Obituary: ron Eyes Cody

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
IRON EYES Cody, a Cherokee born in Oklahoma, was one of several real American Indians to have had a lifetime career portraying native Americans on screen. Cody appeared in over 100 film and television shows - in many of them billed simply as "Indian", "Indian Chief" or "Indian Joe", and frequently acted as adviser for Indian sequences.

He had strong opinions about how his people should be portrayed in films, often correcting misconceptions about their culture, behaviour or history. To Americans, he will be best remembered for a series of 1970s television commercials and print advertisements for an anti-litter campaign, "Keep America Beautiful", which showed Cody shedding a single tear as he watched people pollute the environment with litter, and he devoted much of his later life to supporting the movement.

Cody's date of birth is generally considered to have been 3 April 1907, though dates from 1904 to 1915 have been given. His mother, Frances Salpet, was a Cree and his father, Thomas Long Plume, a Cherokee who performed in Wild West shows and circuses. Cody joined his father on the tent-show circuit at an early age, and is reputed to have made his screen debut as a child in Massacre (1912).

He was a dancer in The Squaw Man (1914), co-directed by Cecil B. De Mille, who was to use Cody several times through the years, and other silent films included The Covered Wagon (1923), The Iron Horse (1924, directed by John Ford), The Vanishing American (1925) and War Paint (1926).

He was even more prolific with the coming of sound, acting in several serials as well as features. In 1931 he was one of the warriors menacing a wagon train in an early Gary Cooper vehicle, Fighting Caravans, and he took part in a serial, Lightning Warrior, starring the wonder dog Rin Tin Tin in his last film which, with its action sequences and stunt-work handled by the famed Yakima Canutt, is considered the canine's finest hour.

Cody twice in his career stepped surprisingly out of character to play a cowboy - first in Cimarron (1931), the first western to win an Academy Award, then 44 years later in Howard Zieff's beguiling celebration of old Hollywood, Hearts of the West (1975). Generally, though, he was the standard feather-garbed Indian of few words, though he became noted for his insistence on authenticity, and served as a technical adviser on many of the films in which he acted, including De Mille's Union Pacific (1939), North West Mounted Police (1940) and Unconquered (1947).

Not without a sense of humour, he took part in three Bob Hope comedies, The Paleface (1948), Son of Paleface (1952) and Alias Jesse James (1959), the Abbott and Costello musical comedy Ride 'Em Cowboy (1942) and one of the best films to star the Bowery Boys, Bowery Buckaroos (1947) in which the boys went west to "prosecute for gold". Major westerns in which he featured included one of the first in a cycle of films treating the Indians sympathetically and as victims of mistreatment, Delmer Daves's Broken Arrow (1950).

Later in the Fifties, Cody and his wife, Ga Yeawas, hosted a television programme explaining Indian history and folklore. Ga Yeawas was a Seneca Indian (not a squaw, Cody was quick to point out) and the daughter of the anthropologist Dr Arthur C. Parker, the founder of National Indian Day. She was also the descendant of General Ely S. Parker, who served under Ulysses S. Grant, became the first Commissioner of Indian Affairs and was himself an Indian. The couple's two sons (one is now deceased) were champion Indian dancers, and Robert, who survives, performed his ritual dances before the present queen.

In 1970 a California advertising agency discovered Cody when devising a campaign for the group Keep America Beautiful, and they cast him as the "crying Indian", whose face, shedding a single, eloquent tear at the sight of a landscape polluted with garbage, litter and smoke, was first shown on Earth Day 1971, and quickly became a symbol of the anti-litter campaign and a familiar image to Americans. "It was more than advertising," said Roger Powers, who was the agency's president at the time. "What we found - it was a stroke of luck - was a man who lived it and believed in it."

At first Cody had refused to do the commercial, arguing that "Indians don't cry", but Lady Bird Johnson persuaded him to do it (the tear was, in fact, glycerine). Cody spent the next 25 years making public appearances and visiting schools on behalf of the movement. "He galvanised so many people who really questioned whether individually they could make a difference," said Powers. A sequel to the commercial was produced in 1975 and a revamped version only last year.

In 1996 The New Orleans Times-Picayune caused something of a sensation by disputing Cody's heritage. Based on an interview with his half-sister, baptismal records and other documentation, they asserted that Cody was a second-generation Italian-American from Louisiana. This was denied by Cody and generally disregarded by the public, who had come to revere the actor for his dedication to Indian affairs.

For his efforts on behalf of the American Indian he was presented with a scroll by the City of Los Angeles, and in his own private Moosehead Museum he housed an exhaustive collection of Indian artefacts, costumes, books and paintings.

He wrote several books, including How Indians Sign Talk and a 1982 autobiography, Iron Eyes: my life as a Hollywood Indian.

Tom Vallance

Iron Eyes Cody, actor: born 3 April 1907; married Ga Yeawas (died 1978; one son, and one son deceased); died Los Angeles 4 January 1999.