Ben Johnson


Actor
Ben Johnson

About

Also Known As
Francis Benjamin Johnson
Birth Place
Foreacre, Oklahoma, USA
Born
June 13, 1918
Died
April 08, 1996
Cause of Death
Heart Attack

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 h...

Family & Companions

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

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.

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 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.

Filmography

 

Director (Feature Film)

The Last Ride (1989)
Director

Cast (Feature Film)

The Evening Star (1996)
Ben Johnson: Third Cowboy On the Right (1996)
Himself
Ruby Jean and Joe (1996)
Big Man
The Legend of O. B. Taggert (1995)
Bonanza: Under Attack (1995)
Angels in the Outfield (1994)
Bonanza: The Return (1993)
Radio Flyer (1992)
My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys (1991)
The Chase (1991)
Back to Back (1989)
Dark Before Dawn (1988)
Sheriff
Stranger on My Land (1988)
Cherry 2000 (1988)
Trespasses (1987)
Let's Get Harry (1986)
Wild Horses (1985)
Red Dawn (1984)
Champions (1983)
Burley Cocks
The Shadow Riders (1982)
Tex (1982)
Soggy Bottom, U.S.A. (1981)
Terror Train (1980)
Carne
The Hunter (1980)
The Swarm (1978)
Grayeagle (1978)
John Colter
The Town That Dreaded Sundown (1977)
Captain J D Morales
The Greatest (1977)
The Savage Bees (1976)
Sheriff Donald Mckew
Hustle (1975)
Breakheart Pass (1975)
Nathan Pearce
Bite the Bullet (1975)
Locusts (1974)
Amos Fletcher
The Sugarland Express (1974)
Captain Tanner
Runaway! (1973)
Holly Gibson
The Train Robbers (1973)
The Red Pony (1973)
Jess Taylor
Blood Sport (1973)
Dwayne Birdsong
Corky (1972)
Boland
The Getaway (1972)
Jack Beynon
Junior Bonner (1972)
Buck Roan
Kid Blue (1972)
something big (1971)
Jesse Bookbinder
The Last Picture Show (1971)
Sam the Lion
Chisum (1970)
James Pepper
The Undefeated (1969)
Short Grub
The Wild Bunch (1969)
Tector Gorch
Will Penny (1968)
Alex
Hang 'Em High (1968)
The Rare Breed (1966)
Jeff Harter
Major Dundee (1965)
Sergeant Chillum
Cheyenne Autumn (1964)
Trooper Plumtree
Tomboy and the Champ (1961)
Uncle Jim
One-Eyed Jacks (1961)
Bob Amory
Ten Who Dared (1960)
George Bradley
Fort Bowie (1958)
Capt. "Tomahawk" Thompson
War Drums (1957)
Luke Fargo
Slim Carter (1957)
Montana Burriss
Rebel in Town (1956)
Frank Mason
Simba (1955)
Kimani
Shane (1953)
Chris Calloway
Wild Stallion (1952)
Dan Light
Fort Defiance (1951)
Ben [Shelby]
Rio Grande (1950)
Trooper Travis Tyree
Wagon Master (1950)
Travis [Blue]
3 Godfathers (1949)
Member of posse
Mighty Joe Young (1949)
Gregg [Johnson]
She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949)
Sgt. Tyree
Badman's Territory (1946)
Deputy
Bringing Up Betty (1919)
Theodore Morton
The Oakdale Affair (1919)
Clem Burton

Film Production - Main (Feature Film)

Born Reckless (1959)
Technical Advisor
Around the World in 80 Days (1956)
Animal handler

Misc. Crew (Feature Film)

Ben Johnson: Third Cowboy On the Right (1996)
Other
Fort Apache (1948)
Stunt rider
California Gold Rush (1946)
Stunts

Cast (Special)

Legends of the American West (1992)
Ride a Northbound Horse (1987)
Will Parker

Cast (TV Mini-Series)

Dream West (1986)
Wild Times (1980)
Louis L'Amour's The Sacketts (1979)

Life Events

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

1945

Made film debut in a bit part in the Abbott and Costello comedy, "The Naughty Nineties"

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.

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

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"

1964

First film with director Sam Peckinpah, "Major Dundee"

1964

Last film with director John Ford, "Cheyenne Autumn"

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"

Photo Collections

The Last Picture Show - Lobby Cards
Here are a few Lobby Cards from The Last Picture Show (1971). Lobby Cards were 11" x 14" posters that came in sets of 8. As the name implies, they were most often displayed in movie theater lobbies, to advertise current or coming attractions.

Videos

Movie Clip

Wild Bunch, The (1969) - Shall We Gather At The River Part of Sam Peckinpah's preposterous opening, in which the prayer meeting enters the incipient shootout, Crazy Lee (Bo Hopkins) abuses hostages, and rivals Thornton (Robert Ryan) and Pike (William Holden) miss shots at each other, in The Wild Bunch, 1969.
Wild Bunch, The (1969) - He Was After The Girl We’ve just met the grossly corrupt federal general Mapache (Emilio Fernandez) who’s taken over the Mexican home village of Angel (Jaime Sanchez) where Pike, Dutch, Sykes and the gang (William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, Edmond O’Brien, Ben Johnson, Warren Oates) are hiding when Teresa (Sonia Amelio), his former fianceè appears, sparking more trouble, with Fernando Wagner as the German agent, in Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, 1969.
Last Picture Show, The (1971) - She Was Just A Girl High schooler Sonny (Timothy Bottoms), pal Billy (Sam Bottoms) in tow, with mentor Sam "The Lion" (Ben Johnson), reconciled after a disagreement, fishing outside town, in 1951 Texas, in Peter Bogdanovich's The Last Picture Show, 1971.
Last Picture Show, The (1971) - Too Rough For Me Opening scenes, Sonny (Timothy Bottons) in sleepy Anarene, TX, 1951, picks up pal Billy (brother, Sam Bottoms) and visits Sam (Ben Johnson) at the pool hall, who comments on last night's football game, in Peter Bogdanovich's The Last Picture Show, 1971.
Last Picture Show, The (1971) - Trashy Behavior Texas teen Sonny (Timothy Bottoms) and pals are ashamed, bringing mute Billy (Sam Bottoms) back to town after buying a prostitute for him, called out by pool hall and theater owner Sam (Academy Award winner Ben Johnson), in The Last Picture Show, 1971, Peter Bogdanovich directing, from Larry McMurtry's novel.
Wild Bunch, The (1969) - Plain And Fancy They After the bank job, still in military disguise, the Gorch's (Warren Oates, Ben Johnson) tangle with Pike (William Holden) and Angel (Jaime Sanchez), and bad news about the loot sends Sykes (Edmond O'Brien) into a rant, in Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch, 1969.
Getaway, The (1972) - He Didn't Make It In the third and fourth shots, the orange VW was driven by James Garner, who was visiting a friend on the shooting location in San Marcos, Texas, a stunt for which director Sam Peckinpah paid Garner $1, as Steve McQueen and Ali MacGraw flee the bank heist, dodging their own diversionary explosions, Al Lettieri their fickle partner, in The Getaway, 1972.
Wagon Master (1950) - They Was Invited Out The Mormon wagon train led by Elder Wiggs (Ward Bond) finds common cause with the members of a bereft medicine show (Joanne Dru, Alan Mowbray, Ruth Clifford), Travis (Ben Johnson) and Sister Ledyard (Jane Darwell) adding opinions, in John Ford's Wagon Master, 1950.
Getaway, The (1972) - Rudy Got Ambitious After their violent Texas bank job, McCoy (Steve McQueen) and wife Carol (Ali MacGraw) visit prison official Benyon (Ben Johnson), who got him released after she agreed to have sex with him, to split the loot, Sam Peckinpah directing, with surprises from the original Jim Thompson novel, in The Getaway, 1972.
Chisum (1970) - Open, Weary, Saddle Worn Unusual opening credits, with art by the fairly prominent Western painter Russ Vickers, lyrics by producer and screenwriter Andrew J. Fenady, voice by William Conrad, all setting up the star John Wayne, playing the minor New Mexico historical figure, surveying his domain, in Chisum, 1970.
Chisum (1970) - You Can't Buy Anything With Lead In 1870’s New Mexico, John Wayne the title character, rancher John Chisum, Ben Johnson his sidekick Pepper, confronting rustlers led by Neemo (Lloyd Battista), with support from neighbor Tunstall (Patric Knowles) and a new employee, William Bonney (Geoffrey Deuel), in Chisum, 1970.
Chisum (1970) - That Sounded Like A Threat Pretty far into the narrative here, Lincoln, New Mexico financier-villain Murphy (Forrest Tucker) has just installed a new sheriff (Christopher George) for the purpose of arresting Billy The Kid, who’s one of the good guys, allied with John Wayne, the title character based on a real person, in Chisum, 1970.

Trailer

Chisum (1970) -- (Original Trailer) The star is just about the only emphasis in the original trailer for director Andrew V. McLaglen’s 1970 John Wayne Western, Chisum.
Wild Bunch, The - (Original Trailer) A group of aging cowboys look for one last score in a corrupt border town in director Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch (1969).
Major Dundee - (Original Trailer) A Union officer (Charlton Heston) leads Confederate prisoners against Apaches in Mexico in Sam Peckinpah's Major Dundee (1965).
Breakheart Pass - (Original Trailer) A U.S. Marshall (Charles Bronson) tries to bring in a captured outlaw during a treacherous train ride through Breakheart Pass (1976).
Sugarland Express, The - (Original Trailer) Steven Spielberg's first theatrical feature stars Goldie Hawn in a rare dramatic outing, The Sugarland Express (1974).
Rare Breed, The - (Original Trailer) In this Western with breeding, James Stewart and Maureen O'Hara fight to take a rare English bull to Texas in The Rare Breed (1966).
One-Eyed Jacks - (Original Trailer) An outlaw seeks revenge on the former friend who betrayed him to the law in One Eyed Jacks (1961), directed by and starring Marlon Brando.
Mighty Joe Young - (Re-issue Trailer) Showmen try to exploit a giant ape raised by an orphan in Mighty Joe Young (1949) starring Terry Moore and Ben Johnson.
Cheyenne Autumn - (Original Trailer) A reluctant calvary Captain must track a defiant tribe of migrating Cheyennes in Cheyenne Autumn (1964).
Badman's Territory - (Re-issue Trailer) A sheriff and a newspaperwoman take on a band of outlaws in the Oklahoma panhandle in Badman's Territory (1946), starring Randolph Scott.
Last Picture Show, The - (Original Trailer) A group of new stars and some classic character actors appear in Peter Bogdanovich's movie of Larry McMurtry's The Last Picture Show (1971).
She Wore a Yellow Ribbon - (Original Trailer) An aging Cavalry officer (John Wayne) tries to pervent an Indian war in the last days before his retirement in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949).

Family

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

Companions

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

Bibliography

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.