Ben Johnson was a rugged western actor probably best remembered for his 1971 Oscar-winning role as cowboy and town tycoon Sam in Peter Bogdanovich's "The Last Picture Show." In all, he appeared in about 300 films, many as a stunt performer.
The first time he saw the script for Bogdanovich's film about the interwoven lives in a small Texas town, Johnson candidly told an Arizona reporter in 1995, he rejected it.
"It was the worst thing I ever read," he said. "Every other word that I had (as the character Sam) was a dirty word, so I turned it down."
But his old friend and mentor, director John Ford, asked him to do the film as a personal favor, and Johnson relented.
"I rewrote my part," he proudly recalled, "and I won the English Academy Award, the American Academy Award (for best supporting actor), a Golden Globe Award and the New York Film Critics award, and I didn't have to say one dirty word."
Upon winning his Oscar, Johnson remarked of the statuette, "Ain't it purty." He then told the audience of his win, "It couldn't of happened to a nicer fella!"
Johnson was a durable hard-riding fixture in predominantly western films for more than three decades. He was also a genuine rodeo champion whom Bogdanovich proudly referred to as "the real thing."
Born in Pawhuska, Okla., Johnson worked on a ranch for his rodeo champion father. He often joked that he got to Hollywood "in a carload of horses" — escorting stock bought by Howard Hughes for his 1943 film "The Outlaw," which introduced voluptuous actress Jane Russell.
Offered $175 a week rather than his cowboy pay of $40 a month, Johnson stayed on as wrangler for Hughes' movie company. He soon became a stuntman and double on "oaters."
Johnson attracted Ford's attention in 1948 when he saved the lives of several people in an accident on the set of the 1948 film "Fort Apache." Ford put him under contract, cast him in "Three Godfathers" and "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon," and then cast him in starring roles in the 1949 film "Mighty Joe Young," about a gorilla, and the 1950 film "Wagonmaster," in which Johnson joined a Mormon wagon train heading for Utah.
Johnson left Hollywood in 1952 to pursue a dream from his youth.
"I took one year out of the picture business to go into rodeo and see what I could do," he said. "My dad was a world's champion three or four times, so I wanted to be. Fortunately, I won the world's championship in team roping (1953), but at the end of the year I didn't have $3. All I had was a wore-out automobile and a mad wife."
The cowboy returned to Hollywood. Over the years, Johnson appeared in six films with John Wayne and, after Wayne's death, picked up some of the television commercials Wayne had begun for Great Western Savings.
Johnson also acted with tough-guy stars Alan Ladd in "Shane," Marlon Brando in "One-Eyed Jacks," Charlton Heston in "Major Dundee," Clint Eastwood in "Hang 'Em High," Charles Bronson in "Breakheart Pass" and Steve McQueen in "Junior Bonner." He made eight films with his friend and fellow character actor, Harry Carey Jr.
Johnson later worked in several western television shows, including "Bonanza: Under Attack," the 1979 miniseries "The Sacketts" and his television movie premiere in the 1973 adaptation of John Steinbeck's "The Red Pony."
Recognized as a western icon, Johnson walked easily through a Gene Autry-like role as an elderly cowboy actor turned Major League Baseball team owner in the 1994 Disney film "Angels in the Outfield."
When the crusty Johnson received his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in the early 1990s, he remarked: "I don't know why in the hell you all waited so long to give me the star. You waited till I got so old I couldn't hardly enjoy it."
Johnson for many years sponsored pro-celebrity team roping rodeos to benefit children's charities, primarily in Arizona.
In 1995, his wife of 54 years, Carol, passed away. The following year, Johnson died of a heart attack in a Mesa, Ariz., hospital at age 75, after collapsing during a visit with his mother at the suburban Phoenix retirement home where they both lived.
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