(1918 – 1996)
Ben was born in Foraker, Okla., on June 13, 1918. His father, Ben Johnson Sr., had a place on Bird Creek, northwest of Pawhuska. The senior Johnson was a respected rancher and champion roper and is an honoree in the National Cowboy Hall of Fame. And Pawhuska honors Ben Sr. every year with a memorial rodeo named after him.
Ben Jr. grew up in the Pawhuska area, cowboyed on the Chapman-Barnard Ranch, and rubbed elbows with some accomplished rodeo cowboys of that time – such names as Ike Rude, Everett Shaw, Louis Brooks and Clark McIntire. Ben liked rodeoing, too, and it is likely that he would have pursued rodeo as a career had it not been for a chance encounter with people who were making a movie for Howard Hughes.
It was around 1940, and Hughes was making The Outlaw, starring Jane Russell. His crew bought a load of horses out of Oklahoma, and Johnson was asked to deliver them to the movie location near Flagstaff, Arizona. At the time, Ben was working for $30 a month, and the $300 he was offered was more than he could pass up. After the shoot, he took the horses on to Hollywood, and that’s where he stayed.
Ben says, “They decided I rode a horse pretty good, so they put me in the Screen Actors’ Guild, and I went to work as a wrangler, stuntman and as a double for actors like John Wayne, Joel McRae and Jimmy Stewart.”
Then, in 1949, Ben was offered a 7-year contract with famed director John Ford. The contract was for up to $5,000 per week, and Ben signed immediately “before Ford had a chance to change his mind,” Ben explains.
Ben went right to work on such films as Wagon Master, Mighty Joe Young, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, and Rio Grande. And in Rio Grande, he and fellow actors Claude Jarman Jr. and Harry Carey Jr. did their own stunt work in a spectacular Roman-riding scene that’s still a film classic. Anyone who views that scene can easily see that Johnson is a real horseman.
Despite his movie success, Johnson still felt he had something to prove to himself, so, in 1953, he took a year off and hit the rodeo circuit. He had been rodeoing all along between movies and, in 1949, had set a calf-roping record at Pendleton, Ore., where he roped and tied in 12.5 seconds with a 60-foot score. “I really thought I was something,” says Ben.
He continued, “I got in a position where I could afford to travel, so I decided to see just what I could do.” He teamed with Buckshot Sorrells, Andy Jauregui and others in the team roping.
“That was the year everybody else had hard luck,” says Ben, modestly, “and I beat them out and won the world. I came home with a championship, and I didn’t have $3. All I had was a wore-out automobile and a mad wife. Fortunately, they let me back in the picture business, and I’ve stayed there ever since.”
Johnson appeared in more than 300 movies. Some of the better-known are Fort Defiance, Shane, War Drums, One-Eyed Jacks, Major Dundee, The Rare Breed, Will Penny, The Wild Bunch, The Undefeated, Chisum, Junior Bonner, The Getaway, The Train Robbers, Dillinger, The Sugarland Express, Bite the Bullet, Breakheart Pass, and The Swarm.
But despite the great number of movies, Ben Johnson was never a household name until 1971. That year, he won the Academy Award for best actor in a supporting role for his portrayal of the pool hall owner in The Last Picture Show, a movie from the Larry McMurtry novel of the same name.
“The Academy Award changed my whole life,” says Ben. “You win one of those Oscars and all at once people think you know something. You don’t know any more than you did before, but they think you do. And the studios offer you more jobs for a lot more money.”
Like other westerners, Ben would like to see Hollywood make some good western movies again, but he’s not sure they will ever be done as well as they were in the old days. “It’s hard to find young people in the business who know anything about the real West. A lot of them don’t know whether a horse roosts in a hole or a tree. Most actors can’t ride well enough to get in and out of a scene. They’re about as western as my poodle. It’s very expensive to make an authentic western. It’s almost impossible to afford to have 1,000 head of cattle in a movie. It is just very difficult to finance, produce, direct and act out a good western.”
On a shelf in Ben’s home is a cluttered collection of awards that Ben has earned through the years, including his Academy Award, a People’s Choice Award, Golden Boot Award, New York Film Critics Award, Golden Globe Award, and more. But for all the public acclaim, Ben was most rewarded when he was able to help young people through charities associated with his celebrity rodeos. His big heart and generous nature have made him a favorite of everyone who met him. Uncle Ben, as his close friends are wont to call him, is the real thing – a real American cowboy who exemplifies ideal cowboy standards.