Lone Ranger Tonto Controversy, Maybe Tonto isn’t considered the ultimate model for Native-Americans when you consider the stereotypes the character employed into the “Lone Ranger” TV series and movies. But at least in the original productions, you had a real Native-American actor (Jay Silverheels) playing Tonto. Of course, the comedic version was by Jon Lovitz on “Saturday Night Live”, even though people bristle now when anybody but a Native-American plays a Native-American in a movie drama. Certainly if Kevin Costner hired Caucasian actors to play all of the Native-Americans in 1990’s “Dances with Wolves”, it would have created a firestorm of criticism.
That doesn’t keep us from watching old western movies of yore where various white actors played Native-Americans in many a classic. Nevertheless, most ethnically-aware people cringe when watching a white actor from the past portrayed another ethnicity, especially when the performance exaggerated the nuances of what we mistakenly think makes up the personality of a Native-American or other ethnicity. Typically, those white actors would portray Native-Americans as taciturn, wooden and hardly capable of any kind of personality.
It’s quite amazing then when you consider the first white actor to win an Oscar for playing a Native-American was an actor who played the part in those above-mentioned ways rather than any real nuance. Jeff Chandler looked a bit Native-American in the face, though he apparently had no Native-American blood. In the 1950 movie “Broken Arrow”, his performance was still lauded as depicting the real nuances of a Native-American figure from the Old West when it was perceived by later audiences as more of a stiff caricature. Nevertheless, Chandler was ordinarily a good actor and only took on the part because actors who played other ethnicities were becoming good bets in those days for winning an Oscar.
“Broken Arrow” (with James Stewart as the star) is still widely considered to be not only the film that set a precedent for white actors playing more complex Native-American figures, but it also was one of the first movies to depict Native-Americans as being much more than just riding horses and shooting arrows at cowboys. In fact, it was Jay Silverheels himself who may have set a precedent for real Native-Americans playing their own ethnicity in film. He played Geronimo in the film, even though you wouldn’t necessarily call his role a friendly one. It was Chandler’s role and the film itself that gets credit for showing Native-Americans in a much friendlier light.
Silverheels seems to be the true emblem of the benign Native-American who wasn’t depicted as wanting to kill the first white man they saw. By 1950, Silverheels was already one year into playing Tonto on the famous TV series of “Lone Ranger” starring Clayton Moore. Tonto, through the 1950’s, ultimately set up the idea in a lot of kids’ minds that Native-Americans were just as willing to help the white man as long as the white man wasn’t out to harm an Indian tribe.
Enter the good value systems of The Lone Ranger and Tonto who managed to forge a compelling peace for the sake of fighting crime.
It’s too bad, really, that Tonto turned into such a parody later, because Jay Silverheels brought a real humanity to the Tonto character. That’s what makes Johnny Depp playing Tonto a risk, especially when we’ve entered the era where Native-Americans are expected to play Native-Americans. But keep in mind that Johnny Depp wouldn’t be the first white man to play Tonto. British radio actor John Todd primarily played Tonto through the long-running radio show version of “The Lone Ranger” starting in 1933. Being a Shakespearean actor of the highest order, Todd was a natural mimic, though didn’t necessarily depict Tonto as talking in broken English as Silverheels surprisingly did.
By the time the Native-American actor Michael Horse played Tonto in the horrendous theatrical bomb “Legend of the Lone Ranger” in 1981, Tonto had turned into a caricature despite being made to look intelligent and even smarter than the Lone Ranger himself.
All of this, of course, is the true magnet that draws Johnny Depp to take on acting challenges. If anybody could bring new dimensions to Tonto, it’ll be Depp without question. He’ll have to endure the criticisms, however, from Native-American groups and may even set off a new precedent that’ll mean white actors portraying other ethnicities again, especially if Depp gets critical acclaim or awards for the performance.
On the other hand, Depp may be the only actor who’ll ever be able to get away with this again. Someone telling him he can’t do something in a movie is the equivalent to flinging anything toward Teflon now. While it might appear at the outset to be a step backwards to a time when Hollywood was ignorant to the feelings of other ethnicities, Native-Americans will likely be surprised at the humanity Depp will give to Tonto. When you have an actor as committed as Depp is to making a character multi-dimensional and giving a real humanity to every character he plays, there shouldn’t be a concern about it being a caricature the Hollywood community would naively accept.