Ben Johnson: A Cowboy for All Seasons

One of the things that makes the New Beverly Cinema experience special is the opportunity to see classic films that are full of character actors that anchor the films with a sense of realism and authenticity. For guys like Chill Wills, Slim Pickens, George “Gabby” Hayes, Harry Carey Jr., Jack Elam, L.Q. Jones, Strother Martin, Warren Oates and Bruce Dern – you never doubted for a second these guys didn’t belong on a horse, or in a bar fight.

For character actors with an outstanding body of work, the New Beverly has become sort of a default Hall of Fame for the indelible moments they’ve created in these films. While Warren Oates and Bruce Dern managed to break away from ensemble roles to lead films in the 1970’s, it was horse wrangler, stuntman, rodeo champion and oh, by the way, actor Ben Johnson that managed to win an Academy Award for his Best Supporting Actor role as Sam the Lion in The Last Picture Show.

 

Ben-Johnson-Academy

 

Ben Johnson’s trail to the gold statue was as unique as it was unlikely. After Howard Hughes purchased some horses for his film The Outlaw from a ranch in Oklahoma run by Ben’s father, Ben was hired to wrangle the horses to Northern Arizona for filming and then get the horses to Hollywood. In one of those life-changing decisions that comes up 7-7-7 on the jackpot wheel, Johnson decided to stick around, landing his first gig as a stuntman in The Fighting Gringo (1939) continuing to work steadily as a horse wrangler and stuntman through the 1940’s.

Johnson’s big break came in 1948 while riding double for Henry Fonda in John Ford’s Fort Apache, when he stopped a runaway wagon that was endangering the actors. Ford was so impressed with Johnson’s heroics and unassuming ways, that he offered him a seven-year, $5,000 a week acting contract – which Johnson promptly signed. Ben Johnson was about to have his feet held to the fire, with acting roles in John Fords famed “Cavalry Trilogy” starring John Wayne: She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), Rio Grande (1950) and Wagon Master (1950), a film which Ford gave Johnson the lead role.

 

Wagon-Master

 

In addition to working with Ford, he appeared in three Sam Peckinpah films (The Wild Bunch, Junior Bonner, The Getaway) and three films by director Tom Gries (Will Penny, Breakheart Pass and The Greatest with Muhammad Ali). Johnson was in the directorial debuts of both Marlon Brando (One Eyed Jacks) and Steven Spielberg (The Sugarland Express). He also worked with John Milius in Red Dawn, which is one of the three films that Jeff, the New Bev’s Projection Booth Chief, cited as life changing in his bio.

The list of actors Ben Johnson stood boot-to-boot and toe-to-toe with onscreen include John Wayne, Alan Ladd, James Stewart, William Holden, Charlton Heston, Clint Eastwood, Steve McQueen and Charles Bronson in a wagon train list of rock solid performances and credits. Still, it was Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show that gave Ben Johnson his signature performance. A role that he initially turned down for having “too many goddamn words.”

 

 

I had a chance to sit down with actor-director Jon Gries, who was kind enough to share some memories of working with Ben Johnson on Will Penny, his father’s friendship with the man both on and off-screen, as well as his thoughts on The Last Picture Show.

GARRET MATHANY: The New Beverly Cinema will be showing The Last Picture show on January 18th & 19th with Ben Johnson’s timeless role as Sam the Lion. Can you share some memories with us about working with Ben Johnson on Will Penny?

JON GRIES: Ben was as gentle of a human being that I could’ve ever have known. What was amazing about him was how he translated when he was on camera – incredibly likeable – just one of those people. It was effortless. But that’s not to say that Ben didn’t get nervous. I remember him knocking over a chair on accident during a first take and making jokes to kind of loosen up. He told my father “I’d like to chew some tobacco during this scene” and he pulled out a pack of Beech Nut and put a big chaw into his mouth while the camera was rolling to sort of put him at ease, I think. I mean he was a wrangler, a wrangler and a stuntman. The first time I saw him on set, I said “Dad… that’s a real cowboy isn’t it?” and my father said “As real as it gets.”

GM: So Ben Johnson found a way to be himself in front of the camera, in a way that so many method actors at that time were trying to achieve through Lee Strasberg in New York?

JG: I don’t think he found a way, I just think that’s all he knew. He was effortless. The thing is, there’s only so much you’re going to be able to conjure up if your [acting] work is purely technical. It takes imagination and, obviously, being an empathetic person is important to portraying different characters. That was a big part of Ben’s acting… there was sensitivity to him – for lack of a better word. He was a caring, courteous, respectful person and man did that come through on camera.

 

Ben Johnson as Sam the Lion

 

GM: Sounds a lot like Sam the Lion.

JG: (Nods) Sam the Lion. Sam’s fate is sealed in that small Texas town. Where’s he going to go? What’s he going to do? The only thing he has are his memories… the swimming hole, the great love that he shared when he was younger with Ellen Burstyn’s character and the café, pool hall and movie theater.

GM: Another New Beverly favorite Slim Pickens, who was just in Dr. Strangelove last month, was in Will Penny. Your dad, director Tom Gries, was friends with a lot of these guys.

JG: One night during the filming of Will Penny I couldn’t sleep, so I went to a room in the hotel where Ben Johnson, Slim Pickens, my dad and some of the wranglers were playing poker. My dad said I could stay for a few minutes. Just getting to watch these guys, I mean, just being a fly on the wall in that room, how they talked and joked with each other – that’s how they were on camera. We had a day off from filming, so Slim Pickens, his two sons, my dad and I got up at 5:00 a.m. to go on a deer hunt. Slim’s driving and we’ve been on the road awhile and they start talking about shooting a deer, and I say, “Wait a minute. We’re going to actually kill a deer? I don’t think I want to do that.” And Slim said (Jon does a convincing Slim Pickens impersonation) “Gawldarn it! We drive all the way out here… Gawldang…” and my dad said, “Sorry Slim – we gotta take the kid back.” That’s how Slim talked and that’s how he was onscreen. Warren Oates, Slim Pickens, Ben Johnson, Casey Tibbs, Chill Wills these guys weren’t going to soft sell or bullshit anything in front of the camera. You know the saying “Cowboy up?” They were going to bring their A-Game no matter what. No complaining. Cowboys are like athletes – competitive. That also played into it. There was kind of an unspoken credo these guys lived by.

GM: So many of these actors you’re mentioning share a common thread that is woven through the programming at the New Beverly Cinema. They have a tremendous body of work and keep popping up in the films that play throughout the year.

JG: I’m so glad these movies are still being shown there on film. These were my dad’s people. Tough guys… but happy. These guys just always seemed happy to me, a lot of laughs. That’s why they appeared in so many of each other’s films. Most of these guys were really good friends.

 

The-Last-Picture-Show

 

GM: What was your impression seeing The Last Picture Show after having worked with Ben Johnson a few years earlier?

JG: Well, I mean, it’s a masterpiece, without question. And what makes a masterpiece is not just incredible filmmaking, and incredible performances, but that it captures something that never has been shown that way. There’s a stark loneliness to that film and those people are never going to get out of where they are. The way the characters and that town looks in black and white, the wallpaper in the interior shots, the open space, Hank Williams on the radio and yet at the same time, there are moments of incredible comfort – at least for me.

GM: When Sam the Lion asks Sonny how Billy got the bloody nose, and Jeff Bridges is cowering in the back of the car, the screen door creaking as Billy goes inside the pool hall. Bill Johnson’s performance in that scene – telling those boys he doesn’t want to see them anymore – it’s heartbreaking. The only thing moving during that scene is their hair from the wind.

JG: That scene and Sam’s monologue when he’s fishing with Sonny and Billy, talking about his wild times with a young Ellen Burstyn. The woman he’s never gotten over. That loneliness I was talking about. Ben Johnson was a special guy.

 

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