Published on February 28, 2013 by Amy
Jay Silverheels (May 26, 1912 – March 5, 1980) was a Canadian Mohawk First Nations actor. He was well known for his role as Tonto, the faithful American Indian companion of the character, The Lone Ranger in a long-running American television series.
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Silverheels was born Harold J. Smith on the Six Nations of the Grand River First Nation, near Brantford, Ontario, Canada, the son of a Canadian Mohawk tribal chief and military officer, A.G.E. Smith. Silverheels excelled in athletics and lacrosse as a boy before leaving home to travel about North America, having competed in boxing and wrestling tournaments. In the 1930s, he played indoor lacrosse under the name of Harry Smith with the “Iroquois” of Rochester, New York in the North American Amateur Lacrosse Association. He lived for a time in Buffalo, New York. In 1938, Silverheels placed second in the middleweight section of the Golden Gloves tournament.
Silverheels began working in motion pictures as an extra and stunt man in 1937. During the early years of his screen career, he was billed variously as Harold Smith or Harry Smith, and appeared in low-budget features, westerns, and serials. He adopted his screen name from the nickname he had had as a speedy lacrosse player. From the late 1940s he played in more prestigious pictures, including Captain from Castile starring Tyrone Power, I Am an American (1944), 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., 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).
Silverheels achieved his greatest fame as the The Lone Ranger’s friend, Tonto. Being irreplaceable as the Lone Ranger’s best friend he subsequently also appeared in films, The Lone Ranger (1956) as well as in The Lone Ranger and the Lost City of Gold (1958).
Following the end of The Lone Ranger television series, Silverheels found himself firmly typecast as an American Indian. On January 6, 1960, he portrayed an Indian 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, Silverheels went to work as a salesman to supplement his acting income. Simultaneously, he began to publish poetry inspired by his youth on the Six Nations Indian Reserve and appeared on television to recite his works. 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. The sketch was featured on the 1973 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 performed in a commercial for Chevrolet as an Indian chief who rescues two lost hunters who ignored his advice in that model year’s Chevy Blazer with the William Tell Overture playing in the background.
Silverheels also spoofed his Tonto character in a famous Stan Freberg Jeno’s Pizza Rolls TV commercial opposite Clayton Moore, as well as in The Phynx, opposite John Hart, both actors 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 historical frontiersman.
Among his later appearances were an episode of ABC’s The Brady Bunch, as an Indian chief 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, as an institution where American Indian actors refine their acting skills in Echo Park, California. Today the workshop is firmly established.
Silverheels raised, bred and raced Standardbred horses in his spare time. Once, when asked about possibly running Tonto’s famous Paint horse Scout in a race, Jay laughed off the idea: “Heck, I can outrun Scout!”
Married in 1945, Silverheels was the father of three girls and a boy.
Silverheels died from complications of a stroke in 1980, at age 67, in Calabasas, California. He was cremated at Chapel of the Pines Crematory. His ashes were returned home to Six Nations Indian Reserve. He had his final great appearance when he was awarded a star in the Hollywood Walk of Fame
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.