A Celebration of Ben Son Johnson, with Peter Bogdanovich and The Last Picture Show Along for the Ride! (Videos, Videos, Videos!)
Ben Johnson was man who knew when to be humble, and also knew when not to be humble!
I saw The Last Picture Show on TV almost 50 years ago, and Ben Johnson burned the scene in which he does a monologue as Sam the Lion so into my soul that I was saying some of his lines before he did, just now.
(The picture was based on one of the many Texas novels of Larry McMurtry, who was born, raised, and last I checked, still lives in Archer City, Texas, at the age of 84. Years ago, I corresponded, and may have spoken with, Ceil Cleveland, the dark-haired heartbreaker and childhood pal of McMurtry’s, who was turned into a blonde for super model Cybil Shepherd, Bogdanovich’s longtime girlfriend, who played her in the picture.)
His name was Ben Johnson Jr. (1918-1996), and, living in the shadow of a legendary father (rancher and world champion rodeo cowboy), his lifelong nickname, at least to those who’d known him the longest, was “Son.”
He had Irish blood on his father’s side, and Cherokee or Osage on his mother’s. Johnson was married to the former Carol Elaine Jones for 52 years, until her death on March 27, 1994. Unfortunately, the union was without issue.
At the end of their respective lives, mother and son lived within the same retirement community within walking distance of each other, where he visited her daily. As a matter of fact, Ben died of a heart attack on April 8, 1996, while visiting his then app. 96-year-old mother. The old lady lived practically forever, dying on October 16, 2000, at the age of 101.
Ben Johnson first got a peek at Hollywood, when Howard Hughes (1905-1976) asked him to take a shipment of horses from Oklahoma. He stayed a while.
“I’d been making a dollar a day as a cowboy, and my first check in Hollywood was for $300. After that, you couldn't have driven me back to Oklahoma with a club.”…
“When I left Oklahoma, I wasn’t even sure which direction Hollywood was, but I could ride a horse pretty good. I had no formal education to speak of. I was a cowboy from the time I hit the ground. I knew if a cow weighed 1,000 pounds and bought $10 a hundred, I knew how much that was. But I was fortunate because people accepted my character. I ran my life a certain way. I didn’t hobnob with the elites because I didn’t do drugs and I didn’t drink a lot of whiskey . . . oh, I might take a drink now and then, but you know what I mean.”
Son started out as a stunt rider and horse wrangler, and was soon considered Hollywood’s greatest horseman. After ten or so years, he quit Hollywood to win the 1953 world rodeo rider championship, like his father before him, but found that being the world champion cowboy cost as much as it paid. Off he went, back to Hollywood.
Although Johnson hated talking on camera, he had a rich, baritone voice that audiences first learned to love when he played Trooper/Captain Tyree in Ford’s She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949).
(In the picture, which was in part a dramatized version of Lincoln’s sublime, conciliatory Second Inaugural, Johnson’s character had been a captain in the army of the Confederate States of America, and served as a mere cavalry sergeant in the postbellum Federal Army. Confederate former officers were not permitted to serve as officers in the Federal Army. Another, aged character, who is killed late in the picture by Indian raiders, served as Federal Trooper “John Smith,” but had been Brigadier General Rome Clay—his real name—in the Confederate Army.)
Johnson was briefly a member of the John Ford Stock Company, but the Old Man became fond of Ben, and that was a problem. The more Jack Ford (1894-1973) liked a man who worked for him, the more he abused him. He loved John Wayne more than any other man, including his own son, and so he abused Wayne the most.
Well, in real life, Ben Johnson embodied the creed spoken by John Wayne (1907-1979) as The Shootist, John Bernard Books, in Wayne’s 1976 swan song. He treated people with respect, and expected the same in return. So, after five pictures, including a star turn in Wagonmaster (1950), he told Pappy to go to hell. Much later, they reconciled, and Johnson served, er, performed in an uncredited role in Cheyenne Autumn (1964).
Other great directors also intuited that here was a man who could do a lot more than ride a horse.
The “super chief,” George Stevens (1904-1975), cast Johnson as Chris Callaway, one of the vicious thugs who do the bidding of the chief heavy, murderous cattle baron Ruf Ryker (Emile Meyer), in Shane (1953).
Johnson was the focus of three pivotal scenes: In one, early on, he pours a bottle of soda pop on Shane (Alan Ladd) in a saloon, humiliating him in front of many witnesses. (The idea was to provoke Shane into slugging the much bigger man, at which point, Ryker’s other goons would join with Callaway in beating Shane half to death, and running him out of town.)
In the second scene, Shane fights Callaway, wins, and then Ryker has the rest of his men brutally beat the little guy, until something happens that Ryker didn’t count on, and the scene ends up—with powerful assists from Stevens, Director of Photography Loyal Griggs (who won the Oscar that year for color cinematography), and composer Victor Young—arguably the greatest movie fight ever.
In the third, quiet scene, Callaway, who has had a moral epiphany, changes his ways, and saves a righteous man’s life.
(Shane is such a masterpiece that I feel like I’m toying with hyperbole, in referring to any scene as “pivotal.” The picture proceeds from one masterful set piece to another.)
In the eponymous Jack Shafer novel, Shane was a strapping, black-haired, six-foot superman. Stevens cast against type with the blonde, 5’5” Laddie. My title for an unpublished essay on Shane is, “From Superman to Man.”
I count Shane as the greatest Western of them all, and the sixth greatest talkie ever made, after The Best Years of Our Lives, Citizen Kane, tied: The Godfather and The Godfather, Part II, and It’s a Wonderful Life.
In 1969, Johnson played one of the Gorch Brothers, Tector, in Sam Peckinpah’s masterpiece, The Wild Bunch.
(Warren Oates played the other Gorch brother, Lyle) The Wild Bunch was one of those miraculous pictures, in which you had a large ensemble cast, and yet Bill Holden was clearly the star, and Ernie Borgnine clearly the second banana. And they were all brilliant.
Bunch is third on my list of the greatest Westerns, after Shane and The Searchers (1956), and before Unforgiven (1992) and High Noon (1952). It is 31st on my list of the world's 35 greatest talkies, right after The Searchers.
“Sam [Peckinpah] was a fatalist. He was a pretty talented guy, but he didn't care much about life, and some of what he did, he didn't care much about the outcome as long as the movie had blood and guts and thunder. He was pretty dingy. I saved his life about a dozen times, I guess. He'd start drinking whiskey and taking pills and he'd go crazy. He'd go into a bar, walk through the place and find the biggest guy there, and pick a fight with him. He was crazy.”
As the hilarious interview below with Peter Bogdanovich reveals, Ben Johnson did not want to appear in Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show, because his character had to talk too much, and also to say some words Son found were likely to offend his mother, if he were to take her to see it.
“No, Pete, there's too many words, and some of them are dirty.”
Johnson turned down Bogdanovich three times, and only accepted after the director got Jack Ford, who was fond of the young critic and director, to act as intermediary. Bogdanovich cleaned up Johnson’s dialogue.
“You got the Old Man on me.”
Johnson’s performance as Sam the Lion led not only to a richly deserved Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, but to more substantial roles. (I thank my big sister for sending me the link to the interview, which started the ball rolling on this profile).
In 1973, he was paired with Warren Oates in the John Milius biopic, Dillinger, as FBI agent, Melvin Purvis. Although the picture was nominally a biography of America’s Most Wanted Man, John Dillinger, with Milius’ support, Johnson was so powerful and had so much screen time as Purvis, that it became a doppelganger movie, and the producers should rightfully have given Johnson co-star status.
Right after Dillinger, a then unknown youngster named Steven Spielberg talked Johnson into playing a charming but murderous Texas Ranger in The Sugarland Express.
Award-winning, New York-based freelancer Nicholas Stix founded A Different Drummer magazine (1989-93). Stix has written for Die Suedwest Presse, New York Daily News, New York Post, Newsday, Middle American News, Toogood Reports, Insight, Chronicles, the American Enterprise, Campus Reports, VDARE, the Weekly Standard, Front Page Magazine, Ideas on Liberty, National Review Online and the Illinois Leader. His column also appears at Men's News Daily, MichNews, Intellectual Conservative, Enter Stage Right and OpinioNet. Stix has studied at colleges and universities on two continents, and earned a couple of sheepskins, but he asks that the reader not hold that against him. His day jobs have included washing pots, building Daimler-Benzes on the assembly-line, tackling shoplifters and teaching college, but his favorite job was changing his son's diapers.