Sampson would prefer to be known as “a man who paints’


ARCHIVE. Any casting director with an Indian part to fill in a new picture might well have let out a war whoop of joy at the sight of Will Sampson in his acting debut as Chief Bromden, the silent giant of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” The high cheekbones impassive stare, the impression of dignity tinged with menace were straight out of the paintings of George Catlin or the photographs of Edward S. Curtis. On the basis of “Cuckoo’s Nest,” Sampson was quickly signed to featured roles in three forthcoming westerns: Robert Altman’s “Buffalo Bill and the Indians,” opening in New York on June 25: Clint Eastwood’s “The Outlaw Josey Wales.” coming later in the summer; and J. Lee Thompson’s “The White Buffalo,” which started shooting here in April.

In the space of two years, Sampson has thus become the film world’s foremost native American. He came along just in time, because in this age of ethnic awareness Hollywood can no longer get away with smearing brown make‐up on a Jeff Chandler or a Burt. Lancaster, sticking a feather in his hair and calling him an Apache.

Fame, however, does not impress Sampson himself much. Nor does the fact that in four forays he’s worked with four of the most bankable male stars—Jack Nicholson, Paul Newman, Clint Eastwood and Charles Bronson. After spending time with Sampson on the set of “The White Buffalo” in the Colorado Rockies recently, one gets the impression that Sampson regards movies as a pleasant, profitable pastime but not much more than that.

Why? Because Sampson is first a painter, second an Indian and only third an actor. He is a 42‐year‐old. 6 foot 5, 220‐pound Creek from Oklahoma with three marriages and a lot of one‐man exhibits behind him. He has six children, ranging in age from one to 19, to support, a conscience that reminds him there are too many Indians far less fortunate than he and a deep‐seated yet almost passive bitterness about white people’s prejudice toward red people.

“Movies afford me a lot of time to paint,” he explains in a mellifluous baritone voice that will come as a surprise to anyone who saw his deaf‐dumb act in “Cuckoo’s Nest.” ‘They always interested me.” he continues, sitting on a couch in a Colorado condominium he was sharing with his 19‐year‐old son and a woman friend, “and I wanted to see what it was like.” As a result, he accepted an offer to audition for the role of Chief Bromden when a friend suggested him as a possibility to the “Cuckoo’s Nest” casting scout.

William Sampson Jr., known to everybody outside of movies as Sonny, had had his share of other jobs—oil field roughneck, construction worker, linesman, rodeo bull rider. Born in Okmulgee, the center of the Creek tribe (one of the five “civilized” tribes as they were called in our old textbooks, that were forced to settle in Oklahoma by the government after being expelled from their original homes in Georgia and Florida), he began entering rodeos at 14. “When you’re an Indian at 14.” he says, “you have a lot of anger and it’s a way to dispel a lot of it.”

Nevertheless, painting was, and is, his first love. While supporting himself through other jobs, he was rarely without at least a sketch pad. His canvases, with western and cowboy subjects done very much in the mode of Charles Russell, were shown all over the west. Both the Smithsonian and the Library of Congress have exhibited his works, Realistic pen‐andink drawings of cowboys and roundups were scattered everywhere in the condominium.

On his very first job as an actor. Sampson made it clear that he has a mind of his own. Director Milos Forman he says, originally “wanted an ‘ugh‐Tonto’ type Indian” as Chief Bromden. “He told me what he wanted, and told him that wasn’t the way it was. It was 1963—Chief Bromden had gone through high school as a football athlete, had served in the Korean war, had perfect diction.”

So Sampson played it his way, and when the picture was over. Forman said to him, “You were the only actor I didn’t have to direct.”

Jack Nicholson, who worked opposite Sampson in “Cuckoo’s Nest,” calls him a “fine natural actor” with enormous presence who has not yet had to face a technical problem that requires anything more than his natural abilities. Recalling that he and Forman needed only 15 minutes with Sampson to realize they had their Chief Bromden, Nicholson says “Will never needed to be in the movies to know he was a star. He came to that first interview in his plaid jeans his turquoise belt and necktie, birdwing sidelocks, red ribbons in his hair, wearing a huge hat you or I could live in, and he was carrying his drawings. W

ill’s got a sense of style.”

Sampson’s face betrays no emotion as he talks about his three subsequent roles, but his voice quavers with anger in discussing the way Indians have traditionally been depicted in western pictures. “They’re still using ‘em as livestock,” he says, wringing out the last word as if it were a curse. “They somehow just can’t seem to bring it around to give the truth about Indians. It just galls them. They just can’t seem to let ‘em win. They call Custer’s battle a massacre. It wasn’t. It was a battle.”

But Sampson does not play “ordinary” Indians in his new roles. In “The Outlaw Josey Wales” he is Ten Bears, chief of the Comanches, “in the proud chief tradition,” as Sampson describes it. In “The White Buffalo” he is Crazy Horse, Ilia great Sioux war dor, “trying to save his dignity, trying to keep as much of his land as possible, yet knowing his people were being overwhelmed.” And in “Buffalo Bill and the Indians” he plays an even more unusual figure, William Halsey, Sitting Bull’s interpreter, “a highly educated man who tried to get every bit he could for the Indians.”

So far, it would seem, Sampson has avoided being cast as livestock. Could it be that screenwriters are showing more respect for the Indians? Or is it Sampson who invests his roles with dignity? “I’m just being myself,” he says, shrugging off the notion of his acting ability. “If I were playing a German general, I’d call it acting. But being myself—that’s not difficult.”

Someday. he thinks, he might find himself in a role that requires more than a proud bearing and an Indian identity. “A lot of Italians have played Indians. Someday I’d like to play an Italian. That would be a different kind of work,” he says, only half in jest. “Actually, the part I’ve always secretly wanted to play is Rommel the desert fox.”

As for his new films. he says that “The White Buffalo,” in particular, portrays Indians as caring individuals, rather than the stoic savages of so many other films. Some scriptwriters, he added, had even consulted him on the accuracy of Indian details.

A query about Marlon Brando and other famous white defenders of the Indian cause brings a smile to Samp son’s face. He’s heard the question before. “I never met the man,” he replies, “but the few whites I do know who are really sincere in their efforts prefer to remain anonymous. I let them stay that way.”

Asked about tile American Indian Movement, he remarks that people never hear about the good things they do, only the bad things.

Yet, beneath Sampson’s cynical exterior, there lurks a sneaky sense of humor. For example, when prodded about a fight he got into in a bat in Farmington, New Mexico, he snarls, “I eat rednecks.” Finally, he tells the story: “After a hard day’s work, I walked into this bar and ordered a cocktail. A guy next to me picks up a full quart of whisky and hits me in the face with it.”

What did Sampson do? “I laughed at him. Then he fainted — with some help from me.”

When did this happen? He looks off into the distance. “Yesterday, today, tomorrow.”

Has he ever been seriously hurt in such a brawl? “I’ve never been knocked unconscious by a white man.”

On occasion, Sampson accepts invitations from local schools and prisons to talk about Indians and paintings. He has put some of his movie earnings into Red Wind, an enterprise in California that helps alcoholics. The whole idea, he says, is “to take the money and run, pour it into my people.”

Reaching Into an attache case, he takes out some very old photographs of his grandfather, and his grandmother, who was 5 feet 10 inches. “The Creeks are a tall, proud people,” he says.

Sampson would prefer to be known as “a man who paints’—the man who did the huge mural for the International Petroleum Exposition in Tulsa several years ago and the man whose work has hung in such institutions as the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth. Chances are, though, his work is selling now (the Governor of Oregon bought two of his paintings, and a theater in Tulsa held a show during the run of “Cuckoo’s Nest’) because Will Sampson is a noteworthy actor. Doesn’t the sudden fame, money, prestigious co‐stars and directors ever intimidate him?

Sampson strolls outside, glances down at his pointed cowboy boots, looks up at the sky, shakes his head and laughs. “Mountains, thunderstorms, lightning, rain—they awe me. Man doesn’t.”

BY .This is a digitized version of an article from The Times’s print archive


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