Jay Silverheels

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

May 26, 1912
DiedMarch 5, 1980 (aged 67)
NationalityMohawk / Canadian
Occupation(s)Actor, stunt man, athlete, poet, salesman
Years active1937–1980
Known forTonto
TelevisionTonto in The Lone Ranger (TV series)
  • Bobbi Smith (m. 19??; div. 1943)
Mary Diroma
(m. 1945)

Jay Silverheels (born Harold Jay Smith; May 26, 1912 – March 5, 1980)[1] was an Indigenous Canadian actor and athlete.[2] He was well known for his role as Tonto, the Native American companion of the Lone Ranger[3][4] in the 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 reserve, near Hagersville, Ontario.[3] 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 Dockstater, maternal Mohawk, and paternal Seneca. His father[5] was wounded and decorated for service at the battles of (Jay would have been 4 four years old at this time) 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 1931, owners of National Hockey League's franchises in Toronto and Montreal created indoor lacrosse (also known as "box lacrosse") as a means to fill empty arenas during the summers, and playing as "Harry Smith", Silverheels was among the first players chosen to play for the Toronto Tecumsehs.[3] Along with his brothers and cousin, Russell (Beef), Sid (Porky), and George (Chubby), he also played on teams in Buffalo, Rochester, Atlantic City, and Akron throughout the 1930s on teams in the North American Amateur Lacrosse Association.[6] He lived for a time in Buffalo, New York, and in 1938, placed second in the middleweight class of the Golden Gloves tournament.[7] 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.[3] Silverheels began working in motion pictures as an extra and stuntman[8][9] in 1937.[10] He was billed variously as Harold Smith and Harry Smith, and appeared in low-budget features, Westerns, and serials.[11] He adopted his screen name from the nickname he had as a lacrosse player.[12][13][14] Jay Silverheels was cast in a short feature film, I Am an American (1944).[a] From the late 1940s, he played in major films, including Captain from Castile starring Tyrone Power (1947), 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 TV series (1949–1957). Silverheels appeared in the film sequels: The Lone Ranger (1956) and The Lone Ranger and the Lost City of Gold (1958).[15]

When The Lone Ranger television series ended, Silverheels continued to be 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 fellow Canadian Lang Jeffries.

Silverheels appeared in an episode of the TV series Love, American Style. The segment, "Love and the Test of Manhood", first aired on February 11, 1972.

Eventually, he went to work as a salesman to supplement his acting income.[16] 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.[17] 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 had ignored his advice, in that year's Chevy Blazer. The William Tell Overture is heard in the background.

Silverheels spoofed his Tonto character, opposite Clayton Moore, in a Stan Freberg Jeno's Pizza Rolls TV commercial, which was set to the music of Gioachino Rossini's 'William Tell Overture," and in The Phynx, opposite John Hart, both having played the Lone Ranger in the original television series.

He appeared in three 1964/5 episodes of NBC's Daniel Boone, starring Fess Parker in the title role.

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,[18] where Native American actors refined their skills[19] in Echo Park, Los Angeles.[20] Today, the workshop is firmly established.[21]

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, Jay laughed off the idea: "Heck, I can outrun Scout!"[22]

Married twice, Silverheels had two sons (Steve, with his first wife; Jay Anthony Jr., who followed his father into acting) and four daughters (Marilyn, Gail, Pamela, and Karen).[23]


Silverheels suffered a stroke in 1976,[8] and the following year, Clayton Moore – his co-star on The Lone Ranger – rode an American Paint Horse in Silverheels' honor in the Pasadena Tournament of Roses Parade.[24] Silverheels died on March 5, 1980, from a stroke,[2] at age 67, in Calabasas, California.[25] He was cremated at Chapel of the Pines Crematory, and his ashes were returned to the Six Nations Reserve in Ontario.[8]


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 Shea's Performing Arts Center in Buffalo, New York. 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". His friend Milan Smith promised himself that he would name a horse after Silverheels.[26] The horse was named, "Hi Ho Silverheels".[26][27]

Selected filmography[edit]


See also[edit]


Informational notes

  1. ^ The 16 minute film, I Am an American, was featured in American theaters in connection with "I Am an American Day" (now called Constitution Day). It 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.


  1. ^ "Jay Silverheels". Haudenosaunee Confederacy. Archived from the original on October 27, 2012. Retrieved July 23, 2013.
  2. ^ a b c Daily, Hall (March 6, 1980). "A legend dies with Jay Silverheels". Spokesman-Review. (Spokane, Washington). Associated Press. p. 16.
  3. ^ a b c d Klein, Jeff Z. (August 31, 2013). "A Sidekick's Little-Known Leading Role in Lacrosse". The New York Times.
  4. ^ "Lacrosse: 1936 North Shore Indians" (PDF). Hero in You. Archived from the original (PDF) on April 2, 2012. Retrieved November 21, 2011. His job in Hollywood was to help his partner, "The Lone Ranger" stop the devious plots of hardened outlaws.
  5. ^ 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.
  6. ^ "Jay Silverheels". Brantford & Area Sports Hall Of Recognition. Archived from the original on March 25, 2012. Retrieved November 21, 2011. In the 1930s he played lacrosse with the Rochester, NY "Iroquois" team of the North American Amateur Lacrosse Association
  7. ^ "Jay Silverheels". Nimst.tripod.com. Retrieved November 21, 2011. He finished second in the Eastern Square finals of the Golden Gloves boxing championship in Madison Square Garden.
  8. ^ a b c Petten, Cheryl. "Jay Silverheels – Footprints". The Aboriginal Multi-Media Society (AMMSA). Archived from the original on November 28, 2011. Retrieved November 21, 2011. 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.
  9. ^ "Jay Silverheels". CKA. Retrieved November 21, 2011. He worked as a stuntman and extra before landing bit parts in the early 1940s, almost always credited as simply "Indian" or "Indian Brave".
  10. ^ 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
  11. ^ "Jay Silverheels". The Old Corral – Indians (b-westerns.com). Retrieved November 21, 2011. … he was in four serials at Republic when he was still going by Harry Smith, before he changed his name …
  12. ^ "Jay Silverheels". Haudenosaunee Confederacy. Archived from the original on October 27, 2012. Retrieved November 21, 2011. Changing his name to Jay Smith Silverheels, partly a nickname from his uncle due to his superb running style
  13. ^ "Jay Silverheels". The Lone Ranger Official Fan Club. Archived from the original on November 25, 2019. Retrieved November 12, 2019. … he became noted for the white running shoes he wore. He was so swift that his feet were streaks of white.
  14. ^ "Tonto via Toronto: The Rise and Fall of Jay Silverheels by Kliph Nesteroff". WFMU's Beware of the Blog. March 15, 2009. Retrieved March 8, 2015.
  15. ^ "Jay Silverheels". Hollywood Hall of Fame. Retrieved November 21, 2011. 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.
  16. ^ Brightwell, Eric (November 24, 2010). "Jay Silverheels – Happy American Indian Heritage Month". Amoeblog. Amoeba Music. Retrieved November 21, 2011. … with his career no longer sufficient to support his family, he began working as a salesman.
  17. ^ Archived at Ghostarchive and the Wayback Machine: "Kemosabe: Tonto (Jay Silverheels) – Tonight Show 1969". Significado. August 27, 2019. Retrieved November 12, 2019 – via YouTube.
  18. ^ "Silverheels was a spokesperson for aboriginal actors and in 1963 founded the Indian Actors Workshop". Infoplease.com. Retrieved November 21, 2011.
  19. ^ "He founded the Indian Actors' Workshop in 1966 with Will Sampson and offered free classes for Native Americans". Famouscanadians.net. Retrieved November 21, 2011.
  20. ^ "He formed the Indian Actors Workshop in Echo Park in the late 1960s". Celebhost.net. Retrieved November 21, 2011.
  21. ^ "He later founded the Indian Actors Workshop, which he devoted enormous amounts of time and resources to. It still exists today". Jessicacrabtree.com. Archived from the original on March 24, 2012. Retrieved November 21, 2011.
  22. ^ "In the '70s he became a harness racing driver and bred horses". Tv.com. Archived from the original on March 12, 2012. Retrieved November 21, 2011.
  23. ^ "Jay Silverheels Biography (c. 1918–1980)". Film Reference. Retrieved November 21, 2011. … married, wife's name, Mary; children: Marilyn, Pamela, Karen, Jay Anthony.
  24. ^ "Jay Silverheels, Played Tonto in The Lone Ranger". America Comes Alive!. November 19, 2014. Retrieved October 16, 2016.
  25. ^ "Jay Silverheels". The Lone Ranger.tv. Archived from the original on February 5, 2010. Retrieved November 21, 2011. Jay Silverheels suffered a stroke in 1974 and passed away on March 5, 1980 after several years of ill health
  26. ^ a b "Tonto's Pacer Ever Faithful". Chicago Tribune. Chicago, Illinois. November 17, 1994. p. 65. Retrieved January 8, 2022 – via Newspapers.com. Closed access icon
  27. ^ Schuelein, Steve (March 3, 1995). "LOS ALAMITOS: Hi Ho Silverheels Tries to Gain Identity as a Winning Pacer". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved January 8, 2022.

Further reading

  • 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]