Ben Johnson (actor)

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Ben Johnson
Ben Johnson The Wild Bunch publicity photo.JPG
BornJune 13, 1918
Foraker, Oklahoma, U.S.
DiedApril 8, 1996 (1996-04-09) (aged 77)
Mesa, Arizona, U.S.
Cause of death
heart attack
Years active1939–96
Spouse(s)Carol Elaine Jones (1941-94; her death)
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Ben Johnson
Ben Johnson The Wild Bunch publicity photo.JPG
BornJune 13, 1918
Foraker, Oklahoma, U.S.
DiedApril 8, 1996 (1996-04-09) (aged 77)
Mesa, Arizona, U.S.
Cause of death
heart attack
Years active1939–96
Spouse(s)Carol Elaine Jones (1941-94; her death)

Ben "Son" Johnson, Jr. (June 13, 1918 – April 8, 1996) was an American stuntman, world champion rodeo cowboy and actor. The son of a rancher, Johnson arrived in Hollywood to deliver a consignment of horses for a film. He did stunt double work for several years before breaking into acting through the good offices of John Ford. Tall and laconic, Johnson brought further authenticity to many roles in Westerns with his extraordinary horsemanship. An elegiac portrayal of a former cowboy theatre owner in the '50s coming of age drama, The Last Picture Show, won Johnson the 1971 Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. He operated a horse breeding farm throughout his career. Although he said he had succeeded by sticking to what he knew, shrewd real estate investments made Johnson worth an estimated 100 million dollars by his latter years.[1][2]

Personal life[edit]

Johnson was born in Foraker, Oklahoma,[1] on the Osage Indian Reservation, of Irish and Cherokee ancestry,[3][4] the son of Ollie Susan (née Workmon) and Ben Johnson, Sr.[5] His father was a rancher and rodeo champion in Osage County. Throughout his life Johnson was drawn to the rodeos and horse breeding of his early years. In 1953 he took a break from well paid film work to compete in the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association, becoming Team Roping World Champion although he only broke even financially that year. Johnson was inducted into the ProRodeo Hall of Fame in 1973.[6]

Johnson's 1941 marriage to Carol Elaine Jones lasted until her death on March 27, 1994, they had no children. Jones was the daughter of noted Hollywood horse wrangler Clarence "Fat" Jones.[7][2]


Johnson's film career began with the Howard Hughes film The Outlaw. Before filming began, Hughes bought some horses at the Oklahoma ranch that Johnson's father managed, and hired Johnson to get the horses to northern Arizona (for The Outlaw's location shooting), and then to take them on to Hollywood.

Johnson liked to say later that he got to Hollywood in a carload of horses.[8] With his experience wrangling for Hughes during The Outlaw's location shooting, once in Hollywood he did stunt work for the 1939 movie The Fighting Gringo, and throughout the 1940s he found work wrangling horses and doing stunt work involving horses.

His work as a stunt man caught the eye of director John Ford. Ford hired Johnson for stunt work in the 1948 film Fort Apache, and as the riding double for Henry Fonda.[4] During shooting, the horses pulling a wagon with three men in it stampeded. Johnson, who "happened to be settin' on a horse", stopped the runaway wagon, and saved the men. When Ford promised that he would be rewarded, Johnson hoped it would be with another doubling job, or maybe a small speaking role.[9] Instead he received a seven-year acting contract from Ford.[10] Ford called Johnson into his office, handed him an envelope with the contract in it. Johnson started reading it and when he got to the fifth line and it said "$5,000 a week," he stopped reading, grabbed a pen and signed it, and gave it back to Ford.[9]

His first credited role was in Ford's 3 Godfathers, the film is notable for the riding skills demonstrated by both Johnson and star Pedro Armendáriz. Johnson later said the film was the most physically challenging of his career. Ford then suggested him for a starring role in the 1949 film Mighty Joe Young; he played 'Gregg', opposite Terry Moore. Ford cast him in two of the three films that have come to be known as Ford's cavalry trilogy, all starring John Wayne: She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), and Rio Grande (1950); both roles showcased Johnson's riding ability. Ford also cast Johnson as the lead in Wagon Master (1950), one of Ford's favorites.

Under Ford's subtle guidance, Johnson became at more at ease in front of the camera and by 1949 had developed into a thoroughly professional actor with a relaxed natural style. In real life Johnson didn't show any bad temper, his demeanor in tense situations was calm but firm. But although known for avoiding dramas he had definite boundaries; during the making of Rio Grande he defied Ford, who was notorious for browbeating his actors, and reportedly told him to go to hell. Johnson thought the incident had been forgotten, but Ford did not use him in a film for over a decade. Johnson also appeared in four films of Sam Peckinpah, but had a good relationship with the wayward director, Peckinpah appreciated Johnson's authenticity and lack of acting airs.[2]

Johnson played in supporting roles in Shane (1953) starring Alan Ladd, and One-Eyed Jacks (1961) starring Marlon Brando. In 1964 he worked with Ford again in Cheyenne Autumn. He also appeared in four Sam Peckinpah directed films: Major Dundee (1965; with Charlton Heston), The Wild Bunch (1969; with William Holden & Robert Ryan), and two back-to-back Steve McQueen films, The Getaway and the rodeo film Junior Bonner (both 1972). In 1973 he co-starred as Melvin Purvis in John Milius's Dillinger with Warren Oates; he also appeared in Milius's 1984 film Red Dawn. In 1975, he played the character Mister in Bite the Bullet, starring Gene Hackman and James Coburn. He also appeared together with Charles Bronson in 1975's Breakheart Pass. In 1980, he was cast as Sheriff Isum Gorch in Soggy Bottom U. S. A.

Johnson played the part of "Bartlett" in the 1962-63 season of Have Gun Will Travel which featured a short scene of his riding skills. In the 1966-67 television season, Johnson appeared as the character "Sleeve" in all twenty-six episodes of the ABC family Western The Monroes with costars Michael Anderson, Jr., and Barbara Hershey.[11]

He teamed up John Wayne again, and director Andrew McLaglen, in two films; appearing with Rock Hudson in The Undefeated (1969), and in a fairly prominent role in Chisum (1970).

The apex of Johnson's career was reached in 1971, with Johnson winning an Academy Award for his performance as 'Sam the Lion' in The Last Picture Show, directed by Peter Bogdanovich co-starring Timothy Bottoms, Jeff Bridges and Cybill Shepherd.

On the set of The Train Robbers, in June 1972, he told Nancy Anderson of Copley News Service that winning the Oscar for The Last Picture Show wasn't going to change him and he wouldn't raise his salary request to studios because of it. He continued, "I grew up on a ranch and I know livestock, so I like working in Westerns. All my life I've been afraid of failure. To avoid it, I've stuck with doing things I know how to do, and it's made me a good living.[12] He also co-starred with Gary Busey in "Bloodsport" (1973), as the "win-at-all-costs" father to his football-playing son.

He portrayed the character Cap Roundtree in the 1979 miniseries The Sacketts.

He also co-starred in 1994 version of Angels in the Outfield.

He also continued ranching during the entire time, operating a horse-breeding ranch in Sylmar, California.[4] In addition, he sponsored the Ben Johnson Pro Celebrity Team Roping and Penning competition, held in Oklahoma City, the proceeds of which are donated to both the Children's Medical Research Inc., and to the Children's Hospital of Oklahoma.

Death and legacy[edit]

Johnson continued to work almost steadily until his death from a heart attack at the age of 77. On April 8, 1996, the veteran actor collapsed while visiting his 96 year-old mother Ollie, at Leisure World in Mesa, Arizona, the suburban Phoenix retirement community where they both lived.[13]

Johnson's mother Ollie Susan Workmon Johnson Rider (surname from 2nd husband Fredie Fay Rider -d.1970), died a few years after her famed actor son, on October 16, 2000. Ollie Rider was 101.

For his contribution to the motion picture industry, Johnson has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 7083 Hollywood Blvd. In 1982, he was inducted into the Western Performers Hall of Fame at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City. In 1996 Tom Thurman made a documentary film about Johnson's life, titled Ben Johnson: Third Cowboy on the Right, written by Thurman and Tom Marksbury.[3]

The Ben Johnson Memorial Steer Roping and the International Roundup Cavalcade, the world's largest amateur rodeo are held annually in Pawhuska, Oklahoma.[14]



1939The Fighting GringoMexican BarflyUncredited
1943The OutlawDeputyUncredited
1943Bordertown Gun FightersMessengerUncredited
1944The Pinto BanditRace ContestantUncredited
1944Tall in the SaddleTownsmanUncredited
1944NevadaSaloon PatronUncredited
1945Corpus Christi Bandits2nd Stage DriverUncredited
1945The Naughty NinetiesCoach DriverUncredited
1946Badman's TerritoryDeputy MarshalUncredited
1948The Gallant LegionTexas RangerUncredited
19483 GodfathersPosse Man #1
1949Mighty Joe YoungGregg
1949She Wore a Yellow RibbonSgt. Tyree
1950Wagon MasterTravis Blue
1950Rio GrandeTrooper Travis Tyree
1951Fort DefianceBen Shelby
1952Wild StallionDan Light
1953ShaneChris Calloway
1956Rebel in TownFrank Mason
1957War DrumsLuke Fargo
1957Slim CarterMontana Burriss
1958Fort BowieCapt. Thomas Thompson
1960Ten Who DaredGeorge Bradley
1961One-Eyed JacksBob Emory
1961Tomboy and the ChampUncle Jim
1964Cheyenne AutumnTrooper PlumtreeUncredited
1965Major DundeeSergeant Chillum
1966The Rare BreedJeff Harter
1968Will PennyAlex
1968Hang 'Em HighMarshal Dave Bliss
1969The Wild BunchTector Gorch
1969The UndefeatedShort Grub
1970ChisumJames Pepper
1971The Last Picture ShowSam the LionAcademy Award for Best Supporting Actor
BAFTA Award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role
Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actor – Motion Picture
National Board of Review Award for Best Supporting Actor
New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Supporting Actor
1971Something BigJesse Bookbinder
1972Junior BonnerBuck Roan
1972The GetawayJack Beynon
1973The Train RobbersJesse
1973The Red PonyJess TaylorTelevision movie
1973DillingerMelvin Purvis
1973Kid BlueSheriff 'Mean John' Simpson
1973Runaway!Holly Gibson
1973Blood SportDwayne BirdsongTelevision movie
1974The Sugarland ExpressCaptain Tanner
1974LocustsAmos FletcherTelevision movie
1975Bite the BulletMisterBronze Wrangler for Theatrical Motion Picture (shared with cast & crew)
1975Breakheart PassPearce
1975HustleMarty Hollinger
1976The Savage BeesSheriff Donald McKewTelevision movie
1976The Town That Dreaded SundownCaptain J.D. Morales
1977The GreatestHollis
1977GrayeagleJohn Colter
1978The SwarmFelix
1979The SackettsCap RountreeTelevision movie
1980The HunterSheriff Strong
1980RuckusSam Bellows
1980Terror TrainCarne
1981Soggy Bottom U.S.A.Sheriff Isum Gorch
1982TexCole Collins
1982The Shadow RidersUncle TravenTelevision movie
1983ChampionsBurly Cocks
1984Red DawnMr. Jack Mason
1985Wild HorsesBill Ward
1986TrespassesAugust Klein
1986Let's Get HarryHarry Burck Sr.
1987Cherry 2000Six-Fingered Jake
1988Stranger on my LandVern WhitmanTelevision movie
1988Dark Before DawnThe Sheriff
1989The Last RideUnnamed cowboyShort film
1989Back to BackEli Hix
1991The ChaseLaurientiTelevision movie
1991My Heroes Have Always Been CowboysJesse Dalton
1992Radio FlyerGeronimo Bill
1993Bonanza: The ReturnBronc EvansTelevision movie
1994Outlaws: The Legend of O.B. TaggartUnknown
1994Angels in the OutfieldHank Murphy
1995Bonanza: Under AttackBronc EvansTelevision movie
1996Ruby Jean and JoeBig Man
1996The Evening StarDoctor Arthur CottonReleased posthumously


1956Cavalcade of AmericaCal BennettOnce a Hero (Season 5, Episode 12)
1958The Adventures of Ozzie and HarrietTex BartonTop Gun (Season 6, Episode 26)
1958Navy LogBorder Patrol OfficerFlorida Weekend (Season 3, Episode 28)
1958The Restless GunSheriff Tim MalachyNo Way to Kill (Season 2, Episode 9)
1958Alfred Hitchcock PresentsJeff, The SheriffAnd the Desert Shall Blossom (Season 4, Episode 11)
1958Wagon TrainWagon Driverepisode: Bije Wilcox Story
1959Border PatrolHank ColmanEverglades Story (Season 1, Episode 1)
1960—1961LaramieVariousSeasons 1—2; 3 episodes
1961—1962Route 66VariousSeasons 1—2; 2 episodes
1960—1962Have Gun – Will TravelVariousSeasons 4—6; 3 episodes
1962Stoney BurkeRex DonallyPoint of Honor (Season 1, Episode 4)
1962BonanzaDeputy Sheriff Stan Macepisode: The Gamble
1964Perry MasonKelly - Mine ForemanThe Case of the Reckless Hound (Season 8, Episode 10)
1965Bob Hope Presents the Chrysler TheatreBurt WadeMarch from Camp Tyler (Season 3, Episode 3)
1966BrandedBill LatigoMcCord's Way (Season 2, Episode 20)
1966ABC Stage 67Sheriff BarbeeNoon Wine (Season 1, Episode 9)
1966—1967The MonroesSleeveRecurring role; 14 episodes
1963—1968The VirginianVariousSeasons 1—7; 4 episodes
1969Walt Disney's Wonderful World of ColorHimselfRide a Northbound Horse: Part 1 and 2 (Season 15, Episodes 21 & 22)
1969BonanzaSgt. Samuel Bellisepisode: The Deserter
1971BonanzaKelly Jamesepisode: Top Hand
1963—1971GunsmokeVariousSeasons 8—17; 3 episodes
1980Wild TimesDoc BogardusTelevision miniseries; 2 episodes
1986Dream WestJim BridgerTelevision miniseries


  1. ^ a b Brazee, Joann. "Ben Johnson Jr., obituary". Osage County News Service. Archived from the original on 2008-06-18. 
  2. ^ a b c Jensen, Richard D. (2010). The Nicest Fella - the Life of Ben Johnson: The World Champion Rodeo Cowboy who Became an Oscar-winning Movie Star. iUniverse. ISBN 9781440196782. 
  3. ^ a b Thurman, Tom. - Ben Johnson: Third Cowboy on the Right. - IMDb
  4. ^ a b c Erickson, Hal. "Ben Johnson". Allmovie. 
  5. ^ Ollie Susan Workmon Rider obituary, Osage County, Oklahoma USGenWeb Project hosted by
  6. ^
  7. ^ "Hollywood Horses". Missed a Shot Productions. March 11, 2008. Archived from the original on 2008-06-03.  Hollywood Horses is a documentary about the horses that were used, and who sometimes starred, in films. This webpage briefly recounts the history behind the documentary. Ben Johnson was closely connected both professionally and personally with the horses of Hollywood.
  8. ^ "Ben Johnson". 
  9. ^ a b Brown, David G. (September–October 1995). "Last of a Breed". American Cowboy (Active Interest Media) 2 (3): 43. ISSN 1079-3690. 
  10. ^ McBride, Joseph (2003). Searching for John Ford: A Life. Macmillan. p. 496. ISBN 978-0-312-31011-0. 
  11. ^ Filmography by TV series for Ben Johnson. - IMDb
  12. ^ Anderson, Nancy (June 4, 1972). "John Wayne A Father Figure On Movie Set in Durango, Mexico". The Joplin Globe (Copley New Service). 
  13. ^ Actor ben johnson dies at 77, The Press of Atlantic City (Atlantic City, NJ), 9 April 1996, retrieved 31 August 2012 
  14. ^ May, Jon D. Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture. "Pawhuska". Retrieved Februar 16, 2013.[1]

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