What do "Shane," "One-Eyed Jacks," "The Last Picture Show" and "Dream West" have in common?
Answer: Ben Johnson.
Perhaps a better way to put the question: Name five good westerns Ben Johnson hasn't been in?
Johnson's story may be one of Hollywood's definitive examples of type- casting. Born on an Indian reservation in Oklahoma, Johnson was working as a $30-a-month cowpuncher when Howard Hughes made "Outlaw." Hughes bought a number of horses from the ranch Johnson worked on, and the cowhand was hired to ramrod the herd from Oklahoma to Hollywood. Johnson canceled the return ticket.
"The first week I was on Hughes' payroll I made $175," he said. "That's one reason that made me stay. I didn't know anybody made that much money."
That was the mid-'40s. Johnson worked as a stuntman before becoming an actor, lending his air of authenticity to scores of westerns, all without benefit of a single acting lesson.
"Everybody in town's a better actor than I am," he said, "but none of them can play Ben Johnson better than I can."
He also found time to marry Carol, his wife of 44 years. "If I can get her to stay," he said, "I guess I'll keep her."
This week he's playing mountain man Jim Bridger in the CBS miniseries "Dream West" (9 p.m. tonight and Monday, with an 8 p.m. start Tuesday). "That's been my (kind of part) through all the John Ford movies," said Johnson, recalling his longtime association with the legendary western filmmaker. "I usually played a trailblazer. That's the kind of part I liked."
Asked to name his favorite westerns of the ones he played in, Johnson mentioned "Shane," "Wagonmaster," "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon," "One- Eyed Jacks," "Rio Grande" and "The Wild Bunch," a body of work that spans 20 years. He forgot to mention "The Last Picture Show," in which he won a supporting-actor Oscar on the strength a handful of strong scenes. But he did mention "Dillinger," one of the few movies to put him in city clothes.
Westerns declined in the late '70s and '80s, Johnson said, in part because the few that are made are lacking. He mentioned the disastrous "Heaven's Gate" and the successful "Silverado." He was rejected for "Silverado." "They told my agent they wanted actors who'd never been in westerns before," he said, suggesting it showed on the screen. "A lot of actors can't ride well. When you pay someone that much money they should be able to get in and out of a scene."
But of course, few actors could play a cowboy as naturally as Johnson, who's made a healthy living by following the advice of John Ford and just playing himself. "The last thing John Ford said to me before he died," said Johnson, with a certain solemnity, as if he were reading his own epitaph, "he said to me, 'Ben, stay real.'"