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Also Known As: Francis Benjamin Johnson Died: April 8, 1996
Born: June 13, 1918 Cause of Death: heart attack
Birth Place: Foreacre, Oklahoma, USA Profession: actor, stuntman, riding double, rodeo performer, rancher

Biography CLOSE THE FULL BIOGRAPHY

"Having Ben Johnson was having the real thing," Peter Bogdanovich once said of the actor who won a Supporting Actor Oscar for his role as Sam 'the Lion' in the director's memorable "The Last Picture Show" (1971). Indeed, for half a century Johnson was the "real thing" as far as Hollywood was concerned, a rancher and rodeo cowboy who accidentally drifted into acting and proved himself a highly capable actor of warmth and grit, believably embodying a vision of the American West.In 1941, Johnson was hired to take a herd of horses on location to where Howard Hawks was shooting "The Outlaw" for eccentric billionaire and sometime movie producer Howard Hughes. The delivery man ended up joining the crew, wrangling and performing stunts when needed. Johnson worked on and off in a similar capacity for most of the decade before another movie great, director John Ford, noticed the young cowboy when he saved several people involved in an accident on the set of Ford's "Fort Apache" (1948). Ford put Johnson under contract, and for the next several years Johnson acted in a succession of Ford Westerns from "Three Godfathers" (1948) to "Rio Grande" (1950). His most prominent part at the time was in the title role of...

"Having Ben Johnson was having the real thing," Peter Bogdanovich once said of the actor who won a Supporting Actor Oscar for his role as Sam 'the Lion' in the director's memorable "The Last Picture Show" (1971). Indeed, for half a century Johnson was the "real thing" as far as Hollywood was concerned, a rancher and rodeo cowboy who accidentally drifted into acting and proved himself a highly capable actor of warmth and grit, believably embodying a vision of the American West.

In 1941, Johnson was hired to take a herd of horses on location to where Howard Hawks was shooting "The Outlaw" for eccentric billionaire and sometime movie producer Howard Hughes. The delivery man ended up joining the crew, wrangling and performing stunts when needed. Johnson worked on and off in a similar capacity for most of the decade before another movie great, director John Ford, noticed the young cowboy when he saved several people involved in an accident on the set of Ford's "Fort Apache" (1948). Ford put Johnson under contract, and for the next several years Johnson acted in a succession of Ford Westerns from "Three Godfathers" (1948) to "Rio Grande" (1950). His most prominent part at the time was in the title role of Ford's quiet and neglected masterwork, "Wagonmaster" (1950). He also played the romantic lead in the Ford-produced "Mighty Joe Young" (1949), the cult film about a sympathetic "King Kong"-like gorilla.

Solidly built and rather resembling the singing cowboy great Roy Rogers, Johnson was not the most versatile of actors, but he brought a relaxed Midwestern twang and low-key authority to dozens of films and TV shows over the next few decades. He never became a major star, but then he never aspired to be one, devoting as much energy to ranching as to acting and content to be part of a realistic filmic landscape. Some of his parts have been small, relying more on his remarkable presence than anything else, but leading roles cropped up in "Fort Bowie" (1958) and "Tomboy and the Champ" (1961), and he could still command top billing as late as "The Town That Dreaded Sundown" and "Grayeagle" (both 1977). Johnson supported, frequently with prominent billing, every tough star from John Wayne (in six films) to Alan Ladd ("Shane" 1953), Marlon Brando ("One-Eyed Jacks" 1961), Charlton Heston ("Major Dundee" 1965), Clint Eastwood ("Hang 'Em High" 1968), Charles Bronson ("Breakheart Pass" 1975), and Steve McQueen ("Junior Bonner" 1972). His most frequent screen pal, though, was another supporting icon of Westerns, the curly-haired and boyish Harry Carey Jr, with whom he made eight joint appearances.

As Johnson's presence became increasingly important for its iconic value in the late 1960s, he formed productive working relationships with Western specialists Sam Peckinpah and Andrew V McLaglen. A younger generation of directors, raised on classical Hollywood, fell all over themselves for his services in the 70s and 80s; examples here include John Milius ("Red Dawn" 1984), Richard Donner ("Radio Flyer" 1992), and Steven Spielberg, who made splendid use of Johnson's aging features in "The Sugarland Express" (1974). Johnson brought credibility to the Gene Autry-like supporting role of an elderly cowboy actor turned major league baseball team owner in the mild Disney remake, "Angels in the Outfield" (1994). His final screen appearances were in support of Tom Selleck in the Showtime TV-movie "Ruby Jean and Joe" (1996) and a featured role in Robert Harling's "Evening Star" (1996). Johnson's presence in films was as substantial as a worn leather saddle, and as elusive as the frontier spirit itself.

VIEW THE FULL BIOGRAPHY

Filmographyclose complete filmography

DIRECTOR:

1.
  Last Ride, The (1989) Director

CAST: (feature film)

1.
 Ruby Jean and Joe (1996) Big Man
3.
 Evening Star, The (1996) Arthur Cotton
4.
 Bonanza: Under Attack (1995) Bronc Evans
6.
 Angels in the Outfield (1994) Hank Murphy
7.
 Bonanza: The Return (1993) Bronc Evans
8.
 Radio Flyer (1992) Geronimo Bill
9.
 My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys (1991) Jessie Dalton
10.
 Chase, The (1991) John Laurienti
VIEW THE FULL FILMOGRAPHY

Milestones close milestones

:
Went to schools in Ramona and Bartlesville, OK
:
Worked as a rancher and performed in rodeos
1941:
Was hired to deliver a herd of horses to the location shooting of the Western feature, "The Outlaw" (released 1943), at the time being directed by Howard Hawks but later taken over by producer Howard Hughes; ended up working as a stuntman and a wrangler
:
Occasionally did other work as a stuntman, wrangler and riding double for actors including James Stewart and Joel McCrea during the 1940s
1945:
Made film debut in a bit part in the Abbott and Costello comedy, "The Naughty Nineties"
1948:
Reputedly saved the lives of several crew members during a wagon accident while working on "Fort Apache"; came to the attention of John Ford, who placed him under personal contract
1948:
Played first major acting role in "Three Godfathers", directed by Ford; film also marked first of six acting appearances with John Wayne and the first of eight with Harry Carey, Jr.
1949:
First leading role in a feature, "Mighty Joe Young"
1952:
Last leading role for a number of years, "Wild Stallion"
1953:
Last film for three years, "Shane"; concentrated for a time on his rodeo career; became RCA world champion team roper
1956:
Returned to features in "Rebel in Town"
:
Played leads again in "Fort Bowie" (1958) and "Tomboy and the Champ" (1961)
1964:
Last film with director John Ford, "Cheyenne Autumn"
1964:
First film with director Sam Peckinpah, "Major Dundee"
1965:
First film with director Andrew V. McLaglen, "The Rare Breed"
1966:
Played Sleeve on the ABC Western drama series, "The Monroes"
1973:
Made TV-movie debut in an adaptation of John Steinbeck's novella, "The Red Pony"
1977:
Received top billing in both "The Town That Dreaded Sundown" and "Grayeagle"
1979:
First TV miniseries, "The Sacketts"
1989:
Played a leading role in a short film about an aging cowboy, "The Last Ride"
1992:
Appeared on the Arts & Entertainment network's western documentary miniseries, "Legends of the American West"
1993:
Received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame
1996:
Final TV-movie, Showtime's "Ruby Jean and Joe"
1996:
Final screen appearance, "Evening Star"
VIEW ALL MILESTONES

Notes

Johnson was an active supporter of children's charities. The Ben Johnson Pro-Celebrity Rodeo raises money for children's organizations in eight cities. He also appeared regularly at various youth benefits.

Companions close complete companion listing

wife:
Carol Elaine Johnson. Married from August 31, 1941 until her death in 1994.

Family close complete family listing

father:
Benjamin John Johnson. Rodeo cowboy. Was at one time the world champion rodeo steer roper; an annual rodeo is held in Pawhuska, Oklahoma in his memory.
mother:
Ollie Susan Johnson. Survived him.

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