rider who became a prolific Hollywood character actor
from the 1940s
to the 1990s
. Johnson was brought to California
and introduced into the movie business by Howard Hughes
, and after a decade of working as horse wrangler
, he finally graduated to acting in the late 1940s
Johnson was discovered by John Ford and became a member of the informal John Ford Stock Company, resulting in roles in five of the legendary director's movies, including She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and Rio Grande. All except one, 1950's Wagon Master, were supporting roles. Master flopped during its' initial release but was rediscovered in later decades as one of Ford's greatest achievements. At the time though it had no positive effect on Johnson's career, and after a brief return to the rodeo circuit he continued to appear in supporting parts throughout the 1950s and 1960s, most notably Shane and Marlon Brando's One-Eyed Jacks.
In 1965 Johnson was cast in Sam Peckinpah's notoriously bowdlerized Major Dundee beginning a four-movie collaboration. Johnson gave a terrific performance in The Wild Bunch as Bunch-member Tector Gorch and appeared in prominent supporting roles in Junior Bonner and Peckinpah's first movie version of Jim Thompson's The Getaway.
But it was in a different kind of Western that turned Johnson's career around in the 1970s. By then in his early fifties, Johnson was cast, almost against his will, in Peter Bogdanovich's first studio production, The Last Picture Show. He was to play Sam the Lion, the moral center of the story, but taken aback by the profane dialogue Johnson was reluctant to take part in the movie. Bogdanovich took advantage of his acquaintance with Johnson's old friend John Ford, who prodded Johnson into accepting the role. The result was one of the most recognizable performances of the 1970s, which garnered Johnson an Academy Award and a Golden Globe, the first and only time he was ever nominated.
After this triumph Johnson was given bigger and better roles, appearing in numerous popular productions like Steven Spielberg's The Sugarland Express and Richard Brooks' Bite the Bullet. He continued to act both in movies and on television well into his seventies, his last performance being in 1996's The Evening Star, which was released after his death. Johnson died of a heart attack while visiting his mother in the Mesa, Arizona retirement community where they both have lived. He was 75 years old.