A Man Called Horse
by Joe Southern, The Silver Bullet
Note: This story appeared in Issue 72 (September 2005) of The Silver Bullet.
When Michael Horse read the script for The WB network’s version of The Lone Ranger, he knew two things for certain. He knew he didn’t want to be in it and he knew his tenure of being a star in the worst adaptation of the Lone Ranger was about to be over.
“I was afraid I’d always be known for being in the bad Lone Ranger,” he joked in a telephone interview in July. The television special, which aired in 2003, starred Chad Michael Murray as the Lone Ranger and Nathaniel Arcand as Tonto. It has been widely held as a disaster, replacing The Legend of the Lone Ranger as the least-favorite film version of the masked man among Lone Ranger aficionados.
Horse starred as Tonto in the 1981 Legend, earning marks as one of the few bright spots in the epic flop. “I’m glad the movie wasn’t a big success. I was afraid I’d be stuck with that image,” Horse said. Without being typecast, Horse found himself in an enviable position after the film’s release.
“It got my foot in the door of this business and gave me an opportunity,” he said.
The Legend of the Lone Ranger gave Horse the exposure he needed to break into acting, but more importantly, it gave him recognition as an artist.
“I never wanted to be in the movie business,” he said.
In an excerpt taken from his Web site, he describes his initial reluctance to be cast as Tonto.
“I never really wanted to be in the movie business. My unintended big break came in 1980. I was renting my studio from an agent who has asked me if I as interested in playing Tonto in the remake of The Legend of the Lone Ranger.
“Even though I knew Jay Silverheels, and had great respect for him as an activist in the Indian community and as an actor (a lot of people didn’t know what a good actor Jay really was, such as his role in Key Largo) I had reservations about playing this role. The character of Tonto in the original Lone Ranger was derogatory to Native people. So, I told her no.
“She kept asking me and told me I was exactly what they were looking for. I finally said yes. I told them that in this day and age, if you portray Tonto with disrespect, there will be more Indians on your lawn than Custer saw. They assured me that this time they were going to make Tonto an equal character to the Lone Ranger.
“I decided that I would take the role if offered. Once it was offered, it occurred to me that this role could help me do something positive in the native community.”
Given the chance to right a wrong and re-make the image of Tonto, Horse took the part.
“I wanted a chance to do something more with the character,” he said.
Having grown up in Arizona watching the Lone Ranger on television and listening to it on the radio, he liked what the characters stood for: “Justice, fairness, not judging anybody by their color.”
Horse was one of Jay Silverheels’ students in acting classes he held for Native Americans.
“I knew Jay Silverheels pretty well. He was an amazing person and a good actor. He wasn’t particularly happy with the role of Tonto,” Horse said.
As he prepared for the role, Horse re-watched some of the old episodes.
“(Jay Silverheels) still came off with such dignity. It wasn’t as bad as I thought it was,” he said. When filming began, Horse brought his own dignity and image to the role of Tonto. While he was stepping up the image of Tonto, the star of the show was bringing down the character of the Lone Ranger. Klinton Spilsbury became notorious for his lack of cooperation during the shooting.
“One night he got into a fight. Some guard called me at three in the morning to come and get him. I said, ‘whoa, that faithful companion stuff is only in the movies,’” Horse said.
“The guy who was supposed to be the Lone Ranger was … nothing,” said John Hart, TV’s 1952 Lone Ranger, who had a small part in The Legend of the Lone Ranger. “He got into trouble and couldn’t do the part.” Perhaps the most damaging thing about the film is not what happened during the filming, but what happened in the courts before production began. Wrather Corp. got a court order prohibiting Clayton Moore from wearing the mask and appearing in public as the Lone Ranger.
“When I heard they were so disrespectful to Clayton Moore, I thought, ‘oh, no, you guys shouldn’t have done that,’” Horse said.
The off-screen distractions surrounding Moore, Spilsbury’s antics and fan’s boycott of the film led to the demise of what otherwise would have been a very good movie.
Despite the distractions, Hart was nothing but complimentary about his work with Horse.
“He was a real nice guy. I got to know him,” he said, adding, “He was an intelligent, pleasant guy." Radio announcer Fred Foy also worked with Horse on the movie, although Foy’s on-screen role as mayor of Del Rio got cut.
“He was a very, very pleasant person and really a very good actor,” Foy said.
Foy worked on the Lone Ranger radio show with the original Tonto, John Todd. He has followed the history of the characters closely over the years and said Horse’s Tonto was one of the best.
“He played Tonto the way he should have been played. … I thought he did a good job of portraying Tonto.
Unfortunately, the rest of it wasn’t that great,” he said.
Even though the movie didn’t do well at the box office, Foy still relishes his time on the set.
“It was a great experience. I enjoyed being a part of that,” he said.
Even Hart had fun being part of a big-budget production.
“I got paid and goofed off in a big hotel for a while,” he joked.
The Legend of the Lone Ranger was a springboard for Horse to better showcase his work as a painter and jeweler and to earn more rolls in Hollywood. He first and foremost considers himself to be an artist. His work as an actor and voice-over actor have earned him a great deal of attention and acclaim.
He has appeared on (or voiced characters on) many movies and television shows, including X-Files, Walker Texas Ranger, Malcom in the Middle, Passenger 57, Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, Pocahontas, Rugrats, JAG, Caption Planet, Superman, Batman, Cowboys of the Moo Mesa and Twin Peaks.
“Acting in Twin Peaks was my favorite. It was groundbreaking,” he said.
He also enjoyed the years he spent working in Canada on North of 60. In that show, he was on the cast with a future Tonto, Nathaniel Arcand. “Nathaniel is a great, great guy,” he said.
Although Horse didn’t think much of the WB Lone Ranger movie, he did like what he saw in Arcand on the show. Looking ahead, he said he is aware of the rumor that Columbia Pictures wants to make Tonto a woman in its upcoming motion picture.
“That’s what I heard … stupid,” he said, adding that he would prefer to see how the movie is done before passing judgment on it.
He said it is important that the new Lone Ranger movie maintain the integrity of the Lone Ranger and to make a positive role model for children today.
“Kids need someone to look up to now,” he said.
Currently, Horse is an artist in residence with the Autry National Center’s Southwest Museum of the American Indian. He continues to make fine Native American jewelry and paintings. His works are available on his Web site.
When he isn’t working on his art, he enjoys doing programs for children. He is an activist for Native American children’ s rights and stays busy in Native communities. He said he would like to see more attention in film focused on “Indigenous people in the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s,” he said. “I’d like to see boarding school stories.”
Editor's Note: We want to thank Michael Horse for taking time out of his busy schedule for the interview. Thanks also to Howard Peretti for the tip that led us to contact Horse. We couldn’t have done it without you!