Ben Johnson: If Mr. Ford says I’m an actor, I reckon I am but Lord help me if they ever ask me to do anything except be myself


Besides his Academy Award for best supporting actor, Mr. Johnson won a New York Film Critics award for his performance in “The Last Picture Show,” adapted from the Larry McMurtry novel about life in a shabby Texas town.

Tall and bashful, Mr. Johnson was a double and stunt man for actors like John Wayne and Henry Fonda when the director John Ford plucked him from obscurity and cast him in his westerns “Three Godfathers” and “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon” in 1949 and “Rio Grande” and “Wagonmaster” in 1950.

Ford called Mr. Johnson “the most photogenic, natural actor in town,” as well as “the world’s greatest horseman and the best thing to come out of Oklahoma since Will Rogers.”

Mr. Johnson drawled: “If Mr. Ford says I’m an actor, I reckon I am. But Lord help me if they ever ask me to do anything except be myself.”

Among Mr. Johnson’s films were “Mighty Joe Young (1949), “Shane” (1953), “One-Eyed Jacks” (1961), “Major Dundee” (1965), “Will Penny” (1968), “The Wild Bunch” (1969), “The Getaway” (1972), “The Sugarland Express” (1974), “Tex” (1982), “Red Dawn” (1984), “Radio Flyer” (1992) and “Angels in the Outfield” (1994).

He also appeared in television-film westerns like “Shadow Riders” in 1982.

In June 1994, 50 years after he arrived in Hollywood as a horse wrangler, Mr. Johnson received a star on the Walk of Fame.

“I don’t know why in the hell you all waited so long to give me the star,” he said. “You waited till I got so old I couldn’t hardly enjoy it.”

Mr. Johnson was born on June 13, 1920, in Pawhuska, Okla., and in 1940, he brought a palomino from his hometown to ride in a horse show in Oklahoma City. A scout for the Howard Hughes movie “The Outlaw,” filming nearby, spotted the horse and rented it for the movie. Mr. Johnson went along as its groom, and when the company returned to Hollywood, Mr. Johnson went along as nursemaid for 18 other horses rented for the film.

When Mr. Johnson demonstrated some of his riding prowess (“I showed off for the folks a bit,” he confessed), one of the onlookers was a former Montana cowhand named Gary Cooper.

He and several other actors signed Mr. Johnson’s application for membership in the Screen Actors Guild. Mr. Johnson earned as much as $1,000 a fall by risking his neck as a stunt double, and when he did a spectacular tumble for Fonda in “Fort Apache” and then caught a runaway team of horses dragging two other stunt men, Mr. Johnson attracted Ford’s notice.

The director asked if Mr. Johnson could act.

“Don’t know, sir,” Mr. Johnson replied. “Ain’t never tried.”

“Might give you the chance,” Ford said.

And he did.


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