A Tribute to Ben
honest-to-goodness Oklahoma cowboy who became an Academy Award
winner and World Champion Rodeo Roper (1953). Fate placed him in the
film business in 1940, when he delivered horses to Howard Hughes...
In 1972, when Ben Johnson walked to the stage to accept an Academy
Award for best supporting actor in The Last Picture Show, he carried
with him a fairly predictable though unfinished speech which would
at least have saved him the trouble of having to think in front of
so many people. Johnson, a cowboy who had performed in numerous
western movies filmed in Arizona, was in real life a lot like the
people he usually portrayed, not particularly at ease in a big
Hollywood critics later said Johnson stole the show that night by
putting away his unfinished speech. He decided against reading it,
he told the glittering assemblage, because "...the longer I
worked on it, the phonier it got." Then, holding his shining
Oscar in his right hand, he declared, "What I'm about to say
will start a controversy around the world:
"This couldn't have happened to a nicer
Just a little quip, of course, but there are many who would agree in
an instant. The circumstances that brought him his first Oscar show
clearly why so many have found him not only "a nicer
fellow" but a breath of fresh air in a world where garish
pretentiousness is widespread.
Johnson won the
Oscar for his role as Sam the Lion, the philosophical owner of a
pool hall in a dreary Texas town. The director, Peter Bogdanovich,
sent Johnson a copy of the script and asked him to play the part of
"It was the worst thing I ever read, " Johnson said.
"Every other word that I had was a dirty word, so I turned it
down. I don't do dirty movies and I don't have to say four-letter
words around women and kids to make myself a name."
At Bogdanovich's request, John Ford, one of the pioneer directors in
the film industry and the man who converted Johnson from a wrangler
to an actor, called him back and asked him to take the role as a
personal favor to him.
"So," Johnson recalled, "I said to Bogdanovich, Okay,
I'll do it if you let me rewrite my lines and get rid of all that
dirty language. He agreed. I won an Oscar from the American Academy
Awards, I won an English Academy Award, a Golden Globe Award and The
New York Film Critics Award and I didn't have to say one dirty
Johnson, who lived in Mesa a few blocks from his mother, has been
working in movies as a stunt-man or actor, since the 1940's. He
never became a star, and it probably would have surprised him if he
had. Johnson was, literally, a cowboy who got into pictures. If you
see him as the young Trooper Tyree riding with John Wayne in the
classic, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, or later in life as the
sympathetic rural sheriff in Sugarland Express, it's easy to get the
impression he isn't acting at all.
Johnson made several movies with John Wayne and also spent time with
him at his various cattle operations.
"That's how I know that John Wayne was an honest man. I watched
a lot of deals being made, watched him doing swaps, and he was
always honest. But, he could get pretty mad, too. If somebody tried
to beat him out of something or act dishonestly, he'd get mad. I've
seen him get into fights when he was pretty mad about
On the set, Wayne was an amiable co-worker, Johnson said.
"I just returned from the Cannes Film Festival, and all these
people over there were asking me about John Wayne and John Ford. I
told them all the same thing. John Wayne was very professional, and
a good fellow to work around. If you were willing to work he was
easy to get along with.
"With me, I was much better with horses than with acting, but
watching John Wayne and watching Ford directing him made it easier
for me. It's a shame there aren't more people around today like John
Wayne. A lot of the younger people don't even know what honesty
Johnson is at home in the culture of the West. Now 77 [in June,
1995], he continues to compete in rodeo events, and he still lights
up a bit when he recalls that in 1953 he won the world championship
in team roping.
"That big silver buckle they gave me means more to me than that
Oscar," he said, though he acknowledged the Oscar had a much
larger impact on his income than his rodeo award did.
You have to understand that Ben was a very humble person. He was a
top hand meaning a cowboy who could handle anything that might come
up on a ranch long before he ever became a movie actor. His father
was a foreman for Chapman Barnard, a big rancher in Oklahoma who ran
about 20,000 mother cows, an enormous operation, and Ben was unique
in the movie business because he'd been working on a ranch as a
cowboy since the time he was a little kid.
In fact, it was Johnson's skill with horses that turned out to be
his admission ticket to the movie business. The late Howard Hughes
bought some horses from the ranch where Johnson's father worked for
use in a movie he was making in Monument Valley. He needed a
wrangler to get the horses from Oklahoma to northern Arizona, and he
"He wanted me to get these horses from Oklahoma to Arizona and
then take them on to Hollywood," Johnson said. "I loaded
them on a box car in Tulsa and took them by train to Flagstaff,
where they had trucks meet me for the rest of the way to Monument
Valley. You might say that's how I got to Hollywood, in a carload of
Johnson's ability with a horse and rope led to a warm friendship
"That movie Hughes was making in Monument Valley, The Outlaws,
had a scene where the government had rounded up something like 4,000
horses. Well, Hughes owned this palomino stud named Cherokee
Charlie, which he also used in that movie. He had an enormous
insurance policy on that horse, and he said to me, 'When they start
moving that herd, whatever you do, do not let Cherokee Charlie get
into the middle of that bunch of horses.' Well, of course, as soon
as the herd starts to run, the first thing that palomino does is
start running toward the bunch, so I took off after it and roped it
real fast. I'd been doing that all my life, but it imprinted on
Hughes' mind so much that he became a pretty good friend of mine. He
liked to come out and go riding with me all the time, and he'd roll
up a hundred dollar bill and tuck it in my shirt pocket. I thought
that was pretty good..."
Johnson spent his first few years as a stunt-man and wrangler,
doubling for such famous actors as John Wayne, Gary Cooper, Henry
Fonda, Jimmy Stewart, Alan Ladd, and Joel McCrea.
"You know," he said, "when I left Oklahoma I wasn't
even sure which direction Hollywood was, but I could ride a horse
pretty good. I had no formal education to speak of. I was a cowboy
from the time I hit the ground. I knew if a cow weighed 1,000 pounds
and bought $10 a hundred, I knew how much that was. But, I was
fortunate because people accepted my character. I ran my life a
certain way. I didn't hobnob with the elites because I didn't do
drugs and I didn't drink a lot of whiskey oh, I might take a drink
now and then, but you know what I mean. I think I got a lot respect
from people in the business because of my honesty. Honesty is like a
good horse, you know it'll work anyplace you hook it."
When Hughes hired him to bring the horses to Monument Valley,
Johnson had been working as a cowboy for $40 a month. Hughes,
already a multimillionaire in 1939, gave him $175 a week. "It
didn't take me long to figure out this was a good deal,"
After working as a wrangler and stunt-man, Johnson got his first
speaking part around 1943 in a movie called Red Riders. His role
called for him to ride up on his horse, dismount and run into an
office and declare, "I have a telegram for you from the United
States Treasury Department."
He studied the line eight days and eight nights, he said, and then
"I messed up the shot about three times before I could remember
Johnson never had any training as an actor.He was a classic case of
on the job training.
"I was doubling for people like John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart and
Joel McCrea, and I would watch the way they did things, but you
know, I never really had a desire to be an actor. I always had
something else to do I didn't sit around waiting for the phone to
ring. I could always make a living working on a ranch or in a
Johnson's acting ability also benefited from exposure to some of the
most talented directors of the last fifty years. After he left
Howard Hughes, the legendary John Ford hired him as he was embarking
on his series of epic cavalry movies in northern Arizona.
"I worked with Ford, Steven Spielberg [He was in Sugarland
Express, the first movie Spielberg directed], Peter Bogdanovich and
Sam Pekinpah [In the classic western, The Wild Bunch], and I
listened to what they had to say. That John Ford, I worked for him
for six years. I mean, he was a mean old bastard, but if you
listened to him, you could learn something. He was a real educator.
The last words Ford ever said to me was, 'Ben, don't forget to stay
real.' I think that's pretty good advice anywhere."
In 1953, Johnson took a year off from the movie business to compete
full-time in rodeos.
"My dad was a world champion three or four times, so I wanted
to be. Fortunately I won the world championship in team roping, but
at the end of the year I didn't have $3. All I had was a wore-out
automobile and a mad wife. But, you know, I am the only cowboy that
ever won an Oscar in the movies and a world championship in rodeoing."
In later years Johnson started sponsoring the Ben Johnson Celebrity
rodeos in major cities throughout the country, including Phoenix, to
raise money for sick or deprived children.
Johnson eventually had roles in approximately 300 movies, most of
them westerns. At least a dozen of them were shot amid the
spectacular buttes and mesas of Monument Valley or along the bottom
of Canyon de Chelly in the heart of the Navajo Reservation, and some
at Old Tucson movie set destroyed by fire in 1995. Johnson remained
obscure, however, until he was hired for a supporting role in Sam
Peckinpah's 1969 bloodfest, The Wild Bunch, starring William Holden.
Peckinpah, who had a reputation as a wild man, was, in fact, a near
lunatic, Johnson said.
"The first time I met him was when he asked me to appear in
Major Dundee , with Charlton Heston. I went to his office to
meet him, and I was sitting across the desk from Sam when a
stunt-man comes in. Well, Sam abused him something terrible, yelling
at him. He did it there, in front of me, and when the man walked
out, I just said, 'I can't work for you.' He said, 'Why not?'
"I says, 'By God, if you did to me what you did to that man
there, I'd hit you right in the damn nose and you'd run me out of
the business, and I'm not ready to leave..' 'Well,' he says, 'I'm
not that bad. I was just trying to scare him a little.'"
Peckinpah evidently enjoyed scary encounters of any kind. As Johnson
"Sam was a fatalist. He was a pretty talented guy, but he
didn't care much about life, and some of what he did, he didn't care
much about the outcome as long as the movie had blood and guts and
thunder. He was pretty dingy. I saved his life about a dozen times,
I guess. He'd start drinking whiskey and taking pills and he'd go
crazy. He'd go into a bar, walk through the place and find the
biggest guy there, and pick a fight with him. He was crazy."
Ben Johnson, on the other hand, was eminently sane, which is why,
some say, he never became a super star.
"Ben was a very good businessman and invested the money he made
in movies very wisely, and in a way that was why he never learned to
be a great actor," a friend said. "He didn't have to. The
fact is he was doing so well that he didn't need Hollywood, and his
ego definitely didn't need Hollywood either."
"Well," he said, "I can't handle phony people, and
there are a lot of them in Hollywood. I've built my life around the
principles of honesty, realism and respect, and if the people in
Hollywood are so pumped up on themselves they can't deal with that,
I say the hell with 'em. I think I've won the respect of some people
over there and I think I managed to stay real."
His staying power was simple -
Ben Johnson had a natural on-screen presence and was completely
believable in his roles. His decency as a human being always came
across. He never "went Hollywood". His closest friends
remained cowboys and Hollywood people who could honestly sit a
Ben's humanitarian work as an
organizer of celebrity rodeos to benefit children was dear to his
heart. He competed in his charity rodeos right to the end, and
frequently won! That a man in his mid-70's was out there riding and
roping and WINNING was an inspiration - but not a surprise - it was
When his big heart gave out on
April 8th 1996 at age 77, the first reaction by those who knew him
was disbelief - after all, living legends aren't supposed to die.
But Ben left our lives richer - he showed what a good human being is
capable of accomplishing. Though he played everything from heroes to
heavies, in real-life he was a gentleman in every sense of the word
who always had a smile and a "Howdy" for a fan. May we all
try to live by the example he set.