Iron Eyes Cody, a veteran actor and humanitarian whose Hollywood career stretched back to the earliest big-screen westerns, was best known for his appearance in a famous anti-pollution ad on the small screen.
During the production of a movie in 1970, the actor was approached with what would become his most memorable role — a job he initially declined.
In one of the public service commercials, Cody paddled a canoe past a belching smokestack and along a polluted stream before arriving at a busy highway. As he surveyed the urbanized landscape, garbage thrown from a passing car landed at his feet, drawing a single, bitter tear from his lined face. The camera stayed on Cody's face while the announcer said, "People start pollution; people can stop it."
"The final result was better than anybody expected," Cody wrote in his 1982 autobiography, "Iron Eyes: My Life as a Hollywood Indian." "In fact, some people who had been working on the project were moved to tears just reviewing the edited version. It was apparent we had something of a 60-second work of art on our hands."
The campaign was an overwhelming success, racking up millions of dollars in donated air time. Shot in six days, the spots quickly made Cody one of the most familiar Native American faces in America—this after the actor had toiled in Hollywood for nearly half a century.
Cody's Indian heritage was questioned in 1996 by the New Orleans Times-Picayune, according to his obituary in the New York Times. The Times-Picayune reported, based on an interview with a half-sister, May Abshire, and baptismal records and other documentation, that Cody was a second-generation Italian American from Louisiana.
Cody, who claimed to be part-Cherokee, part-Cree from Oklahoma, denied that report.
Cody said he received his first taste of movie-making as a child when a Paramount Pictures crew used his family's Oklahoma farm for location shooting in 1919. Within a year, the Codys relocated to Hollywood where Iron Eyes' father, Thomas Longplume Cody, worked as a technical advisor on many early westerns.
After appearing in bit parts for a few years, Cody landed a small role in 1923's "The Covered Wagon," one of the most successful of the early silent westerns. The next year, while still in high school, he appeared in John Ford's silent railroad drama, "The Iron Horse."
After the success of the two films, Cody joined a cowboys-and-Indians stage show with actor Tim McCoy and departed for a lengthy tour of London and the South Pacific. Returning to Hollywood, he made friends with a young Gary Cooper, who encouraged Cody to try his hand at "real" acting in Victor Fleming's silent drama, "The Wolf Song."
Soon after, as production of quickie westerns escalated to meet the public's growing demand, Cody found himself busy in front of the camera as an actor and behind it as an action sequence director.
During the day, Cody worked on such pictures as "The Charge of the Light Brigade," "They Died With Their Boots On," "Wagon Train" and "My Little Chickadee." At night, he made the rounds of the Hollywood party circuit with stars like Cooper and Errol Flynn.
In 1936, Cody wed Bertha "Birdie" Parker, a Native American archeologist and occasional movie extra. During a sometimes tempestuous marriage, the couple raised two sons, Robert and Arthur, and a daughter, Wilma, who died in a childhood hunting accident. Bertha Cody died in 1978.
During the late 1930s, Cody spent several years leading a touring troupe of circus dancers, returning occasionally to work for director Cecil B. DeMille on such films as "The Plainsman," "Union Pacific" and "Northwest Mounted Police."
After the United States entered World War II, he left Hollywood for a local shipyard, working as a welder and monitoring suspicious activity for the FBI.
After the war, Cody returned to movie-making, appearing in "The Outlaw" and "Unconquered" and alongside Bob Hope in "The Paleface" and "Son of Paleface." In the early 1950s, he went to work for Walt Disney, starring in a studio serial titled "The First Americans," and in episodes of "The Mountain Man," "Davy Crockett" and "Daniel Boone."
During the 1950s and '60s, he appeared in such western dramas as "The Devil's Doorway," "Tomahawk," "The Savage," "The Half Breed," and "Nevada Smith." Cody also appeared in "Broken Lance," "The Last Wagon," "Arrowhead," "Yellow Tomahawk" and "Run of the Arrow." He portrayed Chief Crazy Horse in 1954's "Sitting Bull," and two years later starred in the Disney feature "Westward Ho the Wagons!"
In 1970, he appeared with Richard Harris in "A Man Called Horse" and with Lee Van Cleef in "El Condor." Other roles in the '70s and '80s included "Cockeyed Cowboys of Calico County," "Grayeagle" and "Ernest Goes to Camp."
The actor was also a familiar sight in the Tournament of Roses Parade for many years, appearing alongside Native American tribal leaders in a colorful equestrian unit.