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Starring Ben Johnson
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Ben Johnson

Starring Ben Johnson - 3/27


"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, Wagon Master (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.

(Biography courtesy of TCMDb).
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