Ben Johnson in an early Hollywood publicity shot. Photo: Wikiwand.
That face! That voice! Actor Ben Johnson’s physical presence just screamed cowboy--except that Johnson himself, ever reserved, always composed, would never have screamed anything. In almost all his roles, as in real life, he was far too in control of himself for anything like that.
Ben Johnson (1918-1996) didn’t play cowboy; he was one. In fact, his horsemanship was his entrée into Hollywood. Born on a ranch in Pawhuska, Oklahoma, to a multi-awardwinning rodeo rider and rancher, Johnson spent most of his life around horses. In 1943, he was hired to deliver horses to the set of Howard Hughes’s production of The Outlaw, which introduced Jane Russell to the movies. Ready to head back home, he was offered a job as a horse wrangler for the production company, moving the horses wherever they were needed on the set.
Giving up a cowboy’s salary of $40 a week for the lofty Hollywood pay of $175 a week was probably a pretty easy decision. And as his jobs got bigger (wrangler to stuntman to small-role actor to co-star), so did the money. But in his heart, Johnson continued to think of himself as horseman first and an actor second. So in 1953 he temporarily gave up the silver screen in favor of competitive rodeo.
“I took one year out of the picture business to go into rodeo and see what I could do,” he told the Los Angeles Times a year before his death. “My dad was a world’s champion three or four times, so I wanted to be. Fortunately, I won the world’s championship in team roping but at the end of the year I didn’t have three dollars. All I had was a wore-out automobile and a mad wife.”
Back in movieland, Johnson picked up where he had left off, and quickly became a go-to choice whenever a director needed a Western actor with the real chops. That’s one of the reasons John Wayne so enjoyed working with Johnson: Duke always preferred performing with pros who could ride and fight realistically and weren't Hollywood phonies.
Johnson and Wayne appeared together in seven films together from 1944 to 1973, including such celebrated films as She Wore A Yellow Ribbon and Rio Grande. One of the reasons they got along so well together offscreen was their shared innate honesty. They both had a low tolerance for Hollywood B.S. and for anything that might seem fake.
“I can’t handle phony people, and there are a lot of them in Hollywood,” Johnson once said, as quoted in a 1996 appreciation that appeared in JWayne.com, a fan site. “I’ve built my life around the principles of honesty, realism and respect, and if the people in Hollywood are so pumped up on themselves they can’t deal with that, I say the hell with ’em. I think I’ve won the respect of some people over there and I think I managed to stay real.”
Johnson might have stayed largely below the radar if not for The Last Picture Show (1971), in which he played the owner of small Texas town’s pool hall and movie theater. For his part, he was given an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. By the end of his career, Johnson had appeared in some 300 movies with such stars as Steve McQueen, Marlon Brando, Clint Eastwood, Charles Bronson, and, of course, John Wayne. He even got a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. And yet up until the very end, he always retained those qualities that were so important to him during his lifetime: humility, honesty, authenticity, and self control.