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Jay Silverheels (May 26, 1912 – March 5, 1980) was a First Nations actor. He was well known for his role as Tonto, the faithful Native American companion of the character, The Lone Ranger in a long-running American western television series.
Silverheels was born Harold J. Smith on the Six Nations of the Grand River First Nation, near Brantford, Ontario, Canada, one of 11 children of a Canadian Mohawk tribal chief and military officer, Major George Smith. Silverheels excelled in athletics and lacrosse before leaving home to travel around North America. In the 1930s, he played indoor lacrosse as Harry Smith with the "Iroquois" of Rochester, New York in the North American Amateur Lacrosse Association. He lived for a time in Buffalo, New York, and in 1938 placed second in the Middleweight class of the Golden Gloves tournament.
While playing in Los Angeles on a touring box lacrosse team in 1937, he impressed Joe E. Brown with his athleticism. Brown encouraged Silverheels to do a screen test, which led to his acting career. Silverheels began working in motion pictures as an extra and stunt man in 1937. He was billed variously as Harold Smith and Harry Smith, and appeared in low-budget features, westerns, and serials. He adopted his screen name from the nickname he had as a lacrosse player. From the late 1940s, he played in major films, including Captain from Castile starring Tyrone Power, I Am an American (1944), Key Largo with Humphrey Bogart (1948), Lust for Gold with Glenn Ford (1949), Broken Arrow (1950) with James Stewart, War Arrow (1953) with Maureen O'Hara, Jeff Chandler and Noah Beery, Jr., The Black Dakotas (1954) as Black Buffalo, Drums Across the River (1954), Walk the Proud Land (1956) with Audie Murphy and Anne Bancroft, Alias Jesse James (1959) with Bob Hope, and Indian Paint (1964) with Johnny Crawford. He made a brief appearance in True Grit (1969) as a condemned criminal about to be executed. He played a substantial role as John Crow in Santee (1973), starring Glenn Ford. One of his last roles was a wise white-haired chief in The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing (1973).
Silverheels achieved his greatest fame as Tonto on The Lone Ranger. The fictional story line maintains that a small group of Texas Rangers, except for The Lone Ranger, were massacred. The Lone Ranger and Tonto then ride throughout the West to assist those challenged by the lawless element. Their expenses and bullets are provided through a silver mine owned by The Lone Ranger, who also names his horse "Silver". Being irreplaceable in his role, Silverheels appeared in film sequels: The Lone Ranger (1956) and The Lone Ranger and the Lost City of Gold (1958).
When The Lone Ranger television series ended, Silverheels found himself firmly typecast as an American Indian. On January 6, 1960, he portrayed an Indian fireman trying to extinguish a forest fire in the episode "Leap of Life" in the syndicated series, Rescue 8, starring Jim Davis and Lang Jeffries.
Eventually, he went to work as a salesman to supplement his acting income. He also began to publish poetry inspired by his youth on the Six Nations Indian Reserve and recited his work on television. In 1966, he guest-starred as John Tallgrass in the short-lived ABC comedy/western series The Rounders, with Ron Hayes, Patrick Wayne, and Chill Wills.
Despite the typecasting, Silverheels in later years often poked fun at his character. In 1969, he appeared as Tonto without The Lone Ranger in a comedy sketch on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. The sketch was featured on the 1973 record album Here's Johnny: Magic Moments From The Tonight Show. "My name is Tonto. I hail from Toronto and I speak Esperanto." In 1970, he appeared in a commercial for Chevrolet as an Indian chief who rescues two lost hunters who ignored his advice in that year's Chevy Blazer. The William Tell Overture is heard in the background.
Silverheels hilariously spoofed his Tonto character in a famous Stan Freberg Jeno's Pizza Rolls TV commercial opposite Clayton Moore, and in The Phynx, opposite John Hart, both having played The Lone Ranger in the original television series.
His later appearances included an episode of ABC's The Brady Bunch, as an Indian who befriends the Bradys in the Grand Canyon, and in an episode of the short-lived Dusty's Trail, starring Bob Denver of Gilligan's Island.
In the early 1960s, Silverheels supported the Indian Actors Workshop, where American Indian actors refined their skills in Echo Park, California. Today the workshop is firmly established.
Silverheels raised, bred and raced Standardbred horses in his spare time. Once, when asked about possibly running Tonto's famous Paint horse Scout in a race, Jay laughed off the idea: "Heck, I can outrun Scout!"
Married in 1945, Silverheels was the father of three girls and a boy.
Jay Silverheels died on March 5, 1980 from complications of a stroke at age sixty-seven in Calabasas, California. He was cremated at Chapel of the Pines Crematory, and his ashes were returned to the Six Nations Reserve in Ontario.
In 1993, Silverheels was inducted into the Hall of Great Western Performers at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. He was named to the Western New York Entertainment Hall of Fame, and his portrait hangs in Buffalo, New York's Shea's Buffalo Theatre. He has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6538 Hollywood Boulevard. First Americans in the Arts honored Jay Silverheels with their Life Achievement Award.
In 1997, Silverheels was inducted, under the name Harry "Tonto" Smith, into the Canadian Lacrosse Hall of Fame in the Veteran Player category in recognition of his lacrosse career during the 1930s.
- Gas House Kids Go West (1947)
- Unconquered - Indian (uncredited) (1947)
- Trail of the Yukon (1949)
- Laramie - Running Wolf (uncredited) (1949)
- Broken Arrow - Geronimo (uncredited) (1950)
- Brave Warrior - Tecumseh (1952)
- The Legend of the Lone Ranger - Tonto (1952)
- The Pathfinder - Chingachgook (1952)
- The Lone Ranger Rides Again - TV Movie - Tonto (1955)
- Walk the Proud Land - Geronimo (1956)
- The Lone Ranger - Tonto (1956)
- The Lone Ranger and the Lost City of Gold - Tonto (1958)
- Alias Jesse James - Tonto (uncredited) (1959)
- Smith! - McDonald Lasheway (1969)
- True Grit - Condemned Man at Hanging (uncredited) (1969)
- The Phynx - Tonto (1970)
- The Lone Ranger - 217 episodes - Tonto (1949-1957)
- Wide Wide World - episode - The Western - Himself (1958)
- Wanted: Dead or Alive - episode - Man on Horseback - Charley Red Cloud (1959)
- Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color - episode - Texas John Slaughter: Apache Friendship & Texas John Slaughter: Geronimo's Revenge - Natchez (1960)
- Gunslinger - episode - The Recruit - Hopi Indian (1961)
- Wagon Train - episode - Path of the Serpent - The Serpent (1961)
- Rawhide - episode - The Gentleman's Gentleman - Pawnee Joe (1961)
- Laramie - episode - The Day of the Savage - Toma (1962)
- Daniel Boone - episode - Mountain of the Dead - Chenrogan (1964)
- Daniel Boone - episode - The Quietists - Latawa (1965)
- Branded - episode - The Test - Wild Horse (1965)
- Daniel Boone - episode - The Christmas Story - Sashona (1965)
- Gentle Ben - episode - Invasion of Willie Sam Gopher - Willie Sam Gopher (1967)
- The Virginian - episode - The Heritage - Den'Gwatzi (1968)
- The Brady Bunch - episode - The Brady Braves - Chief Eagle Cloud (1971)
- The Virginian - episode - The Animal - Spotted Hand (1971)
- Cannon - episode - Valley of the Damned - Jimmy One Eye (1973)
- CHiPs-episode-Poachers (1980)
- "Official website, Haudenosaunee Confederacy, Canadian First Nations League of Nations". Retrieved 2013-07-23.
- [dead link]
- "His job in Hollywood was to help his partner, "The Lone Ranger" stop the devious plots of hardened outlaws.". Heroinyou.ca. Retrieved 2011-11-21.
- "Silverheels played the role during the entire period from 1949 to 1957, even when Clayton Moore was replaced one season by John Hart". Findagrave.com. Retrieved 2011-11-21.
- Klein, Jeff Z. (31 August 2013). "A Sidekick’s Little-Known Leading Role in Lacrosse". The New York Times. Retrieved 1 September 2013.
- "His father, Major George Smith, was the most decorated Native Canadian soldier in World War I.". Lonerangerfanclub.com. Retrieved 2011-11-21.
- Quinlan, David (1985), Quinlan's Illustrated Directory of Film Character Actors (1995 revised ed.), Great Britain: The Bath Press, p. 319, ISBN 0-87000-412-3
- "Jay Silverheels Biography (c. 1918-1980)". Filmreference.com. Retrieved 2015-03-08.
- "In the 1930s he played lacrosse with the Rochester, NY "Iroquois" of the North American Amateur Lacrosse Association". Brantsportshall.com. Retrieved 2011-11-21.
- "He finished second in the Eastern Square finals of the Golden Gloves boxing championshipin Madison Square Garden.". Nimst.tripod.com. Retrieved 2011-11-21.
- Klein, Jeff Z. (2013-08-31). "A Sidekick's Little-Known Leading Role in Lacrosse". The New York Times.
- "Silverheels, an accomplished boxer, wrestler and lacrosse player, capitalized on this athletic prowess to break into the movie business, starting as a stuntman and extra". Ammsa.com. Retrieved 2011-11-21.
- "He worked as a stuntman and extra before landing bit parts in the early 1940s, almost always credited as simply "Indian" or "Indian Brave".". Canadaka.net. Retrieved 2011-11-21.
- "he was in four serials at Republic when he was still going by Harry Smith, before he changed his name". B-westerns.com. Retrieved 2011-11-21.
- "Changing his name to Jay Smith Silverheels, a nickname from his uncle due to his running style". Haudenosauneeconfederacy.com. Retrieved 2011-11-21.
- "he became noted for the white running shoes he wore. He was so swift that his feet were streaks". Lonerangerfanclub.com. Retrieved 2011-11-21.
- "Tonto via Toronto: The Rise and Fall of Jay Silverheels by Kliph Nesteroff - WFMU's Beware of the Blog". Blog.wfmu.org. 2009-03-15. Retrieved 2015-03-08.
- The 16 minute film, I Am an American, was featured in American theaters as a short feature in connection with "I Am an American Day" (now called Constitution Day). I Am an American was produced by Gordon Hollingshead, written and directed by Crane Wilbur, and featured Humphrey Bogart, Gary Gray, Gordon Hart, Dick Haymes, Danny Kaye, Joan Leslie, Mary Lee Moody, Dennis Morgan, Knute Rockne, and Jay Silverheels. See: I Am An American at the TCM Movie Database and I Am an American at the Internet Movie Database.
- Billy Hathorn, "Roy Bean, Temple Houston, Bill Longley, Ranald Mackenzie, Buffalo Bill, Jr., and the Texas Rangers: Depictions of West Texans in Series Television, 1955 to 1967", West Texas Historical Review, Vol. 89 (2013), p. 103
- "In addition to starring in The Lone Ranger television series from 1949 to 1957, Silverheels appeared in the films The Lone Ranger and The Lone Ranger and the Lost City of Gold.". Walkoffame.com. Retrieved 2011-11-21.
- "Leap of Life, Rescue 8, January 6, 1960". Internet Movie Data Base. Retrieved January 29, 2013.
- "with his career no longer sufficient to support his family, he began working as a salesman.". Amoeba.com. Retrieved 2011-11-21.
- "Silverheels as "Tonto" in Jimmy Carson's Late Night Show (film)". Youtube.com. Retrieved 2011-11-21.
- "Silverheels was a spokesperson for Indian actors and in 1963 founded the Indian Actors Workshop.". Infoplease.com. Retrieved 2011-11-21.
- "He founded the Indian Actors' Workshop in 1966 with Will Sampson and offered free classes for Native Americans". Famouscanadians.net. Retrieved 2011-11-21.
- "He formed the Indian Actors Workshop in Echo Park in the late 1960s". Celebhost.net. Retrieved 2011-11-21.
- "He later founded the Indian Actors Workshop, which he devoted enormous amounts of time and resources to. It still exists today.". Jessicacrabtree.com. Retrieved 2011-11-21.
- "In the 70's he became a harness racing driver and bred horses.". Tv.com. Retrieved 2011-11-21.
- "married, wife's name: Mary; children: Marilyn, Pamela, Karen, Jay Anthony". Filmreference.com. Retrieved 2011-11-21.
- Cheryl Petten. "Jay Silverheels: TV star paves way for Indian actors". Archived from the original on 2015-03-08. Retrieved 2015-03-08.
- "Jay Silverheels suffered a stroke in 1974 and passed away on March 5, 1980 after several years of ill health". Theloneranger.tv. Retrieved 2011-11-21.
- Lamparski, Richard (1970). Whatever Became Of...? 3. New York: Ace Book. OCLC 8977472.
- Misiak, Zig (2013). Tonto: The Man in Front of the Mask (Biography). self published. p. 128. ISBN 978-0981188065. Check date values in:
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- The Rise and Fall of Jay Silverheels @WFMU
- Jay Silverheels tribute site
- Jay Silverheels at the Internet Movie Database
- Biographical Information
- Screen Legends
- Jay Silverheels at Find a Grave
- Western Stars Quick Quiz on Jay Silverheels
- Amctv.com article on Silverheels and Western Sidekicks
- Jay Silverheels Biography;Tonto: The Man in Front of the Mask