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Jay Silverheels As Tonto: The TV Indian Who Really Was An Indian (And A Hero)

Entertainment | May 26, 2021

The Lone Ranger and Tonto, played by Clayton Moore and Jay Silverheels. Source: Getty Images / Bettmann / Contributor

Actor Jay Silverheels and Tonto, the character he played on The Lone Ranger from 1949-57, were out-of-the-ordinary. Silverheels was an actual, born-on-the-rez American Indian who was playing a Native on TV. The fictional Tonto had lines and thoughts; he and the Lone Ranger worked as a team. These were signs of progress in an industry that had treated Native actors poorly (inspiring Marlon Brando's Oscar no-show), often denying them the significant roles, and had depicted them on screen as little more than savages. As Tonto, the perfectly articulate Silverheels had to speak with the stereotypical movie-Indian diction -- Tonto and the Ranger may have behaved as partners on their adventures, but they weren't equals. Understandably, American Indians have wrestled with Tonto's legacy, and that of Jay Silverheels, ever since. 

Jay Silverheels Came From The Six Nations Reservation

Source: (IMDb).

Many of the Native Americans in the early Westerns were real Navajos; there was a colony living traditionally in Malibu on studio pay, and they were brought in as background actors. Despite these appearances in the early Westerns, Native American actors did not speak; the real acting roles went to people like Burt Lancaster and Charles Bronson.

Jay Silverheels, who broke whose real name was Harry J. Smith and whose heritage was Mohawk-Seneca, was born on May 26, 1912 at Six Nations of the Grand River, Ontario. His father, a decorated World War I veteran, farmed more than 100 acres on the reserve, and Silverheels was quite adept with horses.

Lacrosse Created A Path To Acting

Source: (Glamourpath.com).

In 1931, when the owners of the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Montreal Canadiens started using their hockey arenas to host a professional lacrosse league during the summer, Silverheels became a pro lacrosse player with Toronto Tecumseh. In 1932, with a barnstorming team, he went to Los Angeles to demonstrate the sport at the 1932 Olympics. Several stories exist about how he got his nickname, but according to one of them, according to Buffalo goalie Judy “Punch” Garlow, Silverheels got the last name he would use on the screen after he got a new pair of white lacrosse shoes, and ran so fast, that the only thing visible was the flash of white at his heels. Because of his heritage, they started calling him Silverheels. He tried boxing for a short time and worked briefly as a model before heading back to L.A.; at the time, he was one of the highest-paid, highest-scoring professional lacrosse players at the time. When actor-comedian Joe E. Brown saw Silverheels at a lacrosse game, he suggested that with Silverheels good looks and athleticism, he might have a future in acting.

The Role That Got Him Noticed

Source: (Pinterest).

Throughout the 1940s, Silverheels found work as a stuntman and appeared uncredited in a number of films. In 1948, he was cast as Tom Osceola, in Key Largo, and the role as one of the two fugitive Indian brothers got him noticed, although the role was uncredited. 

Playing Tonto

Source: (ABC/Wikipedia).

Then, in 1949, Silverheels was cast in the role of Tonto in The Lone Ranger. The show ran for 200 episodes, lasting until 1957, and was ABC’s first hit show. Because it was a low-budget show, he worked very hard for little money. He also continued to do his own stunt work on the show, but in 1955, after a particularly difficult stunt sequence, he had a heart attack and was out for a number of episodes. He did return to the show, but it was canceled shortly after. Silverheels also starred as Tonto in the film sequels: The Lone Ranger (1956) and The Lone Ranger and the Lost City of Gold (1958). Although the role may have been the one he was best known for, he was bothered by the pidgin English his character spoke, as well as Tonto’s subservience to the Lone Ranger. In 1957, he returned to Six Nations for an official visit, and said that “Tonto is stupid” when he was asked about the character. He knew the role was a “clumsy portrayal” of his people, but he was not portrayed as a villain, which was a step in the right direction. One of his strengths as an actor was his ability to play the role of Tonto with such dignity.

Life After 'The Lone Ranger'

In In Pursuit of Treasure in 1972. Source: (IMDb).

After the show ended, he and Clayton Moore toured as their characters. Silverheels also continued to appear in western shows throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s, including Gunslinger and Rawhide, and he appeared on The Brady Bunch. He appeared on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, where he played the part of Tonto in a sketch; he recognized he had been typecast and he made fun of it throughout his career. In his quest to help Native actors in Hollywood, he founded the Indian Actor’s Workshop in Los Angeles during the 1960s. In 1974, he began harness racing and won a race at the Meadows and. In 1975, after being offered decent roles, he underwent an angiogram when he went to the doctor to ensure he was fit and had a massive stroke which left him partially paralyzed and barely able to speak.

Jay Silverheels' Legacy

Native actor Michael Horse, who was one of Silverheels' students. Source: (IMDb).

In 1979, he showed up for the unveiling of his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame; he was the first Native to have a star. Although he struggled to recover from his stroke for five years, on March 5, 1970, he died. He helped to pave the way for Native actors, including Russell Means, Will Sampson, who played Chief in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and Michael Horse, who was one of his students. 

Tags: Clayton Moore | Jay Silverheels | The Lone Ranger | TV In The 1950s

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Cyn Felthousen-Post

Writer

Cyn loves history, music, Irish dancing, college football and nature. Social media is also her thing, keeping up with trends and celebrities with positive news. She can be found outside walking or hiking with her son when she's not working. Carpe diem is her fave quote, get out there and seize the day!