Ben Johnson (actor)

For other people with the same name, see Ben Johnson.
Ben Johnson

Johnson in 1969
Born (1918-06-13)June 13, 1918
Foraker, Oklahoma, U.S.
Died April 8, 1996(1996-04-08) (aged 77)
Mesa, Arizona, U.S.
Cause of death heart attack
Nationality American
Occupation Actor
Years active 1939–1996
Spouse(s) Carol Elaine Jones (1941-94; her death)

Ben "Son" Johnson, Jr. (June 13, 1918 – April 8, 1996) was an American stuntman, world champion rodeo cowboy, and Academy Award-winning actor. The son of a rancher, Johnson arrived in Hollywood to deliver a consignment of horses for a film. He did stunt-double work for several years before breaking into acting through the good offices of John Ford. Tall and laconic, Johnson brought further authenticity to many roles in Westerns with his extraordinary horsemanship. An elegiac portrayal of a former cowboy theatre owner in the 1950s coming-of-age drama, The Last Picture Show, won Johnson the 1971 Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor and the BAFTA Award for Best Supporting Actor. He operated a horse-breeding farm throughout his career. Although he said he had succeeded by sticking to what he knew, shrewd real estate investments made Johnson worth an estimated $100 million by his latter years.[1]

Personal life

Johnson was born in Foraker, Oklahoma, on the Osage Indian Reservation, of Irish and Cherokee ancestry,[2][3] the son of Ollie Susan Johnson (née Workmon; 1899-2000) and Ben Johnson, Sr. (1896-1952).[4] His father was a rancher and rodeo champion in Osage County. Johnson was drawn to the rodeos and horse breeding of his early years. In 1953, he took a break from well-paid film work to compete in the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association, becoming Team Roping World Champion, although he only broke even financially that year. Johnson was inducted into the ProRodeo Hall of Fame in 1973. Johnson's mother Ollie died a few years after her son, on October 16, 2000, aged 101.[5]

Johnson's 1941 marriage to Carol Elaine Jones lasted until her death on March 27, 1994. They had no children. She was the daughter of noted Hollywood horse wrangler Clarence "Fat" Jones.[1]


Johnson's film career began with the Howard Hughes film, The Outlaw. Before filming began, Hughes bought some horses at the Oklahoma ranch that Johnson's father managed, and hired Johnson to get the horses to northern Arizona (for The Outlaw's location shooting), and then to take them on to Hollywood.

Johnson liked to say later that he got to Hollywood in a carload of horses.[6] With his experience wrangling for Hughes during The Outlaw's location shooting, once in Hollywood, he did stunt work for the 1939 movie The Fighting Gringo, and throughout the 1940s, he found work wrangling horses and doing stunt work involving horses.

His work as a stunt man caught the eye of director John Ford. Ford hired Johnson for stunt work in the 1948 film Fort Apache, and as the riding double for Henry Fonda.[3] During shooting, the horses pulling a wagon with three men in it stampeded. Johnson, who "happened to be settin' on a horse", stopped the runaway wagon and saved the men. When Ford promised that he would be rewarded, Johnson hoped it would be with another doubling job, or maybe a small speaking role.[7] Instead he received a seven-year acting contract from Ford.[8]

Ford called Johnson into his office, handed him an envelope with a contract in it. Johnson started reading it and when he got to the fifth line and it said "$5,000 a week," he stopped reading, grabbed a pen, and signed it, and gave it back to Ford.[7]

His first credited role was in Ford's 3 Godfathers; the film is notable for the riding skills demonstrated by both Johnson and star Pedro Armendáriz. He later said the film was the most physically challenging of his career. Ford then suggested him for a starring role in the 1949 film Mighty Joe Young; he played "Gregg" opposite Terry Moore. Ford cast him in two of the three films that have come to be known as Ford's cavalry trilogy, all starring John Wayne: She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), and Rio Grande (1950); both roles showcased Johnson's riding ability. Ford also cast Johnson as the lead in Wagon Master (1950), one of Ford's favorites.

In real life, Johnson did not show any bad temper; his demeanor in tense situations was calm but firm. However, although known for avoiding dramas, he had definite boundaries; during the making of Rio Grande he defied Ford, who was notorious for browbeating his actors, and reportedly told him to go to hell. Johnson thought the incident had been forgotten, but Ford did not use him in a film for over a decade. Johnson also appeared in four films of Sam Peckinpah and had a good relationship with the wayward director. Peckinpah appreciated Johnson's authenticity and lack of acting airs.[1]

Johnson played in supporting roles in Shane (1953), where he appeared as Chris Calloway, a "bad guy who makes good" after being beaten senseless by Alan Ladd, and One-Eyed Jacks (1961) starring Marlon Brando. In 1964, he worked with Ford again in Cheyenne Autumn. He also appeared in four Peckinpah-directed films: Major Dundee (1965, with Charlton Heston), The Wild Bunch (1969, with William Holden and Robert Ryan), and two back-to-back Steve McQueen films, The Getaway and the rodeo film Junior Bonner (both 1972). In 1973, he co-starred as Melvin Purvis in John Milius' Dillinger with Warren Oates; he also appeared in Milius' 1984 film Red Dawn. In 1975, he played the character Mister in Bite the Bullet, starring Gene Hackman and James Coburn. He also appeared with Charles Bronson in 1975's Breakheart Pass. In 1980, he was cast as Sheriff Isum Gorch in Soggy Bottom U.S.A.

Johnson played Bartlett in the 1962-63 season of Have Gun Will Travel, which featured a short scene of his riding skills. In the 1966-67 television season, Johnson appeared as the character Sleeve in all 26 episodes of the ABC family Western The Monroes with co-stars Michael Anderson, Jr. and Barbara Hershey.[9]

He teamed up with John Wayne again, and director Andrew V. McLaglen, in two films, appearing with Rock Hudson in The Undefeated (1969) and in a fairly prominent role in Chisum (1970). The apex of Johnson's career was reached in 1971, with Johnson winning an Academy Award for his performance as Sam the Lion in The Last Picture Show, directed by Peter Bogdanovich.

On the set of The Train Robbers, in June 1972, he told Nancy Anderson of Copley News Service that winning the Oscar for The Last Picture Show was not going to change him and he would not raise his salary request to studios because of it. He continued, "I grew up on a ranch and I know livestock, so I like working in Westerns. All my life I've been afraid of failure. To avoid it, I've stuck with doing things I know how to do, and it's made me a good living.[10]

He played Cap Roundtree in the 1979 miniseries The Sacketts. He played Sam Bellows in the 1980 film Ruckus (film). He co-starred in the 1994 version of Angels in the Outfield.

He continued ranching during the entire time, operating a horse-breeding ranch in Sylmar, California.[3] In addition, he sponsored the Ben Johnson Pro Celebrity Team Roping and Penning competition, held in Oklahoma City, the proceeds of which are donated to both the Children's Medical Research Inc. and the Children's Hospital of Oklahoma.

Death and legacy

Johnson continued to work almost steadily until his death from a heart attack at the age of 77. On April 8, 1996, the veteran actor collapsed while visiting his 96-year-old mother Ollie, at Leisure World in Mesa, Arizona, the suburban Phoenix retirement community where they both lived.[11]

For his contribution to the motion picture industry, Johnson has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 7083 Hollywood Blvd. In 1982, he was inducted into the Western Performers Hall of Fame at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City. In 1996, Tom Thurman made a documentary film about Johnson's life, titled Ben Johnson: Third Cowboy on the Right, written by Thurman and Tom Marksbury.[2]

The Ben Johnson Memorial Steer Roping and the International Roundup Cavalcade, the world's largest amateur rodeo, are held annually in Pawhuska, Oklahoma.[12]

A one-and-a-quarter-size bronze sculpture by John D. Free of Ben Johnson riding a horse and roping a steer was commissioned and produced in Pawhuska, Oklahoma.[13]


Film (actor and stuntman)

Year Title Role Notes
1939 The Fighting Gringo Mexican Barfly Uncredited
1943 The Outlaw Deputy Uncredited
1943 Bordertown Gun Fighters Messenger Uncredited
1944 The Pinto Bandit Race Contestant Uncredited
1944 Tall in the Saddle Townsman/Stuntman Uncredited
1944 Nevada Saloon Patron/Stunt Double: Robert Mitchum Uncredited
1945 Corpus Christi Bandits 2nd Stage Driver Uncredited
1945 The Naughty Nineties Coach Driver Uncredited
1946 Badman's Territory Deputy Marshal Uncredited
1947 Angel and the Badman Stuntman Uncredited
1948 The Gallant Legion Texas Ranger Uncredited
1948 Fort Apache Stunt Double: Henry Fonda Uncredited
1948 3 Godfathers Posse Man #1/Stuntman Johnson was also a Stunt Man but wasn't Credited for it.
1948 Red River Stuntman Uncredited
1949 Mighty Joe Young Gregg
1949 She Wore a Yellow Ribbon Sgt. Tyree
1950 Wagon Master Travis Blue
1950 Rio Grande Trooper Travis Tyree
1951 Fort Defiance Ben Shelby
1952 Wild Stallion Dan Light
1953 Shane Chris Calloway
1955 Oklahoma! Wrangler/Stuntman Uncredited
1956 Rebel in Town Frank Mason
1957 War Drums Luke Fargo
1957 Slim Carter Montana Burriss
1958 Fort Bowie Capt. Thomas Thompson
1960 Ten Who Dared George Bradley
1961 One-Eyed Jacks Bob Emory
1961 Tomboy and the Champ Uncle Jim
1964 Cheyenne Autumn Trooper Plumtree Uncredited
1965 Major Dundee Sergeant Chillum
1966 The Rare Breed Jeff Harter
1968 Will Penny Alex
1968 Hang 'Em High Marshal Dave Bliss
1969 The Wild Bunch Tector Gorch
1969 The Undefeated Short Grub
1970 Chisum James Pepper
1971 The Last Picture Show Sam the Lion Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor
BAFTA Award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role
Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actor – Motion Picture
National Board of Review Award for Best Supporting Actor
New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Supporting Actor
1971 Something Big Jesse Bookbinder
1972 Corky Boland
1972 Junior Bonner Buck Roan
1972 The Getaway Jack Beynon
1973 The Train Robbers Jesse
1973 The Wayne Train Himself/Jesse Short Documentary Short
1973 The Red Pony Jess Taylor Television movie
1973 Dillinger Melvin Purvis
1973 Kid Blue Sheriff 'Mean John' Simpson
1973 Runaway! Holly Gibson
1973 Blood Sport Dwayne Birdsong Television movie
1974 The Sugarland Express Captain Tanner
1974 Locusts Amos Fletcher Television movie
1975 Bite the Bullet Mister Bronze Wrangler for Theatrical Motion Picture (shared with cast & crew)
1975 Breakheart Pass Pearce
1975 Hustle Marty Hollinger
1976 The Savage Bees Sheriff Donald McKew Television movie
1976 The Town That Dreaded Sundown Captain J.D. Morales
1977 The Greatest Hollis
1977 Grayeagle John Colter
1978 The Swarm Felix
1979 The Sacketts Cap Rountree Television movie
1980 The Hunter Sheriff Strong
1980 Ruckus Sam Bellows
1980 Terror Train Carne
1981 Soggy Bottom U.S.A. Sheriff Isum Gorch
1982 Tex Cole Collins
1982 The Shadow Riders Uncle 'Black Jack' Traven Television movie
1983 Champions Burly Cocks
1984 Red Dawn Mr. Jack Mason
1985 Wild Horses Bill Ward
1986 Trespasses August Klein
1986 Let's Get Harry Harry Burck Sr.
1987 Cherry 2000 Six-Fingered Jake
1988 Stranger on my Land Vern Whitman Television movie
1988 Dark Before Dawn The Sheriff
1989 The Last Ride Unnamed cowboy Short film
1989 Back to Back Eli Hix
1989 Hollywood on Horses Himself
1991 The Chase Laurienti Television movie
1991 My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys Jesse Dalton
1991 Thank Ya, Thank Ya Kindly Himself TV movie Documentary
1992 Radio Flyer Geronimo Bill
1992 The Making of Rio Grande Himself/Trooper Travis Tyree
1993 John Ford Himself TV movie Documentary
1993 Bonanza: The Return Bronc Evans Television movie
1994 Outlaws: The Legend of O.B. Taggart Unknown
1994 100 Years of the Hollywood Western Himself TV movie Documentary
1994 Angels in the Outfield Hank Murphy
1995 Bonanza: Under Attack Bronc Evans Television movie
1996 Ruby Jean and Joe Big Man With Tom Selleck
1996 Ben Johnson: Third Cowboy on the Right Himself Documentary
1996 The Evening Star Doctor Arthur Cotton Released posthumously


Year Title Role Notes
1956 Cavalcade of America Cal Bennett Once a Hero (Season 5, Episode 12)
1958 The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet Tex Barton Top Gun (Season 6, Episode 26)
1958 Navy Log Border Patrol Officer Florida Weekend (Season 3, Episode 28)
1958 The Restless Gun Sheriff Tim Malachy No Way to Kill (Season 2, Episode 9)
1958 Alfred Hitchcock Presents Jeff, The Sheriff And the Desert Shall Blossom (Season 4, Episode 11)
1958 Wagon Train Wagon Driver episode: Bije Wilcox Story
1959 Border Patrol Hank Colman Everglades Story (Season 1, Episode 1)
1960—1961 Laramie Various Seasons 1—2; 3 episodes
1961—1962 Route 66 Various Seasons 1—2; 2 episodes
1960—1962 Have Gun – Will Travel Various Seasons 4—6; 3 episodes
1962 Stoney Burke Rex Donally Point of Honor (Season 1, Episode 4)
1962 Bonanza Deputy Sheriff Stan Mac episode: The Gamble
1964 Perry Mason Kelly - Mine Foreman The Case of the Reckless Hound (Season 8, Episode 10)
1965 Bob Hope Presents the Chrysler Theatre Burt Wade March from Camp Tyler (Season 3, Episode 3)
1966 Branded Bill Latigo McCord's Way (Season 2, Episode 20)
1966 ABC Stage 67 Sheriff Barbee Noon Wine (Season 1, Episode 9)
1966—1967 The Monroes Sleeve Recurring role; 14 episodes
1963—1968 The Virginian Various Seasons 1—7; 4 episodes
1969 Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color Himself Ride a Northbound Horse: Part 1 and 2 (Season 15, Episodes 21 & 22)
1969 Bonanza Sgt. Samuel Bellis episode: The Deserter
1971 Bonanza Kelly James episode: Top Hand
1963—1971 Gunsmoke Ben Crown/Vern Morland/Hannon Seasons 8—17; episodes: Quint-Cident / Quaker Girl /Drago
1980 Wild Times Doc Bogardus Television miniseries; 2 episodes
1984 Hollywood Greats Himself episode: John Wayne
1986 Dream West Jim Bridger Television miniseries


  1. 1 2 3 Jensen, Richard D. (2010). The Nicest Fella - the Life of Ben Johnson: The World Champion Rodeo Cowboy who Became an Oscar-winning Movie Star. iUniverse. ISBN 9781440196782.
  2. 1 2 Thurman, Tom. - Ben Johnson: Third Cowboy on the Right,; accessed June 24, 2015.
  3. 1 2 3 Erickson, Hal. "Ben Johnson profile". Allmovie.
  4. Ollie Susan Workmon Rider obituary, Osage County, Oklahoma USGenWeb Project,; accessed June 24, 2015.
  5. Profile,; accessed June 24, 2015.
  6. "Ben Johnson". Retrieved June 24, 2015.
  7. 1 2 Brown, David G. (September–October 1995). "Last of a Breed". American Cowboy. Active Interest Media. 2 (3): 43. ISSN 1079-3690.
  8. McBride, Joseph (2003). Searching for John Ford: A Life. Macmillan. p. 496. ISBN 978-0-312-31011-0.
  9. Filmography,; accessed June 24, 2015.
  10. Anderson, Nancy (June 4, 1972). "John Wayne A Father Figure On Movie Set in Durango, Mexico". The Joplin Globe. Copley New Service.
  11. "Actor Ben Johnson dies at 77", The Press of Atlantic City, Atlantic City, NJ, April 9, 1996, retrieved August 31, 2012
  12. May, Jon D. "Pawhuska," Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture. Accessed March 25, 2015.

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