Who Was Jay Silverheels? - Biography, Roles & Death

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Jay Silverheels is best remembered for a single role, but his career is far more significant than this may imply. In this lesson, we'll explore the life and legacy of this trailblazing actor.

Jay Silverheels

In the mid-20th century, American culture developed a newfound fascination with the Old West. Televisions shows, movies, and serials pumped out stories of heroic cowboys, but what's a cowboy story without an Indian? As racialized foils to the white heroes, Amerindian stereotypes were incorporated into American popular culture. Few of these would be as popular, or controversial, as Tonto.

Tonto was the Amerindian sidekick of the Lone Ranger, the hero of a 1930s radio show that grew into a television phenomenon in the 1940s and 1950s. The Lone Ranger roamed the West as a hero, with Tonto by his side with little other purpose than providing someone for the hero to explain the plot to.

Tonto (whose name even means ''fool'' in Spanish) was not exactly a strongly developed Amerindian character, but he was significant in another way. He was one of the first Amerindian characters portrayed by an Amerindian actor, and that actor was Jay Silverheels.

Jay Silverheels
Jay Silverheels

From Toronto to Tinseltown

Jay Silverheels was born under the name Harold John Smith in 1912 on the Six Nations of the Grand River First Nation, located in Ontario, Canada. His father was a First Nations chief of the Mohawk nation.

As a child, Jay Silverheels lived largely in poverty. It's important to remember that this was long before the Canadian government adopted a policy of accepting Amerindian identities. First Nations people were marginalized, and forced assimilation was the de facto Canadian response.

As a young man, Silverheels turned to athletics as a pathway out of poverty. He managed to distinguish himself as a skilled lacrosse player and boxer, even ranking in the Golden Glove competitions. His athletic talent gave him the rare opportunity to travel beyond the reservations, something beyond the grasp of many First Nations children of the time.

In 1937, the Canadian lacrosse player accompanied his team to one of their most exciting destinations: Los Angeles, California. The lacrosse match was attended by a man named Joe E. Brown, a famous American comedian and actor. Brown saw something special in Silverheels' talent, and met with him after the game, convincing him to do a screen test. By the end of 1937, Silverheels was working as a Hollywood stuntman.

Silverheels in Hollywood

Appearing on screen under his birth name of Harry Smith, Silverheels started making a name for himself as a Hollywood stuntman. However, the studios felt that a more Native-American sounding name would increase his exotic appeal, so they started billing him as ''Silverheels'', a nickname he'd earned as a lacrosse player for his swift feet.

As Jay Silverheels, the actor would find roles in a number of American hits, performing as an extra in movies like Broken Arrow (1950), The Black Dakotas (1954), Drums Across the River (1954), and even True Grit (1969).

Jay Silverheels as Tonto

His most famous role, however, was that of Tonto in The Lone Ranger. The television show premiered in September of 1949. Week after week, Silverheels portrayed the faithful sidekick to the Lone Ranger, and became one of the show's most popular characters.

Impact on Acting Culture

Tonto was not exactly a deeply developed Amerindian character, so how significant was Silverheels' portrayal of him? Actually, very significant. While Tonto never developed beyond the role of a sidekick, he was at least an Amerindian character depicted in a medium almost entirely dominated by white personas.

Even more significantly, he was actually played by an Amerindian actor. Up until this point, Tonto had always been voiced by white Americans in the radio shows. In movies and shows, a large number of Amerindian characters were actually played by dark-haired European-Americans, who were given Native American-sounding names in the credits.

So, while Tonto may have been a stereotyped character, for Silverheels this performance led to an entire career of being type-cast as stereotypical ''Indians'' in Old West shows and movies. However, the simple fact that an Amerindian actor was able to portray an Amerindian character was groundbreaking for the time.

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