Canada has had a long history of Indigenous actors who have found fame in film and television, including Graham Greene and Chief Dan George. Today, I am looking at one of the first, who played an iconic character and helped to bring in a new generation of Indigenous actors.
His name was Jay Silverheels, and this is the story of the man who brought Tonto to life.
Born Harold Jay Smith at the Six Nations of the Grand River Reserve near Hagersville, Ontario, he was the grandson of Chief A.G. Smith and Mary Wedge. His parents were Alexander George Edwin Smith and Mabel Phoebe Dockstater. Alexander Smith was a First World War veteran who served in several battles including the Battle of the Somme and would be awarded the Military Cross for bravery. His grandfather was Alex Smith, a chief whose Indigenous name meant Two Rows of People. He was given that name because he was a celebrated orator who could speak Latin. His grandfather would give him advice that would stay with Silverheels for his entire life. He would say quote:
“Never cheat. If you have to cheat to win, then that’s admitting the other man is better than you are. Never cheat.”
As a child, Silverheels began to notice that he was different from the boys who lived outside the reserve. Disturbed by the color of his skin, he would wash diligently in the hope of removing the color. His habit of washing excessively would become a pattern that would stay with him well into his adult life.
Once, when his mother asked him to walk to the store, he scrubbed his face until it was sore and parted his black hair to the side, rather than combing it back as his father did. As he walked, a car approached, and a child looked out the window and said quote:
“Look, look at that black Indian.”
Silverheels broke into tears and raced home.
He would say decades later quote:
“It taught me a lesson. I never cried again at insults. I’ve fought yes, but I cried my fill that day.”
As a child, he would go to the movies in Brantford, and he disliked the way the Indigenous were portrayed on the screen. Later in life, it would be something he would work to change.
By the time he became a young man, Silverheels excelled in athletics, especially lacrosse. As a young man, he was good enough that when the owners of the Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens created an indoor lacrosse league to fill arenas in the summer, Silverheels was one of the first players chosen for the new league. He would play for the Toronto Tecumsehs, as well as lacrosse teams in Buffalo, Rochester, Atlantic City and Akron throughout the 1930s. In 1997, Silverheels was inducted into the Canadian Lacrosse Hall of Fame.
Ted Reeve, a Toronto Telegram columnist would say quote:
“He was the best young lacrosse player I’ve ever seen.”
Silverheels was known for his composure and sleeping in the dressing room before a game. In truth, he was nervous to the point he couldn’t stand up. He would say quote:
“I was so scared I was weak. I used to lie down in the dressing room because I couldn’t stand up. I’d walk out on the floor shaking, thinking, I can’t do it, I can’t, I can’t. Then the whistle would blow, and I’d play in a fury. Happened every time.”
The Montreal Gazette would report on Silverheels, who at the time was going by his name Harry Smith, quote:
“A lean, bronzed Indian buck, 19 years of age and bearing the mundane name of Harry Smith, fired a burning long shot past Goaler Suds Sutherland in the fourth period at the Forum last night and that was the deciding goal which gave Toronto Tecumsehs a 6-4 victory over Canadiens.”
Lou Marsh, in the Toronto Star, would write quote:
“Harry Smith, the 19-year-old Mohawk Indian recruit of Pete Campbell’s Tecumsehs, has only be in two pro box lacrosse games but he already has had five stitches taken in his scalp.”
It was lacrosse that would lead Silverheels to find his career on screen. In 1937, he was taking part in a lacrosse tour and Joe E. Brown saw him. Brown was a very popular comedian at the time, and he was impressed by the athleticism of Silverheels. Brown told Silverheels to do a screen test and helped him join the Screen Actors Guild.
Silverheels would say of Brown quote:
“Nobody knows how much good that man does in the world. He’s helped so many people.”
This quickly led to Silverheels becoming an extra and stuntman in movies, typically Westerns.
For his on-screen name, he would adopt the last name of Silverheels which came from a nickname he had as a lacrosse player.
He would have a large extra role in Drums Along the Mohawk, which would be the only time that Silverheels would ever play a Mohawk. He was paid $350 per week, although he had no lines. He said quote:
“I got to shoot an actress, I forget who, and I stalked Henry Ford all through the picture. I didn’t get to kill him though.”
The $350 he made per week would be $6,700 today.
Silverheels would say quote:
“They were making a lot of westerns then, so I was lucky. I made $16.50, sometimes twice a day, for riding a horse in some big Indian battle scene. Sometimes though, I went hungry.”
Working as an extra, Silverheels did not like how white actors played Indigenous characters. They would often move stiffly, make strong gestures and bark guttural sounds. Silverheels would say quote:
At this point, Silverheels decided to demonstrate proper Indigenous characters by becoming an actor himself. He stopped working as an extra, got an actor’s A card, found an agent and began to study acting. He worked odd jobs to afford acting classes. Sometimes he washed dishes to pay for a meal.
A friend who had performed at the Pasadena Playhouse told him to read Shakespeare. When Silverheels said he was Indigenous and would never get to play Shakespeare, his friend said quote:
“Never mind. If you can read these lines so they make sense, you can read any line.”
Silverheels then began reading Shakespeare while his friend coached him.
In 1948, he was told he had the chance at a part in Captain from Castille, directed by Henry King. In preparation, Silverheels skipped meals to make sure his wardrobe would fit. For the day of his interview, he dressed in his best suit.
As an actor, he was often told to take off his shirt so he could be examined by casting directors where he said he was eyed by casting directors like wives buying meat from shady butchers.
King would tell him to remove his shirt, and then told him that he had the part. The part was as an Indian prince who befriended Tyrone Power.
One year later, he would play Geronimo. It was while playing that movie he was offered a new role that would change his life, Tonto in The Lone Ranger.
The story followed The Lone Ranger, who was the last of a group of Texas Rangers who had been killed. In the show, The Lone Ranger and Tonto rode through the west, helping people in the towns that dot the Wild West landscape.
Originally, Tonto was played by a white actor on the radio but on television an Indigenous actor was needed. Silverheels would sign on for the role, but he was not happy, citing that the role was insulting to the Indigenous.
The show would run until 1957 and was one of the highest rated shows of its time, becoming the first true hit television show for ABC. Silverheels would act in The Lone Ranger movie in 1956 and The Lone Ranger and the Lost City of Gold in 1958.
The role brought Silverheels fame and fortune. Each year, he was paid $75,000 for his role, or about $775,000 today. This was about half what his co-star, Clayton Moore, made.
Silverheels also did all of his own stunts and never used a double for the hard-fighting and horse-riding scenes in the show.
In 1956, Silverheels returned home to his reserve and Brantford where he was met with a hero’s welcome. This was his first time back home in 18 years. A parade was held down the street of Brantford with a sea of children lining the road to see Silverheels from the car he was sitting in. At one point, hundreds of children began to surround his car and climbed onto it. Enough children were riding on the car that its rear bumper started to scrape along the pavement. A meet-Tonto event scheduled in Lions Park was then cancelled for fear it would cause children to be trampled in the rush.
His reception was said to be bigger than the receptions given to former Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent and current Prime Minister John Diefenbaker.
Silverheels visited two hospitals where he met with children and signed autographs.
At city hall, he signed the guest book and shook hands with the mayor and then attended a formal luncheon at the largest hotel in the city.
Mayor Max Sherman would say quote:
During the luncheon, he rose to thank the mayor and began to tear up over the homecoming he had been given. He would say quote:
“And they say that Indians never do show emotion. This will be the high point of my life, no matter what else happens.”
Throughout his time as Tonto, Silverheels spent his spare time working out, running, lifting weights and punching a bag. In 1954, he would suffer a heart attack and was told not to do such things anymore. He would then start a fat-free diet in order to keep his body lean.
While the 221 episodes of the show helped make Silverheels a household name and brought him more money than he could have thought possible, he did have issues with how it portrayed the Indigenous.
He would tell Macleans that the way Tonto talked, using phrases like “situation plenty bad” was an insult to the Indigenous.
He would say quote:
“Look at it. The Lone Ranger has saved Tonto’s life and Tonto has saved The Lone Ranger’s. Therefore, they should be brothers, closer than brothers but The Lone Ranger treats him like some kind of servant and this seems to suit Tonto fine.”
Even outside the show, Silverheels found that he and his co-star Clayton Moore were treated differently.
At a gathering in West Virginia, Moore was approached to visit a children’s ward of a nearby hospital. No one asked Silverheels to do so. The children at the hospital were excited to see The Long Ranger but kept asking where was Tonto. Silverheels was asked by Moore later why he didn’t come. He would respond quote:
“I speak your language. If you had asked me, I’d have been glad to go. But I am no animal that follows humbly along behind The Lone Ranger.”
Silverheels also had harsh words for anyone who passed themselves off as Indigenous, including one European who adopted an Indigenous name and became a technical advisor for films with Indigenous in them.
Silverheels would say quote:
“I’m a Mohawk. If you ever pass yourself off as an expert on Mohawk Indians, watch out for me.”
It was Silverheels’ hope that he could one day star in a television show that restored the stature of the Indigenous that he felt was being lost.
Speaking of his character’s iconic habit of calling The Lone Ranger “Kemosabe”, Silverheels would say quote:
“It’s supposed to mean faithful friend or trusty scout. Personally, I think its just mumbo-jumbo.”
While he did criticize the character of Tonto, he was still happy that the show portrayed an Indigenous character in a relatively positive manner, rather than as an enemy.
After the show ended, Silverheels found he was typecast only playing Indigenous characters
With acting work beginning to dry up after The Lone Ranger except for occasional television guest roles, Silverheels would start to work as a salesman to supplement his acting income.
Inspired by his youth on the Six Nations Reserve, he would write a book of poetry about his time there, and he would recite his work on television.
Silverheels would raise and race Standardbred horses in his spare time. Once, he was asked if his horses could outrun Tonto’s horse Scout in a race. Silverheels responded quote:
“Heck, I can outrun Scout!”
Silverheels would obtain a harness racing licence and he competed on tracks around the country. His friend, Tom Shelley would state quote:
“He had a genuine love of horses.”
Silverheels was also married twice, and would have two sons and four daughters.
In 1963, Silverheels would create the Indian Actors Workshop, which helped many budding Indigenous actors navigate the acting world and find work.
His friend, Lois Red Elk would say quote:
While Silverheels was typecast by the role of Tonto, he seemed grateful for what it gave him and he would often poke fun at it later in his life. In 1969, he appeared as Tonto on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. The sketch would then be put on a 1974 record. In the sketch, he would say quote:
“My name is Tonto. I hail from Toronto and I speak Esperanto.”
He would also work in a variety of commercials, in roles that gave a nod to his time as Tonto, including one for Chevrolet in 1970 when he played a chief who rescues two lost hikers who ignored his advice. The two men in the commercial had both played The Lone Ranger on the original television show.
In 1976, Silverheels suffered a stroke that limited his ability to earn a living. In 1977, his friend and Lone Ranger co-star Clayton Moore rode a horse similar to the one Tonto rode in honour of him at the Pasadena Tournament of Roses Parade.
Tom Shelley, a close friend of Silverheels, would say quote:
“Two things kept this man alive. He had a full-blooded Mohawk spirit and a strong, strong heart.”
The last acting role for Silverheels would be in an episode of ChiPs in 1980.
On March 5, 1980, Silverheels died from a stroke.
Shelley would say quote:
“Jay Silverheels was much more than just Tonto. This man gave more to this business than he ever received. He was the founder of the Indian Actors’ Workshop and also worked with the handicapped, the elderly, alcoholics and drug addicts. And there were hundreds and hundreds of kids in the children’s hospital. Those kids, oh, they just loved him.”
Clayton Moore would say of his co-star quote:
“A perfect gentleman and a true fighter for the Indian cause. He was a great man with a great sense of humor. I am going to miss him very much.”
His ashes would be returned to his reserve in Ontario.
In 1993, Silverheels was inducted into the Hall of Great Western Performers at the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum.
His portrait hangs at the Buffalo Theatre in Buffalo, New York and he has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. His star on the Walk of Fame was the first ever awarded to an Indigenous person.
I’ll finish this episode with a quote from the Brantford Expositor in an editorial upon Silverheels’ death. It states quote:
“The world knew him as an actor. Many of the Six Nations and this area knew him as a man, and the sort of man who commanded respect in every facet of his life.”
Information from Macleans, Canadian Encyclopedia, The Ottawa Journal, Wikipedia, Brantford Expositor, The Vancouver Province, Montreal Gazette, Vancouver Sun,