May 26, 1912 - March 5, 1980
EDITOR’S NOTE: In my attempts to contact relatives of the late Jay Silverheels, I was only successful in reaching one nephew, George Smith. He only met Jay once and really didn’t have much recollection of him. I was, however, provided videotape of a Canadian biography on Jay that contains a great deal of his life history. This story is based from information in “The Canadians: Biographies of the Nation” as narrated by Patrick Wilson. Special thanks to Walt Ostin for sending the tape! Thanks to C. Craig Coomer for many of the pictures!
Jay Silverheels’ passing on March 5, 1980, left an incredible void in the world of the Lone Ranger. Whenever anyone thinks of Tonto, it’s the image of Jay Silverheels that comes to mind. No other actor has been able to fill the moccasins quite the same way.
“We thought he was being a dumb Indian a lot of the time. He’d be creeping around and somebody would hit him on the head and he’d fall over. He wasn’t too happy with that but it was a job and he did it gracefully and with good spirit,” said John Hart, who played opposite Silverheels as the Lone Ranger for 52 episodes in 1952-53.
His real name - Harold J. Smith was born May 26, 1912, on the Six Nations Reservation in Canada. He was the third of 11 children, eight boys and three girls. His father, Major George Smith, was the most decorated Native Canadian soldier in World War I. According to Jay’s brother, Les Smith, their father was deaf thanks to a bomb that exploded near him during the war.
“He told you to be good, how to be good,” Les said.
Young Harry Smith was a natural athlete with good looks who used his charm and athleticism to pay the bills in the Depression era. At the age of 16 he joined a semi-pro lacrosse team called the Mohawk Stars. In addition to being the best player on the team, he became noted for the white running shoes he wore. He was so swift that his feet were streaks of white. Since it wouldn’t have been politically correct to nickname an Indian Whiteheels, he was dubbed Silverheels. By that time Harry was going by the name Jay, hence the name Jay Silverheels.
The young Mohawk Indian was a natural athlete. He was into bodybuilding and used makeshift equipment in place of expensive barbells and weights. It was lacrosse that held his attention and he moved to Buffalo, N.Y., to play the sport. He also got into boxing and lived for a while at the home of Jack Donovan.
One day he was at a local fair when he happened to take a ride on the Ferris wheel.
“I got on the Ferris wheel and rode next to him,” said Edna Lickers.
The chance ride led to a new friendship and something more.
“It was just something that happened and my son was born in Buffalo,” Lickers said.
Jay now had a son, Ron Smith, but he never married Lickers and he certainly couldn’t afford to raise a family. He left Buffalo and returned to the reservation. There, he returned to playing lacrosse. He was one of the highest-scoring and highest-paid players in the nation. On the side he took up modeling.
He met his first wife, Bobbi, and they had a daughter named Sharon. During one of his trips to the states, he met and befriended a comedian named Joe E. Brown. It was Brown who convinced Silverheels that with his looks and talent that he could make it in the movies. He went to Hollywood and started getting some bit parts.
Bobbi didn’t want to move to California, but did so reluctantly. They ended up separating and divorcing in 1943. Bobbi returned to New York with Sharon. It would be 14 years before Silverheels would see his daughter again.
In 1949, Silverheels was cast as Tonto, beating out 35 other contenders for the coveted role on The Lone Ranger. He became the first real Indian to star in a television series.
“He became famous playing a role that he knew to be a clumsy portrayal of his own people,” Patrick Wilson said. In 1954 he married Mary DeRoma.
“He had this strong desire to get married to this girl,” Hart said.
One day before filming at Iverson Ranch, Silverheels refused to get into costume. Clayton Moore checked on him to find out why. It turns out that he was upset that they, as stars of a hit series, didn’t even have their own dressing rooms. They had to change in the men’s room at a gas station down the road. Moore talked him into going on and the next day they had dressing rooms.
According to Silverheels’ niece, Joyce Kesmarki, he was pleased to be starring in a hit show, but wasn’t pleased with his character.
“He wanted to be more himself instead of the starchy person who said ‘how, me Tonto’ and that sort of thing. He didn’t like that too much,” she said.
“I thought he was a good actor,” said his brother, Les. “He was really acting when he played those parts.” “He understood the image. He was very, very frustrated like a lot of Native actors,” said Michael Horse, who later played Tonto on The Legend of the Lone Ranger.
In 1955 Silverheels suffered a heart attack and had to be replaced on the show by Chuck Courtney as Dan Reid. Silverheels returned to work, but the series was cancelled in 1956.
After the show ended, he did the two Lone Ranger movies and toured a little with Moore. But movie roles were hard to come by.
“He was capable of doing all kinds of things but he was just Tonto to all those dumb producers that wouldn’t see him any other way,” Hart said.
Silverheels settled into a life of racing horses and raising a family.
In 1966 he founded the Indian Actors Workshop to teach Indians how to act. One of his students was Michael Horse.
“He told us when we do get the opportunity, when those roles do squeak by, we need to be ready,” he said.
By the mid-1970s Silverheels began getting good parts. But a medical mishap in 1975 led to a debilitating stroke. He would never act again.
One of his final public appearances came when he was given his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. He died on March 5, 1980, at the age of 68.
“I cared about him a lot. He was a good friend and a nice guy,” Hart said.
“He fought a lot of the fight for us,” added Michael Horse.