Jay Silverheels

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Jay Silverheels
Silverheels at The Meadow Racetrack in Pennsylvania, 1970s
Harold Jay Smith

May 26, 1912
DiedMarch 5, 1980 (aged 67)
Resting placeCremation
ResidenceCalabasas, Los Angeles County, California
NationalityMohawk / Canadian
OccupationActor, stunt man, athlete, poet, salesman
Years active1937–1980
Known forTonto
TelevisionTonto in The Lone Ranger (TV series)
Spouse(s)Bobbi Smith (?–1943) Mary Diroma (1945–1980)
Partner(s)Edna Lickers

Jay Silverheels (born Harold Jay Smith, May 26, 1912 – March 5, 1980)[1] was a Mohawk actor and athlete.[2] He was well known for his role as Tonto, the faithful Native American companion of the Lone Ranger[3][4] in the long-running American western television series The Lone Ranger.

Early life[edit]

Silverheels was born Harold Jay Smith in Canada, on the Six Nations of the Grand River, near Hagersville, Ontario.[5] He was a grandson of Mohawk Chief A. G. Smith and Mary Wedge, and one of the 11 children of Captain Alexander George Edwin Smith, MC, Cayuga, and his wife Mabel Phoebe Doxtater, also a Mohawk. His father[6] was wounded and decorated for service at the Battle of the Somme and Ypres during World War I, and later was an adjutant training Polish-American recruits for the Blue Army for service in France, at Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario.


Silverheels excelled in athletics, most notably in 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.[7] He lived for a time in Buffalo, New York, and in 1938 placed second in the Middleweight class of the Golden Gloves tournament.[8] Silverheels was inducted into the Canadian Lacrosse Hall of Fame as a veteran player in 1997.



While playing in Los Angeles on a touring box lacrosse team in 1937, Silverheels impressed Joe E. Brown, with his athleticism.[2] Brown encouraged him to do a screen test, which led to his acting career.[9] Silverheels began working in motion pictures as an extra and stunt man[10][11] in 1937.[12] He was billed variously as Harold Smith and Harry Smith, and appeared in low-budget features, westerns, and serials.[13] He adopted his screen name from the nickname he had as a lacrosse player.[14][15][16] From the late 1940s, he played in major films, including Captain from Castile starring Tyrone Power, I Am an American (1944),[17] 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).


Clayton Moore as the Lone Ranger and Jay Silverheels as Tonto.
Clayton Moore as the Lone Ranger and Jay Silverheels as Tonto. Moore is riding Silver, while Silverheels is riding Scout.

Jay Silverheels achieved his greatest fame as Tonto on The Lone Ranger. The fictional story line maintains that a small group of Texas Rangers were massacred, with only a "lone" survivor. 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".[18] Being irreplaceable in his role, Silverheels appeared in the film sequels: The Lone Ranger (1956) and The Lone Ranger and the Lost City of Gold (1958).[19]

When The Lone Ranger television series ended, Silverheels found himself firmly typecast as a Native American. On January 6, 1960, he portrayed a Native American 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.[20] 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.[21] The sketch was featured on the 1974 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 a Native American 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 spoofed his Tonto character in a 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.

He appeared in three episodes of NBC's Daniel Boone, starring Fess Parker as the real life frontiersman.

His later appearances included an episode of ABC's The Brady Bunch, as a Native American 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,[22] where Native American actors refined their skills[23] in Echo Park, Los Angeles.[24] Today the workshop is firmly established.[25]

Personal life[edit]

Silverheels raised, bred and raced Standardbred horses in his spare time. Once, when asked about possibly running Tonto's paint horse Scout in a race, Silverheels laughed off the idea: "Heck, I can outrun Scout!"[26]

Married in 1945, Silverheels was the father of three girls (Marilyn, Pamela and Karen) and a boy Jay Anthony Silverheels, who later became an actor.[27]


Silverheels suffered a stroke in 1976,[28] and the following year, Clayton Moore rode a paint horse in Silverheels' honor in the Pasadena Tournament of Roses Parade.[29] Silverheels died on March 5, 1980, from complications of a stroke,[2] at age sixty-seven, in Calabasas, Los Angeles County, California.[30] He was cremated at Chapel of the Pines Crematory, and his ashes were returned to the Six Nations Reserve in Ontario.[28]


Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6538 Hollywood Blvd

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 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.

A fictionalized version of Silverheels appears in the Thrilling Adventure Hour serialized segment "Tales from the Black Lagoon".

Selected filmography[edit]


  • 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)

See also[edit]



  1. ^ "Official website, Haudenosaunee Confederacy, League of Nations". Retrieved 2013-07-23.
  2. ^ a b c Daily, Hall (March 6, 1980). "A legend dies with Jay Silverheels". Spokesman-Review. (Spokane, Washington). Associated Press. p. 16.
  3. ^ [1] Archived September 7, 2013, at the Wayback Machine
  4. ^ "His job in Hollywood was to help his partner, "The Lone Ranger" stop the devious plots of hardened outlaws" (PDF). Heroinyou.ca. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2012-04-02. Retrieved 2011-11-21. Cite uses deprecated parameter |dead-url= (help)
  5. ^ Klein, Jeff Z. (31 August 2013). "A Sidekick's Little-Known Leading Role in Lacrosse". The New York Times. Retrieved 1 September 2013.
  6. ^ Hauptman, Laurence (2008). Seven Generations of Iroquois Leadership: The Six Nations Since 1800. Syracuse University Press. pp. 102, 126. ISBN 978-0-8156-3165-1.
  7. ^ "In the 1930s he played lacrosse with the Rochester, NY "Iroquois" team of the North American Amateur Lacrosse Association". Brantsportshall.com. Archived from the original on 2012-03-25. Retrieved 2011-11-21. Cite uses deprecated parameter |deadurl= (help)
  8. ^ "He finished second in the Eastern Square finals of the Golden Gloves boxing championshipin Madison Square Garden". Nimst.tripod.com. Retrieved 2011-11-21.
  9. ^ Klein, Jeff Z. (2013-08-31). "A Sidekick's Little-Known Leading Role in Lacrosse". The New York Times.
  10. ^ "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. Archived from the original on 2011-11-28. Retrieved 2011-11-21. Cite uses deprecated parameter |dead-url= (help)
  11. ^ "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.
  12. ^ 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
  13. ^ "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.
  14. ^ "Changing his name to Jay Smith Silverheels, a nickname from his uncle due to his running style". Haudenosauneeconfederacy.com. Retrieved 2011-11-21.
  15. ^ "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.
  16. ^ "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.
  17. ^ 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 .
  18. ^ 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
  19. ^ "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.
  20. ^ "with his career no longer sufficient to support his family, he began working as a salesman". Amoeba.com. Retrieved 2011-11-21.
  21. ^ "Silverheels as "Tonto" in Jimmy Carson's Late Night Show (film)". Youtube.com. Retrieved 2011-11-21.
  22. ^ "Silverheels was a spokesperson for aboriginal actors and in 1963 founded the Indian Actors Workshop". Infoplease.com. Retrieved 2011-11-21.
  23. ^ "He founded the Indian Actors' Workshop in 1966 with Will Sampson and offered free classes for Native Americans". Famouscanadians.net. Retrieved 2011-11-21.
  24. ^ "He formed the Indian Actors Workshop in Echo Park in the late 1960s". Celebhost.net. Retrieved 2011-11-21.
  25. ^ "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.
  26. ^ "In the 70's he became a harness racing driver and bred horses". Tv.com. Retrieved 2011-11-21.
  27. ^ "married, wife's name: Mary; children: Marilyn, Pamela, Karen, Jay Anthony". Filmreference.com. Retrieved 2011-11-21.
  28. ^ a b Cheryl Petten. "Jay Silverheels: TV star paves way for Indian actors". Archived from the original on 2015-03-08. Retrieved 2015-03-08.
  29. ^ "Jay Silverheels, Played Tonto in The Lone Ranger". Retrieved 2016-10-16.
  30. ^ "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) [1968]. Whatever Became Of...? Volume 3. New York: Ace Books. OCLC 8977472.
  • Misiak, Zig (2012). Tonto: The Man in Front of the Mask. Brantford, Ont.: Real Peoples History. ISBN 978-0981188065. OCLC 933150680.

External links[edit]