Obituary: Ben Johnson

David Shipman
Tuesday 09 April 1996 23:02

Some Hollywood actors are so naturally saddle-happy that it's odd to see them wearing a suit. Ben Johnson was pre-eminent among these; he had been a cowboy and all but a few of his films were westerns. One that wasn't was The Last Picture Show (1971), in which he was Sam the Lion, who ran the town's movie house, its pool hall, garage and cafe. It was a tank town deep in the heart of Texas in the early 1950s, ironically enough allowing Johnson to wear the cowboy duds of that era. He brought to the role his customary understated benevolence, a quality needed as he advised the young bloods - Jeff Bridges, Timothy Bottoms - on that prime concern of all movie youth, sex.

Johnson had originally turned down the role because the youths and their girls were seen naked from time to time, but was talked into it by John Ford, who owed a favour or two to its director, Peter Bogdanovich (who had made a documentary and written a book about Ford about him). The performance brought Johnson the year's Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.

Ford was Johnson's mentor, and as in the case of John Wayne (with whom Johnson appeared in a handful of Wayne's last films) he plucked him from doubling and stunt work to make him an actor. He had practically grown up on horseback, and had arrived in movies as a wrangler on Howard Hughes's The Outlaw (1943). In 1948 Ford made him one of the patrolmen in the fifth film version (Ford had also directed one in 1919) of Three Godfathers. He played soldiers in two of Ford's cavalry trilogy, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) and Rio Grande (1950), but more importantly he played the lead for him in Wagonmaster (1950), the man in charge of the Mormon wagon train heading westward to found a settlement on the Utah- Arizona border.

The best that might be said of this performance is that he resembled George O'Brien, the hero of Ford's silent westerns. Johnson was not natural star material, as he had already proved in Mighty Joe Young (1949), Ernest B. Schoedsack's jokey re-vamp of his own and Merian Cooper's King Kong. He settled into supporting roles, such as the member of the Ryker gang causing all the trouble for Alan Ladd and the homesteaders in Shane (1953). Johnson was equally adept at being honest or evil, and as the years passed became a weightier actor, notably good in Brando's Freudian western One- eyed Jacks (1961), as one of a couple of bandits whose relationship seems more intimate than a mere partnership.

Johnson was lost, playing a trooper again for Ford, in that director's penultimate, all-name disaster, Cheyenne Autumn (1964), but he did solid work for the two directors - above all others - who had inherited Ford's mantle, Tom Gries with Will Penny (1968) and Sam Peckinpah, with Major Dundee (1965) and The Wild Bunch (1969). In the first of these he was the rancher who gives a winter job to the grizzled veteran Charlton Heston, while in Peckinpah's two films he was, respectively, one of Heston's sergeants and a dastardly member of Robert Ryan's gang.

He was, gratifyingly, as constant a member of Peckinpah's stock company as Warren Oates, and Peckinpah made him one of his most devious villains in The Getaway (1972), as the member of the parole board who springs Steve McQueen from jail, arranges for him to lead a heist and then double-crosses him all down the line. He was again excellent as an experienced rodeo promoter in Peckinpah's Junior Bonner (1972), also with McQueen. He was the meanest of sheriffs in James Frawley's under-rated comic western Kid Blue (1973) and outstanding in John Milius's Dillinger (1973), as Melvin Purvis, the FBI man who hunted down Dillinger, who was Warren Oates.

He was the officer in charge of the operation to recapture William Atherton, and Goldie Hawn, in The Sugerland Express (1974), but not at his best as the murdered girl's angry father in Robert Aldrich's Hustle (1975); but then Aldrich never was a director to restrain actors. As Hollywood lost interest in the western, Johnson's credits became less interesting; and he continued to work, still mainly in the saddle, in television. In 1985 he established the Ben Johnson Celebrity Rodeo at the Lazy E Arena in Guthrie, Oklahoma, to raise money for the Children's Medical Research Inc, and he later endowed the Ben Johnson Research Chair in Pediatric Cancer Research at the University of Oklahoma.

Ben Johnson, actor: born Pawhuska, Oklahoma 20 June 1920; died Mesa, Arizona 8 April 1996.

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