Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Remembering Ben Johnson...

Published on April 19, 1996 in the Kansas City Kansan on the occasion of actor Ben Johnson’s death.


By Steve Crum 

Ben Johnson rode with the best of them on and off screen during his 60-plus cowboy years as a trick and stunt rider, rodeo star, actor, and ultimately Academy Award winner. His death at 75 on April 8 adds closure to the great era of Western movies that spanned from William S. Hart and Tom Mix silents to John Wayne and Clint Eastwood. Most of his cowboy co-stars and directors are long gone, including mentors Duke Wayne, Ward Bond, and John Ford—the revered “John Ford Stock Company.” Under Pappy Ford, Ben Johnson’s gutsy, hard riding heroics forever dazzle in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Ford Apache, and Rio Grande.

Yet his best Western work, Ford’s low-keyed Wagonmaster, gave him his first stretch as star actor. Teamed with another Ford stock actor, Harry Carey Jr. (who is still alive), Johnson is terrific as a cowpuncher who very reluctantly agrees to guide a group of Mormon settlers (led by Ward Bond) to their promised land out West. 

It was always Ben Johnson in a cowboy hat, even in monster film Mighty Joe Young (he ropes that giant ape), and later roles as a modern day Lone Star lawman in The Sugarland Express as well as owner of a has been movie theater (his Best Supporting Actor Oscar) in The Last Picture Show. A late career highlight was his gritty part as a weathered outlaw in Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, restored and re-released last year.

The Oklahoma cowboy off-screen was devoted to raising thousands for afflicted children via his annual charity rodeo in Scottsdale, Arizona. He was also devoted to his fans, appearing regularly at dozens of nationwide film festivals.

Alan Brehm, a friend of mine who is a premiere film collector and historian possessing a fantastic collection of John Ford memorabilia, witnessed Johnson’s open persona at last summer’s Memphis Film Festival held at a local hotel there. 

“Ben was the main reason I went down there,” said Brehm. “He was supposed to come in early on a Friday, but arrived late, at 9 p.m.” Brehm said Johnson had not been feeling well, and was encouraged by an aide to go to his room to rest. Twenty minutes later, Johnson appeared at the door of the festival’s main area, his friend still pressuring him to get some sleep. Ben Johnson was adamant about staying.

“These are my fans,” he said. “If it weren’t for them, I wouldn’t be here.” For the next hour or so, Johnson tirelessly greeted fans and signed autographs. Then he returned to his room. Brehm, who was staying at the same hotel, was in the hall at about 1 a.m. and saw Johnson carrying an armload of folders to his room. 

“Goodnight, Ben!” yelled Brehm. “Get some sleep!” “Yeah, boy!” was his reply.

A treasure of Brehm’s is the movie still of Rio Grande that Johnson personalized with a quote directed to his character in the same film: “You’re a man I can trust. Your friend, Ben Johnson.”

Reports are that Johnson died of a heart attack after visiting his mother at the retirement community in which they both lived. The beloved old cowboy will be missed.
This photo of Ben Johnson was taken during the 1995 Memphis Film Festival. 
A nice tribute to both Ben Johnson and his sometime co-star, Harry Carey Jr.:

1 comment:

  1. Like so many others, who became lifelong fans of his, we first noticed Ben as the outlaw with a heart of gold in Shane. One of my favorite scenes when he rides up and tells Shane that he has "quit Ryker", because something just came over him. And his wonderful performance that won his Oscar. I really loved his work on film, admired him as a man, and a true westerner. The genuine article. The valedictory that "Mr Nightlinger" spoke over John Wayne's grave in The Cowboys seems appropriate as well for the Duke's good friend Ben Johnson: Paraphrased here. Ben is buried near the little town where he grew up on the prairie. "This may seem a lonesome place to leave him, but he is not alone. The prairie was like a mother to him. He belonged to her. She cared for him while he lived. And she is nursing him now as he sleeps. " Good actor, good man.