Ben Johnson (actor)

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Ben Johnson
Ben Johnson The Wild Bunch publicity photo.JPG
Johnson in 1969
Born(1918-06-13)June 13, 1918
DiedApril 8, 1996(1996-04-08) (aged 77)
OccupationActor, stuntman, rodeo cowboy
Years active1939–1996
Spouse(s)Carol Elaine Jones (1941–1994; her death)

Benjamin "Son" Johnson Jr. (June 13, 1918 – April 8, 1996) was an American film and television actor, stuntman, and world champion rodeo cowboy. Tall and laconic, Johnson brought authenticity to many roles in Westerns with his expert horsemanship.


The son of a rancher, Johnson arrived in Hollywood to deliver a consignment of horses for a film. He did stunt-double work for several years before breaking into acting with the help of John Ford. An elegiac portrayal of a former cowboy theater owner in the 1950s coming-of-age drama The Last Picture Show won Johnson the 1971 Academy Award, BAFTA Award, and Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actor.

Johnson also operated a horse-breeding ranch throughout his career. Although he said he had succeeded by sticking to what he knew, shrewd real estate investments made Johnson worth an estimated $100 million by his later years. [1]

Early life

Johnson was born in Foraker, Oklahoma, on the Osage Indian Reservation, of Irish and Cherokee ancestry, [2] [3] the son of Ollie Susan Johnson (née Workmon; 1899–2000) and Ben Johnson, Sr. (1896–1952). [4] His father was a rancher and rodeo champion in Osage County.

Rodeo career

Johnson was drawn to the rodeos and horse breeding of his early years. In 1953, he took a break from well-paid film work to compete in the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA) becoming Team Roping World Champion, although he only broke even financially that year. Johnson was inducted into the ProRodeo Hall of Fame in 1973. [5] According to his ProRodeo Hall of Fame entry, he said, "I've won a rodeo world championship, and I'm prouder of that than anything else I've ever done." [5]

Film career

Johnson's film career began with the Howard Hughes film The Outlaw . Before filming began, Hughes bought some horses at the Chapman-Barnard ranch, the Oklahoma ranch where Johnson's father was foreman, and hired Johnson to get the horses to northern Arizona (for The Outlaw's location shooting), and then to take them on to Hollywood.[ citation needed ]

Johnson liked to say later that he got to Hollywood in a carload of horses. [6] With his experience wrangling for Hughes during The Outlaw's location shooting, once in Hollywood, he did stunt work for the 1939 movie The Fighting Gringo, and throughout the 1940s, he found work wrangling horses and doing stunt work involving horses.[ citation needed ]

His work as a stuntman caught the eye of director John Ford. Ford hired Johnson for stunt work in the 1948 film Fort Apache, and as the riding double for Henry Fonda. [3] During shooting, the horses pulling a wagon with three men in it stampeded. Johnson, who "happened to be settin' on a horse", stopped the runaway wagon and saved the men. When Ford promised that he would be rewarded, Johnson hoped it would be with another doubling job, or maybe a small speaking role. [7] Instead he received a seven-year acting contract from Ford. [8] Ford called Johnson into his office, handed him an envelope with a contract in it. Johnson started reading it and when he got to the fifth line and it said "$5,000 a week," he stopped reading, grabbed a pen, and signed it, and gave it back to Ford. [7]

Johnson in Wagon Master (1950) WagonMaster-JohnsonCareyPublicity (cropped).jpg
Johnson in Wagon Master (1950)

His first credited role was in Ford's 3 Godfathers ; the film is notable for the riding skills demonstrated by both Johnson and star Pedro Armendáriz. He later said the film was the most physically challenging of his career. Ford then suggested a starring role for him in the 1949 film Mighty Joe Young ; he played "Gregg" opposite Terry Moore. Ford cast him in two of the three films that have come to be known as Ford's cavalry trilogy, all starring John Wayne: She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), and Rio Grande (1950); both roles showcased Johnson's riding ability. Ford also cast Johnson as the lead in Wagon Master (1950), one of Ford's favorites.

In real life, Johnson did not show any bad temper; his demeanor in tense situations was calm but firm. Although known for avoiding drama, he had definite boundaries; during the making of Rio Grande he defied Ford, who was notorious for browbeating his actors, and reportedly told him to go to hell. Johnson thought the incident had been forgotten, but Ford did not use him in a film for over a decade. Johnson also appeared in four films of Sam Peckinpah and had a good relationship with the wayward director. Peckinpah appreciated Johnson's authenticity and lack of acting airs. [1]

Johnson played in supporting roles in Shane (1953), where he appeared as Chris Calloway, a "bad guy who makes good" after being beaten senseless by Alan Ladd, and One-Eyed Jacks (1961) starring Marlon Brando. In 1964, he worked with Ford again in Cheyenne Autumn . He also appeared in four Peckinpah-directed films: Major Dundee (1965, with Charlton Heston), The Wild Bunch (1969, with William Holden and Robert Ryan), and two back-to-back Steve McQueen films, The Getaway and the rodeo film Junior Bonner (both 1972). In 1973, he co-starred as Melvin Purvis in John Milius' Dillinger with Warren Oates; he also appeared in Milius' 1984 film Red Dawn . In 1975, he played the character Mister in Bite the Bullet, starring Gene Hackman and James Coburn. He also appeared with Charles Bronson in 1975's Breakheart Pass. In 1980, he was cast as Sheriff Isum Gorch in Soggy Bottom U.S.A.

Johnson played Bartlett in the 1962–63 season of Have Gun Will Travel , which featured a short scene of his riding skills. In 1963 Johnson appeared as Spinner on the TV western The Virginian in the episode titled Duel at Shiloh." [ citation needed ] In the 1966–67 television season, Johnson appeared as the character Sleeve in all 26 episodes of the ABC family Western The Monroes with co-stars Michael Anderson, Jr. and Barbara Hershey. [9]

He teamed up with John Wayne again, and director Andrew V. McLaglen, in two films, appearing with Rock Hudson in The Undefeated (1969) and in a fairly prominent role in Chisum (1970). The apex of Johnson's career was reached in 1971, with Johnson winning an Academy Award for his performance as Sam the Lion in The Last Picture Show , directed by Peter Bogdanovich.

On the set of The Train Robbers , in June 1972, he told Nancy Anderson of Copley News Service that winning the Oscar for The Last Picture Show was not going to change him and he would not raise his salary request to studios because of it. He continued, "I grew up on a ranch and I know livestock, so I like working in Westerns. All my life I've been afraid of failure. To avoid it, I've stuck with doing things I know how to do, and it's made me a good living". [10]

He played Cap Roundtree in the 1979 miniseries The Sacketts . He played Sam Bellows in the 1980 film Ruckus . He co-starred in the 1994 version of Angels in the Outfield .

He continued ranching during the entire time, operating a horse-breeding ranch in Sylmar, California. [3] In addition, he sponsored the Ben Johnson Pro Celebrity Team Roping and Penning competition, held in Oklahoma City and in Katy, Texas the proceeds of which are donated to both the Children's Medical Research Inc. and the Children's Hospital of Oklahoma.[ citation needed ]

Personal life

Johnson's 1941 marriage to Carol Elaine Jones lasted until her death on March 27, 1994. They had no children. She was the daughter of noted Hollywood horse wrangler Clarence "Fat" Jones. [1] In 2003, he was inducted into the Texas Trail of Fame. [11] Johnson's mother Ollie died a few years after her son, on October 16, 2000, aged 101. [12]

Death and legacy

Johnson continued to work almost steadily until his death from a heart attack at the age of 77. On April 8, 1996, the veteran actor collapsed while visiting his then 96-year-old mother Ollie at Leisure World in Mesa, Arizona, the suburban Phoenix retirement community where they both lived. [13] Johnson's body was later transported from Arizona to Pawhuska, Oklahoma, for burial at the Pawhuska City Cemetery. [14]

For his contribution to the motion picture industry, Johnson has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 7083 Hollywood Boulevard. In 1982, he was inducted into the Western Performers Hall of Fame at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City. In 1996, Tom Thurman made a documentary film about Johnson's life, titled Ben Johnson: Third Cowboy on the Right, written by Thurman and Tom Marksbury. [2]

The Ben Johnson Cowboy Museum was opened in honor of Ben Johnson in his hometown of Pawhuska, OK in June 2019. The museum showcases the life and career of Ben Johnson, as well as his father, Ben Johnson, Sr., who was also a world champion cowboy. In addition to the Ben Johnsons, the museum also features other world champion cowboys and cowgirls, famous ranches (like the one Ben grew up on), and cowboy artists and craftsmen, all from the area where Ben grew up. [15]

The Ben Johnson Memorial Steer Roping and the International Roundup Cavalcade, the world's largest amateur rodeo, are held annually in Pawhuska, Oklahoma. [16]

A one-and-a-quarter-size bronze sculpture by John D. Free of Ben Johnson riding a horse and roping a steer was commissioned and produced in Pawhuska, Oklahoma. [17]


Film (actor and stuntman)

1939 The Fighting Gringo Mexican BarflyUncredited
1943 The Outlaw DeputyUncredited
1943Bordertown Gun FightersMessengerUncredited
1944The Pinto BanditRace ContestantUncredited
1944 Tall in the Saddle Townsman / StuntmanUncredited
1944 Nevada Saloon Patron / Stunt Double: Robert Mitchum Uncredited
1945Corpus Christi Bandits2nd Stage DriverUncredited
1945 The Naughty Nineties Coach DriverUncredited
1946 Badman's Territory Deputy MarshalUncredited
1947 Wyoming CowhandUncredited
1947 Angel and the Badman StuntmanUncredited
1948The Gallant LegionTexas RangerUncredited
1948 Fort Apache Stunt Double: Henry Fonda Uncredited
1948 3 Godfathers Posse Man #1 / StuntmanJohnson was also a stuntman but wasn't credited for it.
1948 Red River StuntmanUncredited
1949 She Wore a Yellow Ribbon Sgt. Tyree
1949 Mighty Joe Young Gregg
1950 Wagon Master Travis Blue
1950 Rio Grande Trooper Travis Tyree
1951 Fort Defiance Ben Shelby
1952 Wild Stallion Dan Light
1953 Shane Chris Calloway
1955 Oklahoma! Wrangler / StuntmanUncredited
1956 Rebel in Town Frank Mason
1957 War Drums Luke Fargo
1957 Slim Carter Montana Burriss
1958 Fort Bowie Capt. Thomas Thompson
1960 Ten Who Dared George Bradley
1961 One-Eyed Jacks Bob Amory
1961 Tomboy and the Champ Jim Wilkins
1964 Cheyenne Autumn Trooper PlumtreeUncredited
1965 Major Dundee Sergeant Chillum
1966 The Rare Breed Jeff Harter
1968 Will Penny Alex
1968 Hang 'Em High Marshal Dave Bliss
1969 The Wild Bunch Tector Gorch
1969 The Undefeated Short Grub
1970 Chisum James Pepper
1971 The Last Picture Show Sam the Lion Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor
BAFTA Award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role
Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actor – Motion Picture
National Board of Review Award for Best Supporting Actor
New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Supporting Actor
1971 Something Big Jesse Bookbinder
1972 Corky Boland
1972 Junior Bonner Buck Roan
1972 The Getaway Jack Beynon
1973 The Train Robbers Jesse
1973The Wayne TrainHimself / JesseDocumentary short
1973 The Red Pony Jess TaylorTelevision movie
1973 Kid Blue Sheriff 'Mean John' Simpson
1973 Dillinger Melvin Purvis
1973 Runaway! Holly GibsonTelevision movie
1973Blood SportDwayne BirdsongTelevision movie
1974 The Sugarland Express Captain Tanner
1974LocustsAmos FletcherTelevision movie
1975 Bite the Bullet Mister Bronze Wrangler for Theatrical Motion Picture (shared with cast & crew)
1975 Breakheart Pass Marshal Pearce
1975 Hustle Marty Hollinger
1976The Savage BeesSheriff Donald McKewTelevision movie
1976 The Town That Dreaded Sundown Captain J.D. Morales
1977 The Greatest Hollis
1977 Grayeagle John Colter
1978 The Swarm Felix Austin
1979 The Sacketts Cap RountreeTelevision movie
1980 The Hunter Sheriff Strong
1980 Ruckus Sam Bellows
1980 Terror Train Carne
1981Soggy Bottom U.S.A.Sheriff Isum Gorch
1982 Tex Cole Collins
1982 The Shadow Riders Uncle 'Black Jack' TravenTelevision movie
1983 Champions Burly Cocks
1984 Red Dawn Mr. Jack Mason
1985 Wild Horses Bill WardTelevision movie
1986 Let's Get Harry Harry Burck Sr.
1986TrespassesAugust Klein
1987 Cherry 2000 Six-Fingered Jake
1988Stranger on my LandVern WhitmanTelevision movie
1988Dark Before DawnThe Sheriff
1989The Last RideUnnamed cowboyShort film
1989Back to BackEli Hix
1989Hollywood on HorsesHimself
1991 The Chase LaurientiTelevision movie
1991 My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys Jesse Dalton
1991Thank Ya, Thank Ya KindlyHimselfTV movie documentary
1992 Radio Flyer Geronimo Bill
1992The Making of Rio GrandeHimself / Trooper Travis Tyree
1993John FordHimselfTV movie documentary
1994100 Years of the Hollywood WesternHimselfTV movie documentary
1994 Angels in the Outfield Hank Murphy
1994Outlaws: The Legend of O.B. TaggartJack Parrish
1993 Bonanza: The Return Bronc EvansTelevision movie
1995 Bonanza: Under Attack Bronc EvansTelevision movie
1996Ruby Jean and JoeBig ManWith Tom Selleck
1996Ben Johnson: Third Cowboy on the RightHimselfDocumentary
1996 The Evening Star Doctor Arthur CottonReleased posthumously (final film role)


1956 Cavalcade of America Cal BennettOnce a Hero (Season 5, Episode 12)
1958 The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet Tex BartonTop Gun (Season 6, Episode 26)
1958 Navy Log Border Patrol OfficerFlorida Weekend (Season 3, Episode 28)
1958 The Restless Gun Sheriff Tim MalachyNo Way to Kill (Season 2, Episode 9)
1958 Alfred Hitchcock Presents Jeff, The SheriffAnd the Desert Shall Blossom (Season 4, Episode 11)
1958 Wagon Train Wagon Driverepisode: Bije Wilcox Story
1959 Border Patrol Hank ColmanEverglades Story (Season 1, Episode 1)
1960—1961 Laramie VariousSeasons 1—2; 3 episodes
1961—1962 Route 66 VariousSeasons 1—2; 2 episodes
1960—1962 Have Gun – Will Travel VariousSeasons 4—6; 3 episodes
1962 Stoney Burke Rex DonallyPoint of Honor (Season 1, Episode 4)
1962 Bonanza Deputy Sheriff Stan MaceEpisode: "The Gamble"
1964 Perry Mason Kelly – Mine ForemanThe Case of the Reckless Hound (Season 8, Episode 10)
1965 Bob Hope Presents the Chrysler Theatre Burt WadeMarch from Camp Tyler (Season 3, Episode 3)
1966 Branded Bill LatigoMcCord's Way (Season 2, Episode 20)
1966 ABC Stage 67 Sheriff BarbeeNoon Wine (Season 1, Episode 9)
1966—1967 The Monroes SleeveRecurring role; 14 episodes
1963—1968 The Virginian VariousSeasons 1—7; 4 episodes
1969 Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color HimselfRide a Northbound Horse: Part 1 and 2 (Season 15, Episodes 21 & 22)
1969 Bonanza Sgt. Samuel BellisEpisode: "The Deserter"
1971 Bonanza Kelly JamesEpisode: "Top Hand"
1963—1971 Gunsmoke Ben Crown/Vern Morland/HannonSeasons 8—17; episodes: Quint-Cident / Quaker Girl /Drago
1980Wild TimesDoc BogardusTelevision miniseries; 2 episodes
1984 Hollywood Greats Himselfepisode: John Wayne
1986 Dream West Jim Bridger Television miniseries

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Further reading