BEN JOHNSON, a Real Reel Cowboy

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Francis Benjamin Johnson was born in Foreacre, Oklahoma on June 13, 1918. Born of Irish, Osage and Cherokee Indigenous ancestry, and the son of ranchers Ollie Susan and Ben Johnson, Jr. Oklahoma-born Ben Johnson was a true cowboy and horse wrangler that first made his way into Hollywood via providing horses to Howard Hughes for THE OUTLAW (1943). He realized he could make more money by stunt-doubling for many big stars of the 1930s and 1940s including: James Stewart, Randolph Scott, John Wayne, and Gary Cooper.


But it was John Ford that gave him his big break into acting. On the set of FORT APACHE (1948) while stunt doubling for Henry Fonda, an accidental moment forever changed Johnson’s career. While shooting, horses tethered to a wagon with three men inside suddenly stampeded. Johnson happened to be off-camera, awaiting in saddle upon his horse when he saw this, and he bolted into action. He chased the runaway wagon and saved those inside. Johnson’s quick thinking impressed John Ford and the director rewarded him. While Ben was grateful to get more stunt work, Jake Ford had a bigger offer in mind. Ford presented a contract to him- a 7 year acting contract for $5,000/week. Without finishing reading, he signed immediately.

download-2Soon, no longer uncredited roles or only stunt work, Ben Johnson began speaking roles in films like THREE GODFATHERS (1948), SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON (1949), and WAGON MASTER (1950). Even Ford’s Argosy production company partnership with Merian C Cooper, with what Jack thought was just ‘a silly monkey movie,’ gave him a leading role early on in MIGHTY JOE YOUNG (1949).


There was a period of strain in the Johnson/Ford relationship when Ford didn’t cast him for over a decade, due to a verbal argument on the set of RIO GRANDE (1949) plus rumors of an unsatisfactory salary concern from THE SUN SHINES BRIGHT (1953). Ultimately, they remained friends and Johnson was cast in Ford’s CHEYENNE AUTUMN (1964).

Johnson took a slight detour from acting in 1953. True to his background, he returned to roping. Competing in the RCA (Rodeo Cowboys Association), he became the Team Roping World Champion. In 1979, he was inducted into the ProRodeo Hall of Fame: “I’ve won a rodeo world championship, and I’m prouder of that than anything else I’ve ever done.”



He continued his acting across film and television, working with the top actors and directors in Hollywood. But many audiences may know the plain-spoken actor more for the most award-winning role of his career- one that he almost didn’t take. Initially, Johnson turned down the “Sam the Lion” role in Peter Bogdanovich’s THE LAST PICTURE SHOW (1971). He was uncomfortable by what he thought was a “dirty” script with too much foul language. Bogdanovich appealed to John Ford to help persuade him. With the director’s approval, Johnson accepted the role on the condition he could re-write it himself; and removed the ‘offensive’ wording. Ben Johnson went on to be nominated and win many awards for this performance, including winning the BAFTA, the Golden Globe, and the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.

images-4Ben Johnson was an actor in over a hundred films- constantly working across every decade, from 1939 until his death from a heart attack, at age 77 years old in 1996. Ben’s death occurred while he was visiting his mother “Ollie” at the retirement community where they each lived.

Ben outlived his wife Carol of 52 years, by 2 years. Interestingly, his mom, “Ollie” outlived him. She died in 2000, at the age of 101 years old. He had been successful enough in his career to work continuously to the end. And he lived long enough to be honored with several accolades of his lifetime of work, including a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. To this day, he also has an amateur championship rodeo, a statue, and a museum in his namesake. Ben Johnson is buried at the Pawhuska City Cemetery in Pawhuska, Oklahoma.


Brown, David G. (September–October 1995). “Last of a Breed”. American Cowboy. Active Interest Media. 2 (3): 43.

“Actor Buried Near Pawhuska”Tulsa World. April 15, 1996.


2 thoughts on “BEN JOHNSON, a Real Reel Cowboy

  1. I’ve always admired Johnson in his Western movies. He also turned down Bogdanovich by saying his script had “Too many words.” When Bogdanovich told that to Ford, he said that’s what Johnson says about all scripts. Ford had to intervene. Thanks for posting this nice tribute to Ben Johnson.


  2. I really enjoyed this profile of Ben Johnson, Kellee. For many years, my only exposure to him was in The Last Picture Show, but when I started on my Westerns film journey, I saw him in Rio Grande. I could hardly believe it was the same person! So interesting that Bogdanovich reached out to John Ford to get Johnson for The Last Picture Show. He certainly gave a first-rate performance. Thanks for this interesting and informative post!


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