Ben “Son” Johnson was shocked when he was offered a $5,000 a week seven year exclusive contract to John Ford
According to all sources Ben “Son” Johnson came indirectly to Hollywood for the first time in 1940. When he brought horses from the ranch his father was managing to Arizona for a film shoot and found work as a stunt double. Depending on the version of this story. The purchase agreement for the horses was either with the motion picture’s producer Howard Hughes, or director Howard Hawks. The film was Hughes’ controversial Western about Billy the Kid “The Outlaw” released by RKO.
However, it is a fact that Ben “Son” Johnson appeared without screen credit as a “Mexican Barfly”and stunt man in the George O’Brien Western “The Fighting Gringo”. A motion picture that was released August 8, 1939. So how could the above story be true, if Johnson had already appeared the O’Brien picture? The only answer is that the horses were not brought for “The Outlaw”, but the earlier 1939 production. Also released by RKO. Although Johnson’s association with Howard Hughes’ Western makes a better back story.
In 1941 Ben Johnson married Carol Elaine Jones and the two would be together until her death in 1994. They had no children.
After “The Fighting Gringo” Ben Johnson’s work was only as a stunt double, or horse and cattle wrangler. This began with doubling Western star Charles Starlett in 1940’s “The Durango Kid” and lasted for 10 motion pictures, including “The Outlaw” and “Tarzan’s Desert Mystery”, through doubling Russell Hayden in 1943’s “Riders of the Northwest Mounted”, This work was followed starting in 1943’s “Bordertown Gun Fighters” with 8 motion picture non-screen credited “walk om” acting appearances, while still performing stunt work, through 1948’s “The Gallant Legion”.
Bringing me to another of those stories about how Ben “Son” Johnson became an actor. In this case there is no confusion over the story and it is told by many including his friend actor Harry Carey, Jr. in “Company of Heroes: My Life with the John Ford Stock Company”. A very good book for fans of Ford’s work.
At the time Ben Johnson was working as a wrangler on the 1948 John Ford production “Fort Apache” starring John Wayne, Henry Fonda, Shirley Temple and introducing actor John Agar. Agar would marry Temple shortly after the pictures completion. You can read about John Agar’s rise, fall and come back as a 1950’s/1960’s
Director John Ford was filming a sequence of “Fort Apache” involving three people on a wagon. Johnson and another wrangler were watching the shoot. When suddenly the horses spooked and the wagon became an unplanned and very real run-a-way. Ben Johnson realizing what he was seeing went after the wagon as the cameras still rolled and was able to stop the horses and save the actors from injury.
Ford said he had a special reward for the wrangler/stunt man. Johnson thought it might be some extra stunt work by doubling the main actors for a higher pay, or even a walk on speaking role. Instead, Ben “Son” Johnson was shocked when he was offered a $5,000 a week seven year exclusive contract to John Ford.
Ben Johnson, actor, found his first screen credited role as “Posse Man #1” in Ford’s classic 1949 remake of his own “The 3 Godfathers”. This time starring John Wayne, Pedro Armendaiz and introducing Harry Carey, Jr. This was followed once again by without screen credited stunt work on Howard Hawks’ “Red River” starring John Wayne and Montgomery Cliff from United Artists and an MGM musical “The Kissing Bandit” starring a young Frank Sinatra.
This might not have seemed a great beginning for a fledgling character actor. Who would end his career with 103 appearances in either motion pictures or television, but you have to start somewhere.
I am not going into detail on all 103 appearances of Ben “Son” Johnson, but only 9 motion pictures. Along with one character he created. A role he is forever associated with when John Ford directed Westerns are mentioned. The first of the 9 pictures and the creation of that character still took place in the very productive year of 1949.
This film starred Terry Moore. Who at the time of its release was the girlfriend of the current owner of RKO Pictures Howard Hughes. Ben Johnson had second billing and the film featured Robert Armstrong doing what was a comic version of his role of Carl Denham from the 1933 “King Kong”.
Although Merian C. Cooper, the creator of “King Kong”, was head of RKO’s production and this was a pet project of his. The credits for the motion picture show his good friend and co-producer John Ford first. The two would make several classic John Wayne films together as “Argosy Pictures”. “Mighty Joe Young” was also directed by Cooper’s long time partner from before their 1933 “King Kong” Ernest B. Schoedsack.
“Mighty Joe Young” would be released on July 27, 1949, but the work on the animated effects started in 1947 with the hiring of Ra
y Harryhausen as Willis O’Brien’s assistant. The movie would win an Oscar for producer Merian C. Cooper for the special effects, but it should be noted it was only up against only one other motion picture. A Susan Hayward, Robert Preston film “Tulsa” revolving around the Tulsa, Oklahoma 1920’s oil boom.
Ben Johnson played “Gregg”, no last name ever given, a wrangler for Max O’Hara, Robert Armstrong, who is capturing wild animals in Africa for his New York Restaurant. The two come in contact with Jill Young and her pet 12 foot high gorilla Joe.