Sometimes people just fit. Actor Ben Johnson (1918-1996) was a fit for the Western movie. Johnson’s presence in numerous Westerns gave a key ingredient to any scene with him in it – truthfulness in the moment. His speech, his ease both on a horse and in the setting of a Western gives the sense that this just might be how a real cowboy of the Old West would act. When one considers Johnson’s origins, it may have been that natural for him.

Born June 13, 1918 in Oklahoma, Johnson came from a mix of Irish and Cherokee ancestry. He grew up part of a ranching family with both he and his father, Ben Johnson Sr., champion steer ropers on the rodeo circuit. Johnson’s entry into Westerns would come via his skill with horses. Johnson began to make a career for himself as both horse wrangler and stuntman, doubling for Western stars like Gary Cooper, John Wayne and James Stewart.

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He gained the attention of director John Ford, who hired him for stunt work in Fort Apache (1948). While Johnson would have one starring role in a small film made by Ford entitled Wagon Master (1950), where his character leads a group of Mormons across the West, he was a strong supporting actor for the majority of his career. He had satisfaction in what Hollywood gave him, saying that “I never expected to become a star and was always content to stay two or three rungs down the ladder and last awhile. When I do get a little ahead, I see what I can do to help others.” 

The list of serious Westerns in which Johnson played key supporting roles demonstrates his ability through speech and manner to contribute authenticity toward such films. He was a hired thug who has a change-of-heart in Shane (1953), an outlaw companion of Marlon Brando in One-Eyed Jacks (1961) and a member of The Wild Bunch (1969). His realism of Western character was likely drawn from both his Oklahoma heritage and the framework by which Johnson grounded his acting – that of real working cowboy. That he was a natural in the saddle is evident in the fact that Johnson left acting in 1953 to return to rodeo competition and became Steer Roping World Champion that year. He found, however, that even after a championship season he had barely broke even and returned to work in films. Yet the intrinsic knowledge he carried of cowboy ways could not help but make his portrayals authentic.

For this viewer, it was the way that Johnson delivered his lines that has the most resonance. His inflection, drawl and delivery lent power to the words he spoke. Take as an example his performance with Marlon Brando in the Brando-directed One Eyed Jacks (1961). In their first scene together, the Ben Johnson character of Bob Emory explains to Brando’s Rio how he can take revenge against his former outlaw partner-turned-sheriff (Karl Malden) for having abandoning Rio to capture and a Mexican prison for 5 years – Johnson brings his own naturalness to the scene and more than holds his own with Brando.

Johnson played the role of Sam the Lion in Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show (1971) – his character in that movie was a model of integrity in an otherwise crumbling small Texas community. Johnson won his only Oscar – Best Supporting Actor – for that portrayal.

In one scene within that contemporary-set film – a movie with Western landscape and a sense of the ending of eras – Johnson brings two teenage boys outside of their small Texas town to enjoy a day in the countryside. While sitting beside a fishing hole, Johnson begins to share reflections on how the country has changed, admitting that he is sentimental about the past and then starts to talk about a relationship he had over two decades prior with a younger woman who was married. Here is that clip:

There is such a sense of realism in his delivery that the lines transcend the film to be as much philosophical statement about human relations as the ramblings of a supporting character in a film dealing with the coming-of-age for Texas youth.

Ben Johnson married Carol Jones in 1941 and they remained married for 53 years until she passed away in 1994. They did not have any children. Johnson continued both acting work and ranching until his death from a heart attack in 1996.

(Copyright – Chad Beharriell)


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