Will Sampson

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Will Sampson
William Sampson Jr.

(1933-09-27)September 27, 1933
DiedJune 3, 1987(1987-06-03) (aged 53)
Houston, Texas, U.S.
Resting placeGraves Creek Cemetery, Hitchita Oklahoma
NationalityMuscogee (Creek) Nation
OccupationPainter, actor
Years active1975–1987
Height6 ft 7 in (2.01 m)

William Sampson Jr. (September 27, 1933 – June 3, 1987) was a Muscogee painter, actor, and rodeo performer. He is best known for his performance as the apparent deaf and mute Chief Bromden in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and as Crazy Horse in the 1977 western The White Buffalo, as well as his roles as Taylor in Poltergeist II: The Other Side and Ten Bears in 1976's The Outlaw Josey Wales.

Life and career[edit]

William “Will” Sampson Jr., born in Okmulgee County, Oklahoma to William "Wiley" Sampson Sr. (1904–2001) and Mabel Sampson (née Lewis, 1899–1997),[1] was a member of the Muscogee, a tribe of Southeast Indigenous Peoples. Sampson Jr. had at least five children: Samsoche "Sam" and Lumhe "Micco" Sampson (of the Sampson Brothers Duo), actor Timothy "Tim" James Sampson,[2][3] Robert Benjamin Sampson. The Sampson Brothers Duo are known for their traditional fancy and grass dances, and often perform with Frank Waln, a notable Lakota hip-hop artist.[4] His son Robert was murdered in Tulsa in 2013.[5] Timothy "Tim" Sampson died in 2019.[6]

Rodeo performer[edit]

Sampson competed in rodeos for about 20 years. His specialty was bronco busting, and he was on the rodeo circuit when producers Saul Zaentz and Michael Douglas — of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest — were looking for a large Native American to play the role of Chief Bromden. Sampson stood an imposing 6'7" (2.01 m) tall.[7] Rodeo announcer Mel Lambert mentioned Sampson to them, and after lengthy efforts to find him, they hired him on the strength of an interview. He had never acted before.[8]


Sampson's most notable roles were as Chief Bromden in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and as Taylor the Medicine Man in the horror film Poltergeist II. He had a recurring role on the TV series Vega$ as Harlon Twoleaf, and starred in the movies Fish Hawk, The Outlaw Josey Wales, and Orca. Sampson appeared in the production of Black Elk Speaks with the American Indian Theater Company in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where David Carradine and other Native American actors (such as Wes Studi and Randolph Mantooth) have appeared in stage productions. He also played Crazy Horse in The White Buffalo with Charles Bronson.

Buffalo Kill by Will Sampson


Sampson was a visual artist. His large painting depicting the Ribbon Dance of the Muscogee (Creek) is in the collection of the Creek Council House Museum in Okmulgee, Oklahoma. His artwork has been shown at the Gilcrease Museum and the Philbrook Museum of Art.[1]


Sampson suffered from scleroderma, a chronic degenerative condition that affected his heart, lungs, and skin. During his lengthy illness, his weight fell from 260 lb (120 kg) to 140 lb (64 kg), causing complications related to malnutrition. After undergoing a heart and lung transplant at Houston Methodist Hospital in Houston, Texas, he died on June 3, 1987, of post-operative kidney failure. Sampson was 53 years old.[9] Sampson was interred at Graves Creek Cemetery in Hitchita, Oklahoma.[10]


Will Sampson Road, in Okmulgee County (east of Highway 75 near Preston, Oklahoma), is named after him.

During the filming of The White Buffalo, Sampson halted production by refusing to act when he discovered that producers had hired white actors to portray Native Americans for the film. In 1983, with assistance from his personal secretary Zoe Escobar, Sampson founded the "American Indian Registry for the Performing Arts" for Native American actors.[11][12][13][14] He also served on the registry's Board of Directors.[15][16]


Year Film Role Other notes
1975 Crazy Mama Indian at Trading Uncredited Role
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest Chief Bromden
1976 Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson The Interpreter / William Halsey
The Outlaw Josey Wales Ten Bears
1977 The White Buffalo Crazy Horse / Worm
Orca Umilak
1978 Cowboysan Indian Chief Short film
1979 Fish Hawk Fish Hawk
1985 Insignificance Elevator Attendant
1986 Poltergeist II: The Other Side Taylor
Firewalker Tall Eagle
Year Title Role Notes
1977 Relentless Sam Watchman CBS TV-Movie
The Hunted Lady Uncle George NBC TV-Movie
1978 Standing Tall Lonny Moon NBC TV-Movie
1978–1979 Vega$ Harlon Two-Leaf 6 episodes
1979 From Here to Eternity Sgt. Cheney Not to be confused with the 1980 spinoff
1980 Alcatraz: The Whole Shocking Story Clarence's Father NBC TV-Movie
1982 Born to the Wind Painted Bear
1982 The Great Spirit within The Hole Narrator Twin Cities Public Television PBS
1983–1984 The Yellow Rose John Strongheart 7 episodes
1984 The Mystic Warrior Evan Freed ABC Miniseries
1985 Wildside Fake Sitting Bull Episode: Buffalo Who?
1986 Roanoak Wingina Miniseries
Tall Tales & Legends Chief Episode: Johnny Appleseed
1987 The Gunfighters Train Passenger TV-Movie, (final film role)

Awards and nominations[edit]

  • Genie Award 1980: Nominated, "Best Performance by a Foreign Actor" – Fish Hawk


  1. ^ a b Spaulding, Cathy (April 23, 2015). "Actor Will Sampson to be Honored at Checotah Art Market". Muskogee Phoenix. Retrieved November 1, 2015.
  2. ^ Norcross, Geoff (March 17, 2011). "Tim Sampson Revives his Father's Role in 'Cuckoo's Nest'". Oregon Public Broadcasting. Archived from the original on April 3, 2019.
  3. ^ Wilson, John (September 30, 1989). "Big Footsteps to Follow". Los Angeles Times.
  4. ^ "Sampson Bros. Arts". Archived from the original on October 9, 2018. Retrieved November 1, 2015.
  5. ^ "TPD Homicide: West Tulsa murder 'solvable'". KOKI-TV. March 18, 2013. Retrieved September 19, 2020.
  6. ^ "Timothy James Sampson". Okmulgee Times. July 10, 2019. Retrieved September 19, 2020.
  7. ^ "Will Sampson, 53, Portrayed An Indian in 'Cuckoo's Nest'". The New York Times. June 4, 1987.
  8. ^ Kleiner, Dick (August 29, 1976). "Will Sampson's Acting was Instinctive In 'Cuckoo's Nest'". Ocala Star-Banner. Newspaper Enterprise Association.
  9. ^ "Will Sampson Dies After Transplant". Spartanburg Herald-Journal. June 4, 1987. Retrieved November 5, 2012.
  10. ^ "Will Sampson". Find a Grave. Retrieved September 19, 2020.
  11. ^ Lichtenstein, Grace (June 6, 1976). "He Refuses to Be an 'Ugh‐Tonto' Indian". The New York Times. Retrieved July 22, 2020.
  12. ^ Escobar, Zoe (January 1, 2011). Beyond Cuckoo's Nest: The Art and Life of William Sampson, Jr. GirlDog Publishing. ISBN 9780615450322.
  13. ^ Trammell, Robby (April 19, 1984). "Indian Philosopher's Words Will Come to Life in Play". The Daily Oklahoman. p. 228. Retrieved April 5, 2022.
  14. ^ Bender, Ron (June 8, 1984). "Films still stereotype Indians, actor says". Rapid City Journal. p. 27. Retrieved April 5, 2022.
  15. ^ Robb, David (November 15, 2014). "Bob Hicks, Filmmaker Who Paved Way For Native Americans In Hollywood, Dead at 80". Deadline Hollywood. Retrieved August 19, 2019.
  16. ^ "Festival Dedicated to Will (Sonny) Sampson". Okmulgee Daily Times. December 9, 1987. p. 11. Retrieved April 5, 2022.


  • Escobar, Zoe (2009). Beyond the Cuckoo's Nest: the Art and Life of William 'Sonny' Sampson, Jr., the Muscogee Creek Indian Cowboy, Painter and Actor Girldog Publishing, Issaquah, Washington. ISBN 978-0-615-18164-6

External links[edit]