Ben Johnson

June 13 (1918) is the birthday of Ben Johnson, one of my favorite Western actors. But he also played in other genre as well. 

He was born in Oklahoma on the Osage Indian Reservation, of Irish and Cherokee stock. His father was a rancher, horse breeder, and rodeo champion. Ben did likewise all his life. He was a superb horseman and rodeo performer. The director Peter Bogdanovich called Johnson “the real thing.” 

He got his start in movies when he delivered horses to Arizona for Howard Hughes, who was making the notorious movie “The Outlaw” on location there. Hughes had bought the horses in Oklahoma from the ranch Ben’s father managed. Hughes was impressed by Ben’s horsemanship and horse wrangling and started using him as a stunt double in his movies. 

The director John Ford noticed Johnson and hired him initially as a stunt double but quickly moved him into speaking parts. Johnson did stunt work in Ford’s “Fort Apache”, the first of that director’s famous cavalry trilogy: “Fort Apache” (1948), “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon” (1949), and “Rio Grande” (1950), all of which starred John Wayne. Johnson had speaking parts in the last two films, both of which displayed Johnson’s expert riding ability. (Johnson and Harry Carey, Jr. were showcased in “Rio Grande” - riding in the Roman style, i.e., standing on the backs of two galloping horses. Johnson and Carey, Jr. were in eight films together. Johnson and Wayne were also in eight films together. But they overlapped.) 

I always liked the way Johnson acted. He always displayed a solid, steady, relaxed, strong air of quiet competence. It was the way he was in real life as well. 

He was in many famous movies. He played Chris Calloway in Alan Ladd’s “Shane” (1953). Now, there’s a movie you have to see if you haven’t already. It must have been interesting staging a fight between the men. Johnson was 6’2”; Ladd was 5’6”. 

Some other movies Johnson played in: “Three Godfathers” (1948), “One-Eyed Jacks” (1961), “Major Dundee” (1964),  “The Wild Bunch” (1969),  “The Undefeated” (1969), “The Train Robbers” (1972), “Breakheart Pass” (1975),  and “Red Dawn” (1984). But he appeared in, as actor and/or stuntman, several hundred movies. He was also in TV series and episodes. 

Johnson won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal of the movie theater owner Sam the Lion in the film “The Last Picture Show”. At first he had turned down the part, telling the director Peter Bogdanovich he didn’t like all the profanity in his dialogues. But Bogdanovich let him take all the dirty words out, so Johnson took the part.  

Johnson has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.  

He was inducted into the Western Performers Hall of Fame at the National Cowboy & Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City in 1982. 

Although he found plenty of work in the movies, he was a rancher all his life and performed in rodeos into his 70s. In 1953 he won the title of Team Roping World Champion. He was inducted into the Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame in1973. He sponsored the Ben Johnson Pro Celebrity Team Roping and Penning competition for the benefit of the Children’s Medical Research, Inc. and the Children’s Hospital of Oklahoma. 

His shrewd real estate investments made him a very wealthy man. 

He married Carol Elaine Jones in 1941, and, atypically for Hollywood, they remained married until she passed away, in 1994. They had no children.

Ben Johnson died on April 8, 1996. He was survived by his mother, who lived to be 101.