Published on June 24, 2012 by Amy
A film actor who has found success in both Canada and the United States, Graham Greene (born 1952) is a full-blood Oneida, born on the Six Nations Reserve in southwestern Ontario in the early 1950s.
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Graham Greene, one of the most visible Native American actors working on the stage and in film today, is probably best known for his roles in the popular films Dances with Wolves and Thunderheart. Greene was the second of six children born on the Six Nations reserve near Brantford, Ontario, to John, an ambulance driver and maintenance man, and Lillian Greene. At the age of 16, Greene dropped out of school and went to Rochester, New York, where he worked at a carpet warehouse. Two years later he studied welding at George Brown College in Toronto, then worked at a Hamilton factory, building railway cars. In the 1970s Greene worked as a roadie and sound man for Toronto rock bands and ran a recording studio in Ancaster, Ontario. He has also worked as a high-steelworker, landscape gardener, factory laborer, carpenter, and bartender.
Greene took his first acting role (a Native American) in 1974 as part of the now-defunct Toronto theater company, Ne’er-Do-Well Thespians. In 1980 he played a Native American alcoholic in The Crackwalker by Judith Thompson, and in the 1982 theater production of Jessica, co-authored by Linda Griffiths, he played the role of The Crow. In the 1980s Greene worked with the Theatre Passe Muraille, acting in an “irreverent set of plays, The History of the Village of the Small Huts.” When not acting, he welded sets and worked lights.
The first film role Greene took came in 1982 in the movie Running Brave; he played a friend of Native American track star Billy Mills. Two years later, in 1984, Greene played a Huron extra in Revolution, a movie about the U.S. War of Independence which was shot in England and starred Al Pacino. In the meantime, Greene had a daughter by Toronto actress Carol Lazare in 1981. The death of his father in 1984, however, started what Greene described in a Maclean’s interview with Brian D. Johnson as a “period of fast cars and guns.” Moving to the country around the same time, Greene found himself out of work and selling hand-painted t-shirts in Toronto by 1988.
Events took another upward turn in 1989 when Greene played a cameo role as Jimmy, an emotionally disturbed Lakota Vietnam veteran, in PowWow Highway. That same year he received the Dora Mavor Moore Award of Toronto for Best Actor in his role as Pierre St. Pierre in Cree author Tomson Highway’s play Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing.
Lands Key Role in Dances with Wolves
Greene’s largest film success came with the 1990 production of Dances with Wolves; the role of Kicking Bird, a Lakota holy man who befriends Kevin Costner, brought Greene an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor in 1991. And Greene’s personal life moved forward at the same time. While shooting Dances with Wolves, he married Hilary Blackmore, a Toronto stage manager. As his film career took off, Greene continued his theater work, playing “a toothless, beer-guzzling Indian buffoon” in an all-native cast of Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing. Television also came into the picture in 1990 when Greene played a Navajo lawyer in “L.A. Law,” and Leonard, a Native American shaman, on the series “Northern Exposure.”
Apart from his supporting role in Dances with Wolves, and his brief cameo appearance in PowWow Highway, Greene is probably most popular for his role as the mystical, murderous, Native activist Arthur in the 1991 Canadian movie Clearcut, based on Toronto writer M. T. Kelly’s novel A Dream Like Mine. Two other movie roles that display Greene’s acting talents were undertaken by the actor in 1992: the role of Ishi, the last Native American in California to live completely apart from U.S.-Anglo culture, in the made-for-television movie The Last of His Tribe; and the role of Lakota tribal policeman Walter Crow Horse in Thunderheart, a drama loosely based on events in Oglala, South Dakota, in which two FBI agents were shot and killed.
Also among Greene’s more recent works is the 1991 adventure movie Lost in the Barrens; the role of a baseball catcher in the 1992 TNT movie Cooperstown with Alan Arkin; the role of an Anishinabe/Ojibway grandfather living on the reservation in the made-for-television children’s movie Wonder Works Spirit Rider; the Native mentor in Huck and the King of Hearts-a loose and modern adaptation of the adventures of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn; a local sheriff in the movie Benefit of the Doubt with Donald Sutherland; and a role in the film Maverick with Mel Gibson, Jody Foster, and James Garner.
Greene’s future is also full. He appears in the movie of Thomas King’s Green Grass, Running Water, and in the television movie The Broken Chain with other Native actors Wes Studi, Eric Schweig, and Floyd Red Crow Westerman. Overall, Greene has had roles in over 13 stage performances and more than 30 movie and television productions.