Tadpole's Outdoor Blog

December 8, 2013

“THE UNMASKED MAN” BY: NEAL MURPHY

Filed under: Neal Murphy — Freddie Keel @ 6:32 am

 

One of my very favorite programs when I was just a kid was “The Lone Ranger”.  In the early 1950s I listened to the former Texas Ranger fight the evil men of the western frontier every week.  In 1952 my dad purchased a new Bendix television set from Tom Saunders and I was able to watch Clayton Moore riding his white stallion, Silver, yelling “Hi Yo Silver – Away” and gallop into the sunset.  He never shot to kill the evil doers, but only to disarm them as painlessly as possible. To add a bit of mystery to the program, the Lone Ranger always wore a black mask, and left a silver bullet at the scene of the solved crime.  Someone would invariably ask no one in particular the question, “Who was that masked man?”

lone_ranger

I remember the Lone Ranger’s side-kick, his faithful friend and fellow crime fighter, Tonto.  He played an American Indian who called the ranger “Ke-mo-sah-bee”, which means “trusted friend”.  Tonto did not wear a mask, and little is known of the actor who played this part for many years.  His stage name was Jay Silverheels.  He was born Harold J. Smith on May 26, 1912 in Ontario, Canada.  He was born on the Six Nations of the Grand River First Nation near Brantford, Ontario, one of eleven children.  His father, Major George Smith, was a Canadian Mohawk tribal chief and military officer.

tonto

Silverheels excelled in athletics and lacrosse before leaving home to travel around North America.  He lived in Buffalo, New York, and in 1938 placed second in the middleweight class of the Golden Gloves tournament.

While playing in Los Angeles on a touring box lacrosse team in 1937, he impressed the comedian Joe E. Brown with his athleticism.  Brown encouraged Silverheels to do a screen test, which led to an acting career.  He then began working in motion pictures as an extra and stunt man.  Beginning in late 1940, he played in several major films under the names Harold Smith and Harry Smith.

Silverheels achieved his greatest fame as the Long Ranger’s friend, Tonto. Being irreplaceable, he also appeared in the films, The Lone Ranger (1956) and The Lone Ranger and the Lost City of Gold (1958).  Silverheels’ movie name Tonto means “wild one”.  He rode a horse named “Scout” along side the Lone Ranger.

When the Lone Ranger television series ended in 1955, Silverheels found himself firmly typecast as an American Indian.  In 1960 he portrayed an Indian fireman trying to extinguish a forest fire in an episode of the series Rescue 8.  Eventually, he had to go to work as a salesman to supplement his acting income.

In the ensuing years he had a few bit parts in low budget movies, usually playing an Indian.  Silverheels spoofed his Tonto character in later years.  He was and educated man, but his part required him to speak using only a few halting phrases which he disliked.

Silverheels raised, bred, and raced horses in his spare time. Once when asked about possibly running Tonto’s famous paint horse, Scout, in a race, Jay laughed off the idea –   “Heck, I can outrun Scout!”  Married in 1945, Silverheels was the father of three girls and one boy.  He died in 1980 from complications of a stroke at the age of 67 in Calabasas, California.  He was cremated at Chapel of the Pines Crematory and his ashes returned to the Six Nations Indian Reserve.

As the first true American Indian actor to gain such fame, Silverheels was inducted into the Hall of Great Western Performers at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City in 1993.  He was named to the Western New York Entertainment Hall of Fame, and his portrait hangs in Buffalo, New York’s Shea’s Buffalo Theatre.  He has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.  In 1997 Silverheels was inducted, under the name Harry “Tonto” Smith, into the Canadian Lacrosse Hall of fame in the Veteran Player category in recognition of his lacrosse career during the 1930s.

As it turns out, the man without the mask achieved as much or more fame during his life than did the Lone Ranger himself.  Such is life.

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