MESA, Ariz. (CP) — Ben Johnson, a champion rodeo performer who appeared in many Westerns and won an Oscar for The Last Picture Show in 1971, died Monday. He was 77.
The actor collapsed while visiting his mother at Leisure World in Mesa, the suburban Phoenix retirement community where they both lived.
“He asked a lady to fix him some breakfast and he went into the bathroom and that’s where he collapsed,” said Buster Brown, an assistant to Johnson. He was pronounced dead at Valley Lutheran Hospital.
A hospital spokeswoman refused to comment on reports Johnson had a heart attack.
Johnson won his supporting actor Academy Award for his supporting role as Sam the Lion, the owner of the pool hall and the movie theatre in The Last Picture Show, Larry McMurtry’s study of life in a small Texas town during the 1950s.
“That changed my life,” Johnson said of his award-winning role. “Everybody thought I knew something after I won that old Oscar. All of them wanted to give me a new job and more money.”
On his big night in 1971, Johnson had the Hollywood crowd on its feet when he strode onstage to accept his award. “Boy, ain’t that purty,” he drawled as Richard Harris handed him the golden statuette.
“This couldn’t have happened to a nicer fella,” he joked, as the audience erupted in laughter and Harris hugged him.
Johnson literally arrived in Hollywood on horseback. He was working on a ranch in his native Oklahoma in 1939 when Howard Hughes ordered a load of horses from the ranch for use in The Outlaw.
Johnson drove the horses to California, and Hughes hired him as the film’s horse wrangler.
He was working as a double and stuntman in Westerns when he was discovered by director John Ford, who cast him as a cavalry sergeant in two of his films and gave him the starring role in The Wagon Master.
It was Ford who talked Johnson into taking the role in The Last Picture Show after Johnson objected to the film’s language and nudity.
Johnson appeared in more than 300 films, including Shane and The Wild Bunch, and was the tolerant police chief in The Sugarland Express. More recently, he appeared in 1991’s My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys, and Radio Flyer.
Johnson received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1994.
“I don’t know why in the hell you all waited so long to give me the star,” he said at the time. “You waited till I got so old I couldn’t hardly enjoy it.”
Johnson was born in Foraker, Okla., and grew up a cowboy on a ranch. He won a world champion cowboy title in 1953.
In 1985, he started the Ben Johnson Celebrity Rodeo at the Lazy E Arena in Guthrie, Okla. Since then, more than $2 million has been raised to benefit Children’s Medical Research Inc.