Bird who was able to play fourteen stereotypical roles before quitting Hollywood. Valley of the Sun‘s exterior scenes were filmed in Taos Pueblo, New Mexico, the same location that provided the backdrop for almost all of Easy Rider (1969). Jay then quickly returned to Hollywood for the sequel to Jungle Girl titled The Perils of Nyoka where he and Cody played Arabs. He stayed on the Republic lot a few hours longer to participate in some second-unit shots to be used in The Phantom serial based on the popular comic strip adventurer of the same name.
After a forgotten quickie called Good Morning, Judge (1943) Silverheels was in, what was for him, a monumental Republic serial titled Daredevils of the West (1943). It was the first time Silverheels would enjoy screen credit (still as Harry Smith) playing the role of Kiaga. He escaped playing ‘Indian’ for once, while other actors took up those roles, including Chief Many Treaties who had played thirty-two “Injun” roles from 1931 through 1948 before suddenly dying. Most of the twelve or so other Indian parts were played by whites. Much of the serial has gone missing over the years after Republic sold most of this photoplay to the company making Hopalong Cassidy on TV for use as stock footage. Jay filled out 1943 with a bit as a wrestler in The Girl From Monterey, produced by the shittiest of all poverty row studios, PRC.
It goes without saying that as a Native actor, Silverheels would spend most of his career in westerns. There are no exceptions to this rule for any Native actor in Hollywood. Jay appeared in Northern Pursuit (1943) with Errol Flynn, a sub-genre of typical westerns – the Hollywood Mountie pic. Mountie movies were extremely popular with audiences, and more so with studio executives that couldn’t make them fast enough. Pierre Berton in the same book Hollywood’s Canada, argues that Mountie westerns were even more racist than the already quite racist every day western. Mountie westerns had an overwhelming use of “half-breed” characters, a coded racial slur that referred to the Métis people of Canada, of mixed Native and European descent. Berton: “In Northern Pursuit (1943) Monte Blue plays the part of a half-breed traitor, helping Nazi spies in Canada … For half a century [the Métis] were depicted as villains of the deepest dye – sneaky, untrustworthy degenerates who coveted defenceless white women, sold whisky to the Indians and let others take rap for their crimes … the stereotype was lifted by moviemakers straight from the pages of nineteenth-century dime novels about the old west. The Canadian half-breed in Hollywood’s Canada served the same purpose as the mulatto villain in Griffith’s Birth of a Nation … The movie half-breed was always an alien, a man of degenerate blood, and Hollywood let no one forget it. Those words were actually used in the subtitles of [the silent Mountie film] God’s Country and the Law, which referred to Jacques Dore’s ‘strange heritage of degenerate blood.’ This unrelenting libel on the Métis – a word incidentally that Hollywood rarely used (although DeMille used it) – can neither be excused by pointing to the tenor of the times in which it occurred, nor explained away by the essential naiveté of the silent films, nor condoned by the need of screenwriters and directors to inject drama and conflict into their stories. [No race] has suffered as badly at the hands of the film makers as have the Métis. To this day the word half-breed conjures up an unpleasant picture. It can no longer be used since it has become – like [other racial slurs] – a nasty word, made nasty in this instance by Hollywood.”
After the filming of WB’s Pursuit and PRC’s Monterey Jay merely had to walk across the street from the decrepit PRC lot to their main competition, the small Monogram Studios compound (although in some instances the PRC lot was the Monogram lot as the poverty row studio often rented space from their rival). Today it is primarily Monogram and PRC pictures that make up the bulk of black and white public domain offerings in your local dollar store bargain bin. Monogram specialized in taking has-been stars that were no longer wanted by the major studios and making them feel like they were top of the heap once again. Monogram would nurse the egos of Bela Lugosi, Gale Storm and Hoot Gibson by giving them the top billing they once enjoyed when they were hot properties at other studios. They also kept franchises like The Bowery Boys and Charlie Chan alive far longer than they had any right to be. Westerns were the cheapest output to churn out as the same scripts could be used over and over and spruced up with stock footage. Raiders of the Border (1944) had Silverheels at Monogram for his first of several paychecks from the studio interpreting the meaty role of “Indian at Trading Post.”
Silverheels plays a sailor briefly in the exciting Passage to Marseille (1944) starring Humphrey Bogart, Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet and Claude Rains in one of Warner Brothers’ many attempts to recreate the magic of films like The Maltese Falcon (1941) and Casablanca (1942). Bogart had been experiencing tough times with his soon to be ex-wife Mayo Methot and was apparently drunk for much of the shoot, but Bogey’s inebriation is not detectable.
The sequel to Republic’s Jungle Girl was released soon after. Titled Perils of the Darkest Jungle, it utilized existing film from the previous serials featuring Jay Silverheels. Jay then returned to Republic for a new serial, Haunted Harbor (1944) where he had to stretch all his abilities when instead of playing ‘Indian’ he played the character ‘Native.’ The typical matinee actioneer was, remarkably, based on a novel by obscure Scottish writer Ewart Adamson (who also fought for Canada in World War One – perhaps alongside the elder Silverheels?).
The busy year sauntered on with Silverheels’ first foray to the lushest of all film studios, MGM, for an Abbott and Costello picture set in the Middle East called Lost in a Harem(1944). It was released one year after Costello’s two-year-old son tragically drowned in the family swimming pool. To take his mind off the unrelenting pain of this incident, Costello devoted his time to an invention patented as Serv-Ice, a commercial ice cube making machine and the basis for all subsequent “ice machines.” Lost in a Harem‘s familiar Hollywood take on a vague, unspecified, Arab state was, again, highly offensive to an entire race of people and was, in response, banned in Morocco upon release and heavily edited in Syria.
Most write-ups state that Silverheels served in World War Two, but do not disclose any details. Judging from his screen credits 1940 through 1944, he would have been far too busy to have been in the service during that spell. However, 1945 was Silverheels’ least prolific year in Hollywood with just one film credit (Song of the Sarong), so there is a chance he enlisted late in the game. If this is true, it would have granted Silverheels the right to vote in Canada, where Natives were barred from the political process for racist reasons. The Canada Elections Act barred all Native people from voting unless “he was a member of His Majesty’s Forces during World War I or World War II…” There was also a stipulation in the same act that First Nations people were granted the right to vote on one condition – they forsook the land that they held title to and handed it over to the government – voiding the treaties that they and their elders had signed on good faith with the Canadian government many years before. Native Canadians were not officially allowed to vote until 1960 while Indigenous people were not granted the right to vote in Australia, another commonwealth country, until 1973!3
1945 is also cited as the year Harry Smith adopted a new monicker, initially Silverheels Smith – a nickname he had affectionately been called by his lacrosse teammates in reference to his sheer speed and shiny sneakers. From there he started using his middle initial as his first name and his nickname in turn as surname.
1946 started with a shoot in the Simi Valley for another stilted PRC production, Romance of the West. One time child actor Matty Roubert played the fellow savage in this stinker. Roubert was a white actor who started out playing newsboys in every film he popped up in until he grew to proportions unfitting for such roles. From 1931 to 1941 he played forty-two different newsboys in films. From 1939 to 1951 he was credited with playing “Henchman” thirty-six times. The low-budgeteer also had Chief Thundercloud, another Native American boxer turned actor. Interestingly enough, Thundercloud had been the screen’s very first Tonto, in the two Republic serials The Lone Ranger (1938) and The Lone Ranger Rides Again (1939). Up until Jay Silverheels won the breakthrough role that made him an international superstar, Chief Thundercloud was often billed in non-Lone Ranger films as “Chief Tonto Thundercloud”.
Dana Andrews and Susan Hayward starred in the Universal western Canyon Passage (1946). By now, Silverheels was an established western movie character actor, a familiar face that was expected to appear sooner or later in most western pictures. Canyon Passage featured other distinct western movie faces like Andy Devine. Devine, usually described as the cowboy with a squeaky voice in need of an oiling, was a fan favorite (and remains so to this day). This film had the distinction of co-starring Andy Devine’s real life children playing his make believe children. Defying our great hopes, however, his kids did not inherit the unique larynx deficiency. IMDB lists Silverheels’ part in Canyon Passage as “Indian who breaks Mandolin.”
Six years before MGM dazzled the world with the Gene Kelly musical Singin’ in the Rain (1952), Harry Cohn’s Columbia Pictures did the opposite with the Judy Canova vehicle Singin’ in the Corn (1946). Judy Canova was the star of a funny radio sitcom that revolved around Judy and her mentally obtuse hillbilly family. A typical bit on the Canova show went thusly:
MOTHER: Judy, what was in that thar package you done brought home?
JUDY CANOVA: What package, Ma?
MOTHER: That one that were done wrapped up in the brown packagin! I unwrapped it and unwrapped it but thar weren’t nothin’ in it!
JUDY CANOVA: Ma, that thar weren’t no package! That thar was a roll of paper towel!
Canova had knocked off a series of quick, low-budget comedies for almost every studio in Hollywood between 1935 and 1955. None of her features ever enjoyed the same level of success as her radio program (perhaps because the movies did not feature The Judy Canova Show mainstay Mel Blanc). Throughout the spell she played characters named Judy Hull, Judy Goober, Judy Boggs, Judy Joyner, Judy Crocker, Judy Stevens and Judy McCoy. Singin’ in the Corn was directed by Del Lord, the filmmaker who oversaw the best Three Stooges shorts of the nineteen thirties. The obviously highbrow picture had Judy Canova playing a fortune teller that inherits land in the wild west, which must be turned over to a band of hostile “Injuns” in order for her to inherit a fortune as stipulated in her rich uncle’s will. Jay Silverheels, Rodd Redwing and Chief Yowlachie depicted stereotypes while Nick Thompson, Frank Lackteen, Dick Stanley and Charles Randolph put on the Armenia Bole. Randolph, a ten year Hollywood character actor, also put on red make-up in Hawks of the Wilderness (1938), but in all ten of the other pictures in his short career he was cast as a boxing referee!
PRC was competing with Monogram’s Bowery Boys series with an even cheaper series of cheapies, called The Gas House Kids. The short lived triage followed the same formula as Monogram’s popular stinkers, with tough teenagers speaking Brooklynese and getting into trouble as they ruffled the feathers of bourgeois adults. Silverheels showed up in Gas House Kids Go West (1947), a crummy picture starring Alfalfa that was even directed by the prolific Monogram master that had manned most of the Bowery Boys pics, William Beaudine.
Silverheels reverted back to a prolific series of uncredited roles for the rest of 1947 as he materialized in westerns-by-numbers like Northwest Outpost, The Prairie, Cecil B. DeMille’s Unconquered (with Boris Karloff in Armenia Bole) and The Last Round-up (a Roy Rogers film that also had J.W. Cody, brother of you know who). He finished the year at Fox in a typical Tyrone Power adventure picture Captain From Castile – the poster had bold type exclaiming, “Master of Women’s Hearts… Conquorer of a New World!”
In the (mostly made-up) autobiography of Iron Eyes Cody – Iron Eyes My Life as a Hollywood Indian (1982, Everest House) – Cody says that Jay Silverheels’ first feature film was Unconquered. Cody’s book is not credible, particularly the first three chapters that deal with his family life on “the reservation,” which of course did not happen. Most of the book and its many anecdotes are dubious at best. Of Jay Silverheels he wrote, “Jay was from back East, where he was a champion lacrosse player and a very good boxer till he got one of his eyes bopped out. Had himself fitted with a glass eye and, some vague notion of becoming a professional gambler, he packed up his lacrosse stick and headed West. He began hanging around Gower Gulch, which is where my brother and I spotted him as potential movie material. I mentioned he got his start in Unconquered because that’s the first time anybody singled him out for any close camera shots. Actually, he had been playing bit parts since we took him to Canab, Utah, years earlier for some riding sequences in Western Union. He distinguished himself by not being able to ride at all … Without knowing what the hell he was doing, he managed to keep up with the rest of us riders of the purple sage, falling off his horse both on cue and off.”
There is no other source other than the discredited Cody for the notion of Silverheels having had a silver eye. Also, as we know, Jay had his film debut earlier than stated here and even had credited and speaking parts prior to the DeMille picture. One of the most offensive inferences here is this white man in hiding concluding that Jay did not know “what the hell he was doing” when it came to riding a steed. As we’ve already learned, Silverheels started in Hollywood as a stunt rider. In later years he became a professional harness racer. This passage then sinks completely with Iron Eyes Cody’s claim that he and his brother were responsible for getting Jay into pictures when they “spotted [Jay Silverheels] as potential movie material.”
Four years had passed since Jay Silverheels was on the set with Humphrey Bogart, but they would reunite for Jay’s most famous non-Tonto role. Key Largo (1948) is a memorable Warner Brothers film with the irresistible cast of Bogey, Bacall, Edward G. Robinson and crotchety Lionel Barrymore. In this one, Silverheels and Rodd Redwing play the brothers sitting on the porch. Just as Silverheels was present on the set with television’s King and Queen (Desi and Lucy) here he was with the King and Queen of Hollywood film, Bogey and Bacall.
Jay went from the future classic Key Largo to a compact 62 minute piece of junk at Columbia called Singin’ Spurs (1948). Spurs was one of several cookie cutter vehicles for The Hoosier Hot Shots, placing the novelty jazz band in the wild west (50 Hotshot songs to hear here). The film was released with the painful tagline: “Heap Big Action Musical!”
The Feathered Serpent (1948) was the ass end of the Charlie Chan features. Familiar screen Chans Warner Oland and Sidney Toler had long-since died, but Monogram continued to punch ’em out with Roland Winters in the role of the pigeon-englished sleuth. Silverheels finally played a non-descript thug, but unfortunately his part was over in the blink of an eye. Hilarious African-American character actor Mantan Moreland was also in The Feathered Serpent in his usual role as Chan’s valet, Birmingham Brown. Moreland would go on to have his career disassembled by pressure groups much the same way Silverheels’ eventually would. One wonders if the two ever shared a discussion on the set about life as a minority in Hollywood.
Silverheels was back to “Injun” in one of the true works of art he had the opportunity to be involved in. Yellow Sky (1948) is potentially the most underrated western movie to ever come out of Hollywood. A stark piece of cinema that pits Gregory Peck against Richard Widmark as bad guy vs. bad guy, this one defied the Hays code stipulations of good having to clearly triumph over evil. Yellow Sky has only villains. It is the greatest of a genre that never was: Western Noir. Director of Photography Joe MacDonald would film Panic in the Streets (1950), the Sam Fuller scripted Pickup on South Street (1953) and the closest thing previously to a “Western Noir,” My Darling Clementine (1946). Unfortunately, again, Silverheels was incidental and uncredited, but his few lines were scripted by Lamar Trotti who also equipped Silverheels with his “ughs” in Captain from Castile. In 1994, Gregory Peck underwent ankle fusion surgery to make up for a painful gimp that occurred almost fifty years earlier when a horse fell on him during the filming of Yellow Sky.
Jay was a villager in Song of India (1949) starring Sabu. Sabu, the South Asian child star of so many Alexander Korda productions had taken his brother’s name for showbiz purposes while his brother managed his career. Off-screen, Sabu and his brother jointly managed a furniture store. Unfortunately, the shop was the scene of his brother’s literal deathbed as he was killed during a botched robbery attempt. Sabu’s son Paul formed a rock band in the eighties called Sabu and went on to produce Shania Twain. He has yet to apologize.
Jay’s decade was filled out with roles as an elevator operator in Family Honeymoon (1949) and bits in Laramie (1949) and Lust for Gold (1949). He was in another silly Mountie adventure, Trail of the Yukon (1949) knocked off by Beaudine (I am coining that phrase as of this moment for any future William Beaudine biography).
WHO WAS THAT NATIVE MAN!?
The Cowboy and the Indians (1949) was a no-nonsense title for a western if there ever was one. This Roy Rogers picture show was notable for featuring both Silverheels and his future weekly co-star of the next seven years, Clayton Moore, television’s Lone Ranger. The men had been constantly working on the same lot at Republic in the fast-paced world of serials, but miraculously they never actually met. This despite Clayton Moore having crashed through tables, fallen out of cars and tumbled off horses in The Perils of Nyoka (1942), The Crimson Ghost(1946) and later Radar Men of the Moon (1952). Unbeknownst to legions of kids with questionable attitudes, Republic’s Crimson Ghost is the basis for the worldwide plague of Misfits t-shirts.
In 1949 Jay Silverheels became the first Aboriginal to play a Native American on television. Radio’s popular The Lone Ranger was brought to the new medium, and unlike so many other radio shows adapted for television it enjoyed a good, successful run. During the thirties and forties Tonto had been portrayed on The Lone Ranger radio series by white actor John Todd and in a few episodes by another white actor named Roland Parker (who would later be busy portraying an Asian character on radio, Kato on The Green Hornet). The initial program was conceived with vivid violence but later toned down. The original script for the first episode described The Lone Ranger gunning down seven bad men simultaneously, “shooting them clean through the forehead.” As the radio program continued into the fifties, John Todd had reached his early seventies. Radio executive George Trendle felt that Todd was now too old to be playing Tonto and fired him, replacing him with a young Native actor. The Native actor refused to speak the sub-level English the script called for, preferring to have Tonto speak in an educated tone. Frustrated, Trendle fired the new actor and hired back the elderly John Todd (sources of this anecdote do not note who this mystery Native actor was).
The Lone Ranger premiered on television September 15th,1949, the first story taking place over the course of three episodes. Watch it here – Jay made history at the fourteen-minute mark as Tonto flickered into living rooms for the very first time.The role made Jay Silverheels a household name and brought him more work than ever… in monosyllabic stereotypical roles, of course.
Despite the enormous success of the show, it was still for all intents and purposes a low-budget production. Each episode was budgeted at $12,500. Silverheels once held a one man protest, coming to set but refusing to get into his wardrobe. According to Clayton Moore, Jay was upset that, as stars of a hit series, they didn’t even have their own dressing rooms. Instead they had to change in a men’s room at a gas station down the road from the Iverson Ranch. Producers got the message and the next day the boys had their own, brand new dressing rooms.
Clayton Moore was absent for the 1952-53 season, replaced by John Hart. Hart had already played on the show a few times as a villain. Moore, the public was told, had gone on a year’s hiatus, but behind the scenes it was well established there was a contract dispute. However, in later years Moore denied this, stating (but not clarifying why) in his book I Was That Masked Man (1996, Taylor Publishing Company) that he was plainly fired. “No one with The Lone Ranger ever told me why I had been fired – and I never asked. Of course, I’ve heard many rumors over the years. The most prominent one was that I demanded more money … That isn’t true … Just as I had never been told why John Hart replaced me, so I never learned why they wanted to get rid of him.” It seems likely that Moore, so serious about maintaining his public image as The Lone Ranger, simply did not want to acknowledge that The Lone Ranger would’ve been the kind of guy to hold out for a raise. All other cast recollections seem to recall a vocal contract brouhaha. Regardless, Moore did return the following season after an amusing meeting. “[I was to] meet [George] Trendle at the Beverly Hills Hotel. I dressed well … walked in and saw Trendle sitting in the salon … I could see a curious look of shock on his face. As I shook his hand, he said, ‘Clayton, where’s your beard?’ ‘What beard?’ I asked. Trendle said, ‘Somebody told me you had grown a beard.’ He looked carefully at me. ‘Does this mean that you haven’t been roaming around on Hollywood Boulevard quoting Shakespeare either?’ Now I was really flabbergasted. I said, ‘Did someone tell you that too?’ ‘Yes,’ Trendle said. ‘I thought you had become a lunatic.”
John Hart remembered Jay Silverheels during the season Hart was The Lone Ranger. He says that Jay Silverheels was not pleased with his life playing the mentally deficient character. “He wasn’t too happy with that but it was a job and he did it gracefully and with good spirit.” Years later Silverheels went public with his consternation about the calculated lines that made Tonto seem unintelligent, but Allan Dinehart, a character actor who was all over fifties television remembers differently. In his recollections of the set in early nineteen fifty-five he says, “Jay Silverheels was a prankster from the word go! He busied himself the whole day by shooting rubber bands at everyone on set. The director [Wilhelm Thiele] went crazy and Clayton had to hold him back from killing Jay. To make it worse, Jay could never remember his lines at all. This was because he never read the script. We would be in the middle of a scene, and there would come a pause and Jay would ad lib something like, ‘Um, that right,’ or ‘Me wait here, you go into town.’ The beautiful thing was that Clayton protected Jay to a fault. The director would be screaming and Clayton would say, ‘That’s okay Bill, the scene played more naturally the way it was.’ And they printed it. This is the reason that Tonto had all those throw away lines, he just made them up without pause. I was there and witnessed it first hand.” John Hart also remarked, “I thought it was great and it was a steady job but it was cheap, the cheapest damn job I ever had.”
The fame of Tonto brought Silverheels more and more work in pictures.There was Cyclone Fury (1951), Red Mountain (1951) and some war propaganda titled The Wild Blue Yonder (1951). Yonder was part of the “In Defense of Freedom Series,” whatever that means. McCarthyism was ripe in 1951 and the words freedom and God would increasingly and arbitrarily be plastered all over the place as the decade wore on.4
Twenty years before what would be a legendary appearance with Johnny Carson, Silverheels was directed by future Tonight Show captain (and the basis for Rip Torn’s character on The Larry Sanders Show) Fred De Cordova. De Cordova belted out a great deal of junk in his pre-Tonight Show years (most famously Bedtime for Bonzo) and Yankee Buccaneer (1952) was no exception. Silverheels played a character named Warrior. Yes, he comes out to play.
Silverheels was Geronimo in 1952’s The Battle at Apache Pass (A Great Indian Love… A Greater Indian HATE!) and worked on strictly cookie cutter productions Laramie Mountains (1952) and Brave Warrior (1952). The same year he acted in a none-too-subtle piece of racism titled Half Breed (1952). It enjoyed an equally racist tagline (When White Man and Half-Breed Turn All Savage! RED BLOODED ADVENTURE!). Silverheels couldn’t even score the title role in this one, relegated instead to a nondescript Apache in the crowd. Actor Jack Buetel was the one who got to demonstrate the destruction of the soul when parents of two different races (in Buetel’s case Scottish and English) marry, producing a hammy offspring that likes to soak himself in red paint.
Silverheels was on hand for a pair of biopics, The Story of Will Rogers and The Pathfinder, both stories of white people raised by Natives or in Native surroundings. Legendary rope twirling satirist Will Roger was the son of Clement Van Rogers, a Native American senator and judge. His mother was white, but a descendant of a Cherokee chief. In vaudeville, long before being established as the witty voice of the depression, Rogers was billed as The Cherokee Kid.
Last of the Comanches (1953) starred a whosit Brooklyn kid named Johnny Stewart as Little Knife. Surely everyone on set must have realized how ridiculous this practice of having whites play the Indian was, while Mohawk Jay Silverheels loitered in the background. The film featured John War Eagle, a prolific Sioux actor who came on the scene in the early fifties (when you Google his name, like that of any actor listed on IMDB, a prompt comes up for the site whodatedwho.com that invites you to find “John War Eagle – Dating, Gossip, News”) who was heavily involved in Native politics long before the militant Indian movement of the late sixties. The same month Silverheels emerged for about five seconds in the whimsically titled Jack McCall Desperado (1953) directed by future Lassie and Addams Family administrator Sidney Salkow. A more notable picture that year was The Nebraskan, the first and only 3D picture Silverheels was in and among the first feature length 3D pictures ever made. Without explanation, the film was banned in Finland and Sweden – perhaps the picture’s casual depiction of murdering non-whites had something to do with it (It probably had more to do with 3D induced migraines).
Jay had one last film appearance between his Tonto stints in 1953, War Arrow with Jeff Chandler. On the set, perhaps because of the stronger sense of security and confidence that Tonto had brought him, Silverheels became uncharcteristically vocal with co-stars, crew and media about the concept of “redface.” He made it clear that the time had come for whites to stop trying to emulate Natives with grotesque make-up and instead to let Indian actors have an equal opportunity in Hollywood. Here Silverheels was strongly at odds with Iron Eyes Cody who was still welcomed into the make-up departments to advise on redface tones. Jeff Chandler became an actor that the Native movement used over and over again as an example of what they found so offensive.
In 1954 Jay Silverheels returned to Canada. Hollywood’s Canada. Saskatchewan (1954) was another Mountie western – and was in reality, filmed in the Rocky Mountains of Banff, Alberta. Silverheels was the only Native in the cast, while characters Chief Dark Cloud and Spotted Eagle were covered by actors named Antonio Moreno and Anthony Caruso. Now if only Jay Silverheels or Rodd Redwing could have found alternate careers playing Italian Americans on the screen.
Drums Across the River (1954) was one of the final films director Nathan Juran made before switching to full time drive-in schlock (The Deadly Mantis, 20 Million Miles to Earth, Brain from Planet Arous, Attack of the 50 Foot Woman). Audie Murphy starred, having since become a leading man in the B western circuit after John Huston cast the taciturn real-life war hero in The Red Badge of Courage (1951). Before being a hero of the Universal studios backlot, Murphy was the most decorated soldier of World War Two, receiving thirty-two awards including the Congressional Medal of Honor and given special accolades from the governments of both France and Belgium. Silverheels plays a noble chief of the Ute tribe in this one.
Clayton Moore and Jay Silverheels took a brief sojourn from The Lone Ranger together to play in a cheap, sixty-five minute color western for Columbia called The Black Dakotas (1954). Rather than cash-in on this novelty, Columbia gave Silverheels about two lines as Black Buffalo and left Moore in a minor, unbilled (and unmasked) walk-on. Any potential box office wallop it could have enjoyed by cashing in on the success of The Lone Ranger was lost due to either apathy or sheer ineptitude at the studio marketing level.
Four Guns to the Border (1954) was filmed simultaneously at Universal and featured Nina Foch and the reformed car thief Rory Calhoun. Four Guns to the Border is considered one of the most erotic and homoerotic Westerns ever made – the Brokeback Mountain of its day. The largest difference between the two was that nobody went to see Four Guns. Two internet reviewers describe the film. “Colleen is a very sensual girl and in no time she and Calhoun are having some of the most erotic scenes that I have ever seen [in] a movie,” and “a bare-bones plot punctuated by surprisingly sexual imagery, much of which can be interpreted as homoerotic. Some scenes are steamingly obvious in their depiction of passion, and others are so gratuitously injected that they can only be seen as surreptitiously symbolic … The creators must have had a bang-up good time foisting such a naughty piece on mid-fifties audiences, and modern viewers should have just as much fun ferreting out each and every nuance!” Jay Silverheels appears throughout, but no mention of any unabashed Tonto sexuality.
1954 finished with the undistinguished Masterson of Kansas (1954) and was the final production Jay worked on before an unexpected incident. Clayton Moore explains, “Although Jay was a great athlete, he was a heavy smoker … In one scene [on The Lone Ranger] Jay was doing a fight with a stuntman who, at one point, fell on top of Jay … when Jay walked to his dressing room, I noticed he walked kind of funny … I went into Jay’s dressing room, and he was sitting there, hunched over, holding his chest. They sent him to the infirmary, then drove him in a limo to the hospital. He’d had a heart attack.” It was early 1955 when Silverheels suffered the heart attack that weakened him substantially. Tonto’s character had to be written around immediately, although several episodes were already in the can, giving the writers time to figure out an explanation. They came up with a script that had The Lone Ranger explain that Tonto had to go to Washington to meet with the “Great White Father” to address pressing Indian affairs. The role of a different and temporary sidekick was written into the show, that of The Lone Ranger’s nephew, Dan Reid, played by actor (and well known stuntman) Chuck Courtney. The character Dan Reid had previously appeared on the radio program, so continuity remained safe. Several episodes were actually edited so that stock footage of Tonto and new footage of Dan Reid had the characters appearing in episodes together. Courtney pulled the ultimate stunt in 2000 when, despondent after a series of devastating strokes, he committed suicide.
Silverheels returned to acting in late summer and worked briefly on one picture at Republic, The Vanishing American (1955). Tonto returned from Washington… but with bad news. The Lone Ranger would be cancelled in 1956. The program ceased production that year, although new episodes continued to be broadcast until 1957. A full-color theatrical film followed suit titled The Lone Ranger and was an enormous success. Some of the program’s fans flocked to it assuming it might be their final chance to see their heroes. Of course, they had no way of knowing at the time that it would re-run, much to their delight, ad nauseum for the next several decades. One line in the film has The Lone Ranger confronting a band of rabid, racist white people, “In all the fights between the whites and the Indians, It’s the whites who’ve always started the trouble.” Clayton Moore along with Silver the Horse embarked on a nationwide thirty-three-city tour to promote the film. Incongruously joining them in the promotion stump was Lassie(!) simply because she was also a property of Jack Wrather Productions. Watch the trailer here.
Audie Murphy scolded his fellow white people for their treatment of their Native neighbors in Walk the Proud Land (1956), a surprisingly sophisticated and liberal western. The story of John P. Clum shows Murphy defending Natives against onslaughts of white lynch mobs and crooked frontier justice, arming the Native bands with caches of firearms and earning their trust. Jay Silverheels plays the young firebrand that refuses to give Murphy an inch because he is white, while all his fellow band members find themselves enamored with this white anomaly.
Neither Clayton Moore nor Jay Silverheels worked on any other project in 1957. They jumped into production on a second Lone Ranger theatrical titled The Lone Ranger and The Lost City of Gold (1958). The second feature goes one step further than the first with Moore and Silverheels not just confronting racist white rubes, but this time a gang of hooded bandits similar to the Ku Klux Klan who have randomly murdered three Natives.
Clayton Moore toured America for decades (in a camper!) as The Lone Ranger. Very protective of his persona, Moore was known to lash out at nerdy paparazzi hoping to get a shot of him without his mask. Years later, during a court dispute with The Lone Ranger copyright owners, Moore would only appear in court wearing dark sunglasses. In 1975, Jack Wrather Productions had plans for a new Lone Ranger film to star a strapping young buck in the title role. The filmmakers took Moore to court to stop him from wearing the mask in public so as not to confuse moviegoers into thinking this old dude was involved with the new, young, dashing masked man. At one point a Wrather lawyer told the press that Clayton Moore was “too old and too fat to portray The Lone Ranger.” When things came to a head and Moore was being hounded by Wrather’s group to stop wearing the Lone mask in public, a lengthy court case ensued. The judge would rule in favor of the Wrather group, but at one point during the trial, Clayton Moore stood up on the witness stand, threw open his coat and bellowed, “DO I LOOK FAT TO YOU?” The Legend of the Lone Ranger (1981) would go on to bomb and lose eleven million dollars, much to the delight of Clayton Moore.
Jay Silverheels had his first foray into something he’d return to for the rest of his career: hamming it up as Tonto for comedic purposes. At the end of the fifties he played Tonto in the Bob Hope comedy Alias Jesse James making cameos with several other western TV stars including Roy Rogers and Hugh O’Brian (television’s Wyatt Earp). The western genre had exploded in television and remained hot at the start of the new decade. Silverheels’ film career was, unbeknownst to him, all but over.
Television had all the western stars of filmdom finding steady work. Silverheels acted in Wagon Train, Wanted: Dead or Alive, Texas John Slaughter (on the Disneyland show), Gunslinger, Rawhide, Laramie, Branded, Daniel Boone and The Virginian in the 1960-1968 period. But as pressure grew throughout the sixties from all manner of social activist groups for all kinds of causes, Silverheels’ roles would started to diminish.
THE FIGHT AGAINST UNCLE TOM AND UNCLE TOMAHAWK
In his book The Unjust Society (1969, M.G. Hurtig) author and lawyer Harold Cardinal refers to Indian Chiefs and other Native leaders that appeased the government or other white people at the expense of Natives as “Uncle Tomahawks.” But for many Native Americans, Jay Silverheels’ portrayals on the screen embodied the epitome of an “Uncle Tomahawk.”
The NAACP fought a long and successful campaign to remove stereotypical portrayals of African-Americans from film and television. Rather than simply eliminate stereotypical roles from the screen, this fight ended up eliminating all Black roles from view, negative and positive. The forced unemployment that those on television’s Amos n’ Andy and stars like Stepin Fetchit and Mantan Moreland suffered was a source of staunch bitterness, pain and anger for the rest of their lives. Most of them died in poverty in the nineteen seventies and eighties.
The mid-to late sixties hosted an unparalleled degree of intense social activism. The Native American movement had its strongest wave during the period. Along with the important agitation for equal rights and land claims, there were minor fights against racist portrayals of Natives in various facets of media: film, television, cartoons, comic books, pulp novels, advertising and other random racist imagery were targeted. However, the number one target of this campaign was the one most well known, and most often in the spotlight – Jay Silverheels. Jay’s parts started drying up due both to a waning interest in westerns and pressure from some Native activists. A lot of those waning westerns waned because television executives were afraid of backlash. Scholars like Ralph E. Friar were increasingly referring to Tonto – and by default Silverheels – as an “Indian Stepin Fetchit.” Activist and leader of the American Indian Movement Russell Means was known to use the word Tonto the way Black activists used the phrase Uncle Tom. Means later became a Hollywood actor in the nineties and has since appeared in everything from Natural Born Killers (1994) to Curb Your Enthusiasm.
What Jay’s critics didn’t know was that he had been agitating for better roles for Native actors for sometime, but formal protest was not, in his opinion, something that would be effective. “A boycott by Indians would not mean the loss of money that a Negro boycott could bring,” he said, preferring instead to train a legion of Native American actors for Hollywood that could perform a range of parts and hopefully influence a change of opinion within the studios. At the start of 1960 Jay was responsible for a letter writing campaign addressed to President Eisenhower, vice-president Nixon, and the heads of the three major television networks, addressing the portrayal of Natives in film and television.
Silverheels resented the abstraction that it was he alone that was responsible for a negative image of Natives in film and television. To the contrary, he looked at himself as somewhat of a role model, having been the first Native to ever serve on the Screen Actors Guild Board of Directors. From 1962 through 1968 Jay spent countless hours establishing the Indian Actors Workshop, an organization to help train Native actors and to prepare them for what would certainly be a tough battle trying to make it in Hollywood. He expanded the theater school in 1968, when it was finally noted by members of the industry. Additional financial support for the school came from Rodd Redwing, Jonathan Winters and Buffy Sainte-Marie. The Indian Actors Workshop was established at the Los Angeles Indian Center in Echo Park. According to Joan Weibel-Orlando and author of the book Indian Country, L.A. (1999, University of Illinois Press), The Indian Actors Workshop became more than a simple group of thespians. It turned into a Los Angeles headquarter for political action. “The Indian Actors Workshop quickly became an outlet for Indian actors’ and stuntmen’s views. It was the voice for Indians disgruntled and discouraged by the casting of Burt Lancaster as Jim Thorpe, the great Indian American athlete, by Jeff Chandler as Cochise … Raquel Welch as a Crow captive and heroine. Indian actors let it be known that they wished equal consideration with the legions of … dark skinned, low voiced, Italian-American … actors who consistently were hired for the major film and television roles that called for an Indian character to speak on camera.” The workshop also helped Native actors enter SAG and Actors Equity.
In 1963 Silverheels was the first Native inducted into the Screen Actors Hall of Fame and the American Indian Movement was lobbying harder for local television stations to halt reruns of what they felt to be blatant, racist imagery. Indian Paint (1965) was a throw back to the more immature westerns of the forties, and had Silverheels in a starring role with Johnny Crawford. It infuriated many in the Indian Movement and simply intensified Silverheels as a target.
Despite a bevy of projects, Jay Silverheels’ income would never again be as steady as it was during Tonto’s heyday. He acted when and where he could. In the late sixties he and Clayton Moore appeared as their old characters in a successful commercial for Jeno’s Pizza conceived by satirist turned advertiser Stan Freberg. Moore himself had previously brought The Lone Ranger into the advertising world, appearing in character for Silver Gasoline and later, Aqua Velva Aftershave. Watch Jay and Clayton sell aftershave here. Clayton Moore said that these appearances helped rekindle the relationship he had with Silverheels, “We continued to see each other socially. His family would come to our house for a barbecue, or ours would go to his place in Canoga Park for dinner.” Watch the ridiculous pizza commercial here. Stan Freberg recalled in an interview with Tom Snyder that CBS executives had reservations (no pun intended) about the advertisement because it might offend the now vocal American Indian Movement. Freberg asked Jay Silverheels to talk to the executive to convince her otherwise. According to Freberg, Silverheels shouted over the phone, “Stop screwing with my residuals!” Apparently CBS, indeed, refused to ever air the commercial although it had a lengthy and popular run on ABC and NBC. Some Indian organizations did criticize the pizza role campaign and Silverheels released a public response. Jay said that such criticism “promotes and strengthens the image that projects the Indians as being stoic, undemonstrative, incapable of showing emotion and entirely lacking a sense of humor.”
Jay Silverheels had established a running relationship with Disney, having appeared in a handful of Walt Disney television programs. Through this relationship he was able to convince someone within Disney to make use of his students at The Indian Actors Workshop. The live-action Disney film Smith! (1969) featured a plethora of Native actors that all came from the Workshop. Although the film featured almost solely Natives portraying Natives (one exception was a painted up Warren Oates), the film was still panned by both film critics and Native American organizations for reviving in full force all manner of “Injun” stereotypes. Silverheels was an uncredited director of an impassioned courtroom scene in the film, guiding his students that played the all-Indian jury. Silverheels’ students did not get individual billing, but instead were credited as The Indian Actors Workshop.
Jay was also on hand for John Wayne’s Oscar winning performance in True Grit (1969). Anecdotes abound about the legendary western, and perhaps the best revolves around the rambunctious Dennis Hopper. Peter Fonda recalls, “The studios tried to get Hopper blacklisted for allegedly doping his horse with LSD during the filming of True Grit. What happened was, Universal kinda leaked this bogus story to Variety to justify the lousy distribution they were going to give The Last Movie – which the suits just didn’t feel, you know? – even though they knew from Warren Oates that the horse in question … had been tripping on his own since at least 1967, when he worked in [Monte] Hellman’s The Shooting and began eating peyote buttons [from a cactus] out in the high desert … Hopper was eventually cleared.” In the picture Silverheels has little to say, but he is condemned and hanged, and it could easily have been a metaphor for what was happening to his career.
September 9th, 1969, Jay had his memorable appearance on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Ed McMahon in his book Here’s Johnny: My Memories of Johnny Carson (2005, Thomas Nelson Inc) relays his memories. “Of all the twenty-two thousand guests that Johnny had, the one with whom I most identified with was Jay Silverheels … Of course, he never went out drinking with the Lone Ranger, but he might have played the drums. ‘So you were the Lone Ranger’s closest buddy for all those years,’ said Johnny. ‘Sort of Ed [McMahon] with feathers …’ ‘Yes, I hung out with him,’ said Jay Silverheels, ‘even though he was the stuffiest guy west of Newark. Man, did he take himself seriously!’ ‘And he kept sending you to town to get supplies. Why didn’t he ever go himself?’ ‘Maybe he thought the people in town didn’t like him. But I was the only one who didn’t like him. He never heard of the Emancipation Proclamation.” When this scripted comedy was done, Carson and Silverheels chatted seriously about his career. Silverheels explained that he had no choice but to take the roles he was offered if he wanted to work at all and that almost all the work was “lousy.” Watch a short clip here. Apparently throughout this period Silverheels appeared with some regularity on other talk shows (always unspecified in the sources that state such) reading his poetry. Silverheels spent a great deal of time reflecting on his life with a combination of pride and guilt. Much of his poetry revolved around life on the reservation as a child.
Jay continued paying the bills by satirically appearing as his famous character. The Phynx (1970) was a momentous bomb featuring an epic string of cameos, a picture that could only have been made during the era of Hollywood in which everyone in Hollywood, including the horses, were high on LSD. Described by the Internet Movie Database like so: “An athlete, a campus militant, a black model, and an American Indian are picked by a computer (shaped like a woman) to form a rock group called The Phynx and go on tour in Albania where American show biz people have been kidnapped by Communists. Some of the stars that the phony band rescues: Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O’ Sullivan, Leo Gorcey and Huntz Hall, Ed Sullivan, James Brown, Colonel Sanders, Guy Lombardo, Andy Devine, Ruby Keeler, Edgar Bergen, Butterfly McQueen, Jay Silverheels, Rudy Vallee, Xavier Cugat, Trini Lopez, Dick Clark, Richard Pryor, Harold ‘Oddjob’ Sakata, George Jessel and Rhona Barrett.” The film also featured Martha Raye, Rich Little, Warhol confidant Ultra Violet, Pat McCormick and Busby Berkeley(!). The Phynx perform their psychedelic garage sounds and the rest of the soundtrack is permeated by custom pop written for the movie by Leiber – Stoller! Watch the opening credits here and random pieces of the picture here and here.
Despite the success to remove some Indian stereotypes from the airwaves, others persisted. Jay Silverheels starred in a remarkable Chevy commercial from 1970 that tried to make fun of an ignorant white man. Despite the satirical intentions, it is hard to imagine a commercial from the same year with a sentence like, “Wait George, I know how to talk to Black people!” Watch it here.
In 1971 Jay had his name legally changed from Harry Smith to Jay Silverheels. The same year he had a cameo on an episode of The Brady Bunch known as The Brady Braves before turning away from showbiz. Instead he reverted to a quiet life raising horses and occasionaly partcipating in harness races with his horse Tribal Dance. He made several personal appearances on the rodeo circuit.
After a quiet and dormant 1972, Jay returned to full-time film and television work in 1973. He made the Disney feature One Little Indian (1973) and worked in a western starring Burt Reynolds titled The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing (1973). During the location filming in Utah, a dead body was found in the Gila Bend Motel where cast and crew were staying, an apparent suicide.
Santee (1973) was another western and another small part. It is notable for being one of the first feature length motion pictures shot on videotape (like Frank Zappa’s 200 Motels before it). Edward Platt of Get Smart fame was convinced that video filming would be the wave of the future and invested thousands and thousands of his finances into the film (Silverheels and Platt are probably, more than anyone else in the history of Hollywood, the two most often billed as ‘The Chief’). Santee was directed by Gary Nelson who also directed Platt in twenty-three episodes of Get Smart. The movie was a box-office failure. Platt did not recoup any of his investment and died the next year. Silverheels played a ranch foreman in the picture. It was also Jay’s final motion picture.
In 1975 Silverheels suffered a crippling stroke that put an end to his public appearances. He moved into the long-term care facility at The Motion Picture Country Home in Woodland Hills. In 1979 he would be the first Native to ever have their name on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, thanks to some serious lobbying from comedian and friend Jonathan “Why Don’t the Indians Win More of the Pictures” Winters. An ailing Jay Silverheels made what was his final public appearance at his Walk of Fame ceremony.
Jay Silverheels died on March 5th, 1980. His body was cremated and the ashes scattered on his family farm outside of Brantford. The Indian Actors Workshop ultimately died with Silverheels, although its concept was amalgamated into the new American Indian Registry for the Performing Arts headed by Will Sampson. In the eyes of many First Nations people in Canada and Native Americans throughout the United States, the roles portrayed by Jay Silverheels remain a sorrowful example of the Uncle Tomahawk. To other Aboriginals, the sweeping accomplishments Silverheels managed to achieve despite unbelievable, racist odds are a source of pride. For most, it is a combination of the two.
In autumn of 2008, an announcement was made about a new Lone Ranger feature length film, to be scripted by Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio who penned the successful Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy. George Clooney is rumored as the potential Lone Ranger with Tonto confirmed to be played by that legendary Native American hero… Johnny Depp.
1 This is the same reservation that another extremely successful Native actor was raised on: Graham Greene. Unlike Jay Silverheels who was Mohawk, Greene, is Oneida.
2The editorial appeared in The Times Picayune of New Orleans. Iron Eyes Cody was not the first man to be wrapped up in a scandal like this. In the late twenties and early thirties a blue-eyed Scotsman named Archie Belaney fooled the continent into believing that he was a sage-wise Aboriginal named Grey Owl. He wrote books in which his picture appeared, made several docu-dramas and went on lecture tours through Canada, the United States and England. Nobody questioned his validity. Newspaper interviewers and even the publishers of his books believed he was who and what he said he was. It should have been obvious he was white with his bright blue eyes and Caucasian complexion, but the ignorance of the masses allowed him to easily dupe legions of people. His ruse was only exposed at the time of his death in 1938, when those writing his newspaper obituaries started to investigate his background.
3 To this day, Canada is held in contempt by the United Nations for its voting record on Native issues. In 2006 Canada voted against a declaration in the United Nations that recognized, “the rights of indigenous people to persist in their own customs and traditions, to represent themselves, to have a say in their own education … and to be free from unwarranted military intrusions upon traditional lands.” As was reported by CBC News in September of 2007, “The international community has adopted the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, despite high-profiled opposition from Canada … The non-binding declaration, which sets out global human rights standards for indigenous populations was easily approved … the declaration states: ‘Indigenous peoples have the right to lands, territories and resources which they have traditionally owned, occupied or otherwise used or acquired.’ ‘We shouldn’t vote for things on the basis of political correctness …’ [Prime Minister Stephen] Harper said.” A lack of help for a large, sprawling, poverty stricken area of Vancouver from Canada’s government would lead activist groups to ask the United Nations for foreign aid to help the devastated, predominantly Native area of the city. Miloon Kathari of the United Nations, after touring the area, responded to the pleas for foreign aid in a statement, explaining, “I think it’s a valid request.”
4One Nation Under God was added to the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954 and In God We Trust was scribbled on US currency in 1956.
One more anecdote from the book I Was That Masked Man by Clayton Moore and Frank Thompson (1996, Taylor Publishing Company) would be incongruous to the article but is worth relaying here:
“A rancher, George Spahn, had a beautiful spread just above [where The Lone Ranger was filmed]. I knew George pretty well; he often supplied us with horses when we were filming in the area … In 1969, I was in the area … and decided to drop in and see George. When we arrived, we saw about a dozen young people on George’s porch. They looked like hippies … it did strike me as unusual that they were here, on George Spahn’s ranch … Inside, George was sitting there motionless, It was very dark in the room. I called out, “George how are you?” He cocked his head to me and said, “Clayton?” and started to cry … We talked for a while and he seemed distressed. I really couldn’t get him to say much … We visited for less than an hour. George seemed depressed. As we prepared to leave, I said, “Is there anyting I can do for you, George?” He said, “Just come back to see me.” I promised that I would … I never got the sense he was in danger. If I had, I never would have left him there … I later learned that those young people were part of Charles Manson’s “family” … a couple weeks after my visit [The Manson Murders occurred].”
Here is a bit more on the Métis and First Nations depictions in Hollywood from author Pierre Berton. All of this, again, comes from his book Hollywood’s Canada (1975, McClellan and Stewart).
“The historical and anthropological truth about the Métis is almost the exact opposite of the impression conveyed by the movies. To present them as a lawless breed, constantly pursued by the mounted police is to fly directly in the face of established fact. They did not sell whisky to the Indians; that crime must be laid at the feet of the white men – first the great fur-trading companies and later the American renegades who built the notorious whisky forts in what is now southern Alberta.
It was the Métis and not the white men who first brought law to the untrammelled northwest, buidling a code based on the sensible and strict orthodoxy of the buffalo hunt. At the Métis community of St. Laurent – where the great Gabriel Dumont (“the prince of the prairies”) was leader – the people, unable to wait for the Canadian government to bring the law to the prairie country, set up laws of their own, organizing a local government and a real estate code; fixing penalties for theft, slander, seduction, and arson; establishing a free ferry service; and choosing, in Dumont, a president who made it quite clear that he that he had no intention of setting up an independent state. And all this took place before the arrival of the North West Mounted Police.
It was not Métis lawlessness that brought the police; it was the depredations of white invaders from south of the border. They murdered Indians, poisoned wolves, exchanged rotgut whisky for furs and were a law onto themselves … Flamboyant the Métis certainly were … But they did not murder and they did not steal and they did not seduce. All the evidence shows that they lived by a strict code of laws that encouraged community co-operation.
The Hollywood Canadian Indian differed in no way from the Hollywood American Indian … Clifford Wilson, editor of the Hudson’s Bay Company magazine was a technical adviser on the film Hudson’s Bay. He reported that ‘the Hollywood costumers, like most other people, seem to think that the Indian wore a sort of uniform of buckskin leggings and hair parted in the middle hanging in two plaits.’ Wilson tried to explain that the hair-do, especially, would be extremely varied, depending on individual tastes. His advice was ignored. ‘It was so much easier to buy one hundred and fifty wigs all of the same pattern.’
The movie braves, when not attired in the cumbersome war bonnets that in real life would make concealment impossible, are invariably shown with bands on their heads, as are Indian maidens. Actually, the beaded headband is a Hollywood invention, not an Indian one. But it has become engrained in the culture, thanks to the movies, that many young Native North Americans on both sides of the border have taken to wearing it, in the mistaken belief that they are preserving a small fragment of their own heritage. [One theory] is the headband was first popularized in American wild west shows and later, in Hollywood’s early days, to prevent wigs from falling off the actors’ heads.”