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Ben Johnson ~ actor
by Thomas Givens

Surfing around on the tube, I lit upon a movie made in 1991 called "My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys." The film, starring Scott Glenn and Kate Capshaw, was an "alright" movie, but the reason I stuck with it was Ben Johnson played Scott Glenn's daddy. Now, Ben was kinda getting along in years at this stage, but he was still a presence.

Born in 1918 on a ranch outside Foraker, Oklahoma, Johnson grew up to become a ranch hand and rodeo performer. In 1940, Howard Hughes hired him to take a load of horses to California. He got out there, decided the pay was good, and decided to stay. For some years he was a stunt man, horse wrangler, and a double for stars like John Wayne, Gary Cooper and James Stewart.

Johnson was noticed by John Ford, the director who launched John Wayne's career. Ford began using him as an extra and horse wrangler, moving him on later to speaking parts.

The first movie I remember seeing Ben Johnson in was "She Wore A Yellow Ribbon." Directed by John Ford (who loved the old 7th Calvary) and starring John Wayne, this story is about a unit commanded by Wayne. Ben Johnson is Wayne's sergeant, Tyree. Now, if you want to see somebody ride a horse, you've got to see this one! Tyree showed them yankee soldiers how to ride. What a cowboy! The best scene is where he is trapped by Indians.

Ben Johnson was in many movies, and I'm not going to list them all. The above is one, but he won an Oscar for his portrayal of Sam the Lion in "The Last Picture Show."

In my all time "favortist" western movie, "Shane," Johnson played Chris Calloway. At the beginning he was a bad guy working for the bad guys. He and Shane (Alan Ladd) had a helluva fight, and Shane beat the crap out of him. After that, Chris had a change of heart and rode out on the bad guys to warn Shane.

Johnson also played a wonderful bad guy in "One Eyed Jacks," starring Marlon Brando, and he had a brief part as a bad guy in "The Getaway," starring Steve McQueen and Ali McGraw. You might remember him as the cowboy in the old movie, "Mighty Joe Young" -- about a King Kongish ape.

I would put all of his films in the "best" category, but one that will have to be right up there is "The Wild Bunch." This film came out in 1969. I saw it in Tupelo, Mississippi, while I was there working. This was a great movie, but one of the first films where there was a lot of cussing that wasn't taken out -- but it was natural and nothing I wasn't accustomed to. Anyway, the movie was about passages. The "Wild Bunch" was composed of a group of old outlaws on their way out in the early 1900's. I won't get into the story details, but what makes it such a good movie is who is in it: William Holden, Robert Ryan, Ernest Borgnine, Edmond O'Brien, Warren Oates, Strother Martin, L.Q. Jones, Albert Dekker, Bo Hopkins -- many of whom were dying or bowing out. My God, how could you assemble a greater cast than that? Ben Johnson was right in there, and, as always, he just about stole the show.

Johnson was a natural actor. In fact, when someone asked him about acting, he told them he just played himself, and that he did. He never lost his Southern/Western Oklahoma accent. There is no way to duplicate or describe it, and I just loved it. As far as I can tell, the accent is a mixture of all the dialects and accents from that vast area because of the influx of so many people in there. That's one of the reasons I always enjoyed his movies, along with his great acting. Get one of the movies I've mentioned and check him out.

As a footnote to this day and time, Johnson turned down the part of Sam The Lion in the "Last Picture Show" because of the language, but the director wanted him so bad he agreed to change the offensive lines.

Ben Johnson is definitely missed.


Judge Tom Givens is a former Mississippi Deltan who now hangs his hat in Tennessee -- but he'll soon be retiring to the hills of his native state.

His memoirs are favorites at USADEEPSOUTH. Here are a few:

The Halfway Store
The Delta Theater
Memphis and the Delta
Whiskey, Chickens and Cherry Bombs
Miz Odom

Write Tom at DeltaJudge2


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