A legendary man in a saddle from Oklahoma
Ben Johnson is the only Oklahoma native to win an Academy Award for acting in the past 70 years.
He’s also the only person to ever win an Oscar and a rodeo world championship.
He is a legend who early on didn’t plan to pursue anything more than what he perceived as the highest acclaim he could receive: to be thought of as a great cowboy like his father.
But fate took him to Hollywood, and this actor/cowboy led a life that guaranteed he will play a key role when OKPOP — the Oklahoma Museum of Popular Culture — opens in Tulsa in a couple of years.
The tall, resolute, soft-spoken man was born June 13, 1918, growing up around Pawhuska and owning property there for a lifetime, and he would have been 100 this week.
More than 20 years after his death, it’s still difficult to imagine that an actor will ever portray more accurately on-screen what a real Oklahoman is like — because no one has done it yet.
There are probably 100 fascinating facts to tell about Johnson, but we’ll stop at 15 for now until OKPOP continues telling his story and that of other Oklahoma performers.
1. He was working by age 11 on the massive Chapman-Barnard Ranch in Osage County, where his father was ranch foreman and Johnson was known by most as “Son.”
2. In 1940, he was assigned to load a train car in Tulsa with horses and head to Arizona, delivering them to billionaire/filmmaker Howard Hughes for his movie “The Outlaw.”
3. Johnson was making $40 a month working on the ranch; Hughes recognized his skills and offered him $175 a week to wrangle horses on the set. Johnson went into the movie business.
4. Johnson became a stunt rider and doubled for John Wayne and James Stewart, among others, before director John Ford made him part of his stock company of actors.
5. He appeared in “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon” and “Rio Grande” for Ford among eight movies co-starring with Wayne, making his name as a sidekick in Westerns and occasionally playing the “heavy.”
6. He took a year off from acting in 1953 to pursue a world champion cowboy title, one year after the death of his father (who won multiple titles). Johnson won a world championship in team steer roping.
7. During his career, Johnson starred in three films among the American Film Institute’s 100 greatest films — “Shane” in 1953, “The Wild Bunch” in 1969 and “The Last Picture Show” in 1971.
8. He not only still ranched in Oklahoma but also returned to film in the state multiple times, including “Dillinger” (1973), “Tex” (1982) and “My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys” (1991).
9. Johnson initially turned down the role of “Sam the Lion” in “The Last Picture Show,” playing the philosophical owner of a pool hall in a dusty 1951 Texas town, calling it a “dirty” movie with too much profanity and nudity.
10. John Ford convinced him to reconsider, and Johnson convinced director Peter Bogdonavich to let him re-write his dialogue. He won the Oscar for best supporting actor, and the Golden Globe, “and I didn’t have to say one dirty word!” he was quoted as saying.
11. The plain-spoken Johnson put away his notes on Oscar night and gave one of the awards’ great speeches: “What I’m about to say will start a controversy around the world … This couldn’t have happened to a nicer fella!”
12. He became a major star in his 50s, starring opposite Steve McQueen and Charles Bronson and in director Steven Spielberg’s first feature film.
13. For many years, he sponsored the Ben Johnson Celebrity Rodeos in multiple cities, raising more than $2 million to benefit children’s charities.
14. Johnson died in 1996 and was buried near Pawhuska.
15. He remains one of the state’s favorite sons: Following James Garner’s death in 2014, a Tulsa World poll asked who should join Will Rogers and Garner on an “Oklahoma Mt. Rushmore of acting,” and Johnson was the top vote-getter.