Ben Johnson, was a ranch hand and would travel with his father on the rodeo circuit, as a Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association's Steer Roping World Champion in, 1953. Johnson, was inducted into the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association's Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame in 1973.
His career began with the Howard Hughes film, The Outlaw. Before filming began, Hughes bought some horses at the Oklahoma ranch that Johnson's father managed, and hired Johnson to get the horses to northern Arizona (for The Outlaw's location shooting), and then to take them on to Hollywood.
Once in Hollywood he did stunt work for the movie, The Fighting Gringo(1939), and throughout the 1940s he found work wrangling horses and doing stunt work.
His work as a stunt man caught the eye of director John Ford, who hired Johnson for stunt work in the movie, Fort Apache(1948), and as the riding double for Henry Fonda. During shooting, the horses pulling a wagon with three men in it stampeded. Ben, being at the right place at the right time stopped the runaway wagon. Ford rewarded, Johnson with a seven-year acting contract.
His first credited role was in one of my favorite films, 3 Godfathers(1948). Directed by John Ford and filmed primarily in Death Valley ( My husband grew up there). The screenplay, written by Frank S. Nugent and Laurence Stallings, is based on the novel of the same name written by Peter Kyne. Ford had already filmed the story once before in 1919 as, Marked Men. The original silent version by Ford is thought to be lost today. The story is a re-telling of the story of The Three Wise Men in a western theme.
Ford suggested him for a starring role in the film, Mighty Joe Young(1949). Ford cast him in two of the three films that have come to be known as Ford's cavalry trilogy, all starring John Wayne: She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), and a another favorite of mine, Rio Grande (1950). The story is about, Lt. Col. Kirby Yorke, who is posted on the Texas frontier to defend settlers against the attack of Apaches. Col. Yorke comes under stress because of serious shortage of troops.
Too add to his problems Yorke's son, Trooper Jeff Yorke, is one of 18 recruits sent to the regiment. He has flunked out of West Point and enlisted as a private in the Army. Not wanting to give the impression that he is showing favoritism towards his son, Col. Yorke ends up being harder on his son than he is with the others. Jeff is befriended by a pair of older recruits, Travis Tyree (Ben Johnson) (who is on the run from the law) and "Sandy" Boone (Harry Carey, Jr.), who take him under their wings.
In 1950, Ford also cast Johnson as the lead in Wagon Master (1950), a small film that was one of Ford's favorites.
Johnson played in supporting roles in Shane (1953), One Eyed Jacks (1961), Cheyenne Autumn(1964), Major Dundee (1965), The Wild Bunch, The Getaway, Junior Bonner (both 1972), Dillinger, Red Dawn(1984), Bite the Bullet(1975), Breakheart Pass(1975).
In the 1966-1967 television season, Johnson performed as the character "Sleeve" in all twenty-six episodes of the Western, The Monroes with costars Michael Anderson, Jr., and Barbara Hershey.
He teamed up John Wayne again, and director Andrew McLaglen, in two films; performing with with Rock Hudson in The Undefeated (1969), and in a prominent role in Chisum (1970).
He acted in four films directed by Sam Peckinpah between 1965 and 1972. In between the four Peckinpah films Johnson would win an Academy Award for his performance as 'Sam The Lion' in The Last Picture Show, directed by Peter Bogdanovich co-starring Timothy Bottoms, Jeff Bridges and Cybill Shepherd.
He portrayed the character Cap Roundtree in the 1979 miniseries The Sacketts.
He also continued ranching during the entire time, operating a horse-breeding ranch in Sylmar, California. In addition, he sponsored the Ben Johnson Pro Celebrity Team Roping and Penning competition, held in Oklahoma City, the proceeds of which are donated to both the Children's Medical Research Inc., and to the Children's Hospital of Oklahoma.
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"You know, I'd say that aside from Mr. Ford's [John Ford] help in my career, I'd lay any success I've had to not expecting too much. I never expected to become a star and was always content to stay two or three rungs down the ladder and last awhile. When I do get a little ahead, I see what I can do to help others".