Jay Silverheels, Kemo Sabe by Dawn Moore
Much has been written about Tonto’s role in one of the most famous partnerships in not only the Western genre but also Hollywood history. Most revolves around resentment. Resentment over the portrayal of Native Americans as illiterate patsies of —
—the white cowboy. Johnny Depp’s quote to Entertainment Weekly, “Why is the f–ing Lone Ranger telling Tonto what to do?” is merely the latest.
Something that Mary Silverheels, a woman of quiet dignity, is perfectly aware. The immaculately cared for and manicured home she and Jay purchased in 1964 is devoid of any displayed memorabilia from Jay’s prolific career. I mention this and she giggles saying she doesn’t like to dust. Well, she is 87 after all. There are two images of her late husband, one a pencil rendering by a friend and the other an arresting photograph from one of his films. I ask how Jay felt about the role with which he became indelibly linked.
“Jay knew this was a character and changed what he could and didn’t dwell on what he couldn’t.” Her voice so soft I had to lean in to hear. “No, he didn’t like the dialogue, but he overcame that with his acting.” Indeed he did. That and more.
Jay Silverheels, strikingly handsome with an athlete’s virile physique, had a long career as an actor before he accepted the role of Tonto in 1949. He was far more established than my father Clayton Moore (by then, 40 films including Key Largo and The Sea Hawk) and blessed with a humor and self-confidence gleaned in part, no doubt, from being raised the son of a respected Mohawk elder who became the most decorated Native Canadian soldier in WWI. His championship-winning athletic skills in boxing, lacrosse and wrestling added to his strongly chiseled features and commanding presence, made Hollywood take notice. But, it was his innate dignity and pride in his heritage that transcended demeaning roles or inane dialogue.
My father recounted a day when all was not right on the set. “We were working out in Chatsworth where it was terribly hot; this was early on in the show. My costume was very heavy weight wool and Jay’s of course, was suede, so things were pretty uncomfortable. Our dressing room was a small, cramped trailer that we both shared. It was pretty bad, but I didn’t want to complain so I just rolled with the punches. But, Jay was smarter than I was. He said, ‘Clay, this is ridiculous. I am going to say something.’ Now, this was in the middle of the day and any time someone held up shooting it cost money, and sometimes their job! I asked him to wait until the day was over and he said ‘No.’
“I watched as Jay walked calmly over to the director; they talked for a minute and then Jay turned, mounted Scout and took off. I knew this hadn’t gone well, so I jumped on Silver and took off after him. I found him on the top of a far hill. ‘Jay, this isn’t right, you shouldn’t be holding up production like this.’ Jay quietly turned to face me and said, ‘No, Clay. What isn’t right is the way we are being treated. We are the stars of this show and need to have better working conditions. We need to stay up here for a little while to show we mean business and then I will come down and finish the day’s shoot.’ This was hard for me to do, but I understood and wanted to back Jay, so we stayed. The next day there was two shiny new dressing room trailers — one for each of us.”
Jay understood Tonto’s relationship to the Lone Ranger was one of mutual respect and brotherhood. Sometimes what was necessary put Tonto’s life in danger; sometimes John Reid’s. He also understood the tremendous power he had as a role model to Native peoples, and he led by example.
Madison Square Garden 1957. Look at those outstretched hands. And those million-dollar smiles.
I recently met an actor who worked with Jay at the American Indian Actor’s Workshop back in the ’70s. He couldn’t stop talking about how proud Jay made him to be an Indian in this industry and how much he learned about dignity and self-respect from Jay’s example. He recounted how Jay would always pay special attention to the children present, offering them a story or a little recognition. Jay worked tirelessly to teach and coach Indian actors so that the industry would hire them for Indian roles and bring an honesty not then present.
If one wants to look for negative stereotypes, they are easily found. Certainly, in the insensitive decades during which the scripts for The Lone Ranger were written, it is bitingly evident. However, endless tributes from Native Americans about the lessons of tolerance and pride of heritage prove that Jay Silverheels made a difference. By conducting his life with a strong grace and profound nobility, he walked the walk.