Ben Johnson
Johnson in 1969
Francis Benjamin Johnson Jr.

(1918-06-13)June 13, 1918
DiedApril 8, 1996(1996-04-08) (aged 77)
Resting placePawhuska City Cemetery
  • Actor
  • stuntman
  • rodeo cowboy
Years active1939–1996
Carol Elaine Jones
(m. 1941; died 1994)

Francis Benjamin Johnson Jr. (June 13, 1918 – April 8, 1996) was an American film and television actor, stuntman, and world-champion rodeo cowboy. Johnson brought authenticity to many roles in Westerns with his droll manner and expert horsemanship.

The son of a rancher, Johnson arrived in Hollywood to deliver a consignment of horses for a film. He did stunt-double work for several years before breaking into acting with the help of John Ford. An elegiac portrayal of a former cowboy theater owner in the 1950s coming-of-age drama The Last Picture Show won Johnson the 1971 Academy Award, BAFTA Award, and Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actor.

Johnson also operated a horse-breeding ranch throughout his career. Although he said he had succeeded by sticking to what he knew, shrewd real estate investments made Johnson worth an estimated $100 million by his later years.[1][dubiousdiscuss]

Early life

Johnson was born in Foraker, Oklahoma, on the Osage Indian Reservation, of self-identified Irish and Cherokee ancestry,[2][3] the son of Ollie Susan Johnson (née Workmon) and Ben Johnson Sr.[4] His father was a rancher and rodeo champion in Osage County.[5]

Film career

Johnson's film career began with the Howard Hughes film The Outlaw.[6][7]

Johnson liked to say later that he got to Hollywood in a carload of horses.[8]

His work as a stuntman caught the eye of director John Ford, who hired Johnson for stunt work in the 1948 film Fort Apache, and as the riding double for Henry Fonda.[3] During shooting, the horses pulling a wagon with three men in it stampeded. Johnson, who "happened to be settin' on a horse", stopped the runaway wagon and saved the men. When Ford promised that he would be rewarded, Johnson hoped it would be with another doubling job, or maybe a small speaking role.[9] Instead, he received a seven-year acting contract from Ford.[10] Ford called Johnson into his office, and handed him an envelope with a contract in it. Johnson started reading it, and when he got to the fifth line and it said "$5,000 a week," he stopped reading, grabbed a pen, signed it, and gave it back to Ford.[9]

Johnson in Wagon Master (1950)

His first credited role was in Ford's 3 Godfathers; the film is notable for the riding skills demonstrated by both Johnson and star Pedro Armendáriz. He later said the film was the most physically challenging of his career. Ford then suggested a starring role for him in the 1949 film Mighty Joe Young; he played Gregg opposite Terry Moore. Ford cast him in the remaining 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 Rio Grande (1950) joining Fort Apache. Both roles showcased Johnson's riding ability. Ford also cast Johnson as the lead in Wagon Master (1950), one of Ford's favorites.

In real life Johnson's demeanor was calm but firm; even in tense situations he did not show any bad temper. And though known for avoiding drama, he had definite boundaries, both in life and as an actor. During the making of Rio Grande he defied Ford, who was notorious for browbeating his actors, and reportedly told him to go to hell. Johnson thought the incident had been forgotten, but Ford did not use him in a film for over a decade. Johnson also appeared in four films of tempestuous director Sam Peckinpah and had a good relationship with him, with Peckinpah appreciating Johnson's authenticity and lack of acting airs.[1]

Johnson played in supporting roles in Shane (1953), where he appeared as Chris Calloway, a "bad guy who makes good" after being beaten senseless by Alan Ladd, and One-Eyed Jacks (1961) starring Marlon Brando. In 1964, he worked with Ford again in Cheyenne Autumn. The Peckinpah-directed films included Major Dundee (1965, with Charlton Heston), The Wild Bunch (1969, with William Holden and Robert Ryan), and two back-to-back starring Steve McQueen, The Getaway and Junior Bonner, a rodeo film, (both 1972). In 1973, he co-starred as Melvin Purvis in John Milius' Dillinger with Warren Oates; he also appeared in Milius' 1984 film Red Dawn. In 1975, he played the character Mister in Bite the Bullet, starring Gene Hackman and James Coburn. He also appeared with Charles Bronson in 1975's Breakheart Pass. In 1980, he was cast as Sheriff Isum Gorch in Soggy Bottom U.S.A.

Johnson played Bartlett in the 1962–63 season of Have Gun Will Travel, which featured a short scene of his riding skills. In 1963, Johnson appeared as Spinner on the TV Western The Virginian in the episode titled "Duel at Shiloh".[11] In the 1966–67 television season, Johnson appeared as the character Sleeve in all 26 episodes of the ABC family Western The Monroes with co-stars Michael Anderson Jr. and Barbara Hershey.[12]

He teamed up with John Wayne again, and director Andrew V. McLaglen, in two films, appearing with Rock Hudson in The Undefeated (1969) and in a fairly prominent role in Chisum (1970). The apex of Johnson's career was reached in 1971 with his performance as Sam the Lion in Peter Bogdanovich's The Last Picture Show earning him an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.

On the set of The Train Robbers, in June 1972, he told Nancy Anderson of Copley News Service that winning the Oscar for The Last Picture Show was not going to change him and he would not raise his salary request to studios because of it. He continued, "I grew up on a ranch and I know livestock, so I like working in Westerns. All my life I've been afraid of failure. To avoid it, I've stuck with doing things I know how to do, and it's made me a good living".[13]

He played Cap Roundtree in the 1979 miniseries The Sacketts. He played Sam Bellows in the 1980 film Ruckus and Jack Mason in the 1984 action adventure Red Dawn. He co-starred in the 1994 version of Angels in the Outfield.

He continued ranching during the entire time, operating a horse-breeding ranch in Sylmar, California.[3] In addition, he sponsored the Ben Johnson Pro Celebrity Team Roping and Penning competition in Oklahoma City, the proceeds from which benefitted Children's Medical Research Inc. and the Children's Hospital of Oklahoma.[14]

Rodeo championship

Johnson was drawn to the rodeos and horse breeding of his early years. In 1953, he took a break from well-paid film work to compete in the Rodeo Cowboys Association (RCA), becoming the Team Roping World Champion; although he only broke even financially that year. Johnson was inducted into the ProRodeo Hall of Fame in 1979.[15] According to his ProRodeo Hall of Fame entry, he said, "I've won a rodeo world championship, and I'm prouder of that than anything else I've ever done."[15]

Personal life

Johnson's 1941 marriage to Carol Elaine Jones lasted until her death on March 27, 1994. They had no children. She was the daughter of noted Hollywood horse wrangler Clarence "Fat" Jones.[1] Johnson continued to work almost steadily until his death.

On April 8, 1996, aged 77, Johnson collapsed and died from a heart attack while visiting his then 96-year-old mother Ollie at Leisure World in Mesa, Arizona, the suburban Phoenix retirement community where they both lived.[16] Johnson's body was later transported from Arizona to Pawhuska, Oklahoma, for burial at the Pawhuska City Cemetery.[17]

Ollie died on October 16, 2000, aged 101.[18]

In 2003 Johnson was inducted into the Texas Trail of Fame.[19]


For his contribution to the motion picture industry, Johnson has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 7083 Hollywood Boulevard. In 1982, he was inducted into the Western Performers Hall of Fame at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City. In 1996, Tom Thurman made a documentary film about Johnson's life, titled Ben Johnson: Third Cowboy on the Right, written by Thurman and Tom Marksbury.[2]

The Ben Johnson Cowboy Museum was opened in honor of Ben Johnson in his hometown of Pawhuska in June 2019. The museum showcases the life and career of Ben Johnson, as well as his father, Ben Johnson Sr., who was also a world-champion cowboy. In addition to the Ben Johnsons, the museum also features other world-champion cowboys and cowgirls, famous ranches (like the one Ben grew up on), and cowboy artists and craftsmen, all from the area where Ben grew up.[20]

The Ben Johnson Memorial Steer Roping and the International Roundup Cavalcade, the world's largest amateur rodeo, are held annually in Pawhuska, Oklahoma.[21]

A one-and-a-quarter-sized bronze sculpture by John D. Free of Ben Johnson riding a horse and roping a steer was commissioned and produced in Pawhuska, Oklahoma.[22]


Film (actor and stuntman)

Year Title Role Notes
1939 The Fighting Gringo Mexican Barfly Uncredited
1943 The Outlaw Deputy Uncredited
1943 Bordertown Gun Fighters Messenger Uncredited
1944 The Pinto Bandit Race Contestant Uncredited
1944 Tall in the Saddle Townsman / Stuntman Uncredited
1944 Nevada Saloon Patron / Stunt Double: Robert Mitchum Uncredited
1945 Corpus Christi Bandits 2nd Stage Driver Uncredited
1945 The Naughty Nineties Coach Driver Uncredited
1946 Badman's Territory Deputy Marshal Uncredited
1947 Wyoming Cowhand Uncredited
1947 Angel and the Badman Stuntman Uncredited
1948 The Gallant Legion Texas Ranger Uncredited
1948 Fort Apache Stunt Double: Henry Fonda Uncredited
1948 3 Godfathers Posse Man #1 / Stuntman Johnson was also a stuntman but wasn't credited for it.
1948 Red River Stuntman Uncredited
1949 She Wore a Yellow Ribbon Sergeant Tyree
1949 Mighty Joe Young Gregg
1950 Wagon Master Travis Blue
1950 Rio Grande Trooper Travis Tyree
1951 Fort Defiance Ben Shelby
1952 Wild Stallion Dan Light
1953 Shane Chris Calloway
1955 Oklahoma! Wrangler / Stuntman Uncredited
1956 Rebel in Town Frank Mason
1957 War Drums Luke Fargo
1957 Slim Carter Montana Burriss
1958 Fort Bowie Captain Thomas Thompson
1960 Ten Who Dared George Bradley
1961 One-Eyed Jacks Bob Amory
1961 Tomboy and the Champ Jim Wilkins
1964 Cheyenne Autumn Trooper Plumtree Uncredited
1965 Major Dundee Sergeant Chillum
1966 The Rare Breed Jeff Harter
1968 Will Penny Alex
1968 Hang 'Em High Marshal Dave Bliss
1969 The Wild Bunch Tector Gorch
1969 The Undefeated Short Grub
1970 Chisum James Pepper
1971 The Last Picture Show Sam the Lion Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor
BAFTA Award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role
Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actor – Motion Picture
National Board of Review Award for Best Supporting Actor
New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Supporting Actor
1971 Something Big Jesse Bookbinder
1972 Corky Boland
1972 Junior Bonner Buck Roan
1972 The Getaway Jack Beynon
1973 The Train Robbers Jesse
1973 The Wayne Train Himself / Jesse Documentary short
1973 The Red Pony Jess Taylor Television movie
1973 Kid Blue Sheriff 'Mean John' Simpson
1973 Dillinger Melvin Purvis
1973 Runaway! Holly Gibson Television movie
1973 Blood Sport Dwayne Birdsong Television movie
1974 The Sugarland Express Captain Tanner
1974 Locusts Amos Fletcher Television movie
1975 Bite the Bullet Mister Bronze Wrangler for Theatrical Motion Picture (shared with cast & crew)
1975 Breakheart Pass Marshal Pearce
1975 Hustle Marty Hollinger
1976 The Savage Bees Sheriff Donald McKew Television movie
1976 The Town That Dreaded Sundown Captain J.D. Morales
1977 The Greatest Hollis
1977 Grayeagle John Colter
1978 The Swarm Felix Austin
1979 The Sacketts Cap Rountree Television movie
1980 The Hunter Sheriff Strong
1980 Ruckus Sam Bellows
1980 Terror Train Carne
1981 Soggy Bottom U.S.A. Sheriff Isum Gorch
1982 Tex Cole Collins
1982 The Shadow Riders Uncle 'Black Jack' Traven Television movie
1983 Champions Burly Cocks
1984 Red Dawn Mr. Jack Mason
1985 Wild Horses Bill Ward Television movie
1986 Let's Get Harry Harry Burck Sr.
1986 Trespasses August Klein
1987 Cherry 2000 Six-Fingered Jake
1988 Stranger on my Land Vern Whitman Television movie
1988 Dark Before Dawn The Sheriff
1989 The Last Ride Unnamed cowboy Short film
1989 Back to Back Eli Hix
1989 Hollywood on Horses Himself
1991 The Chase Laurienti Television movie
1991 My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys Jesse Dalton
1991 Thank Ya, Thank Ya Kindly Himself TV movie documentary
1992 Radio Flyer Geronimo Bill
1992 The Making of Rio Grande Himself / Trooper Travis Tyree
1993 Bonanza: The Return Bronc Evans Television movie
1993 John Ford Himself TV movie documentary
1994 100 Years of the Hollywood Western Himself TV movie documentary
1994 Angels in the Outfield Hank Murphy
1994 Outlaws: The Legend of O.B. Taggart Jack Parrish
1995 Bonanza: Under Attack Bronc Evans Television movie
1996 Ruby Jean and Joe Big Man With Tom Selleck
1996 Ben Johnson: Third Cowboy on the Right Himself Documentary
1996 The Evening Star Doctor Arthur Cotton Released posthumously (final film role)


Year Title Role Notes
1956 Cavalcade of America Cal Bennett Once a Hero (Season 5, Episode 12)
1958 The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet Tex Barton Top Gun (Season 6, Episode 26)
1958 Navy Log Border Patrol Officer Florida Weekend (Season 3, Episode 28)
1958 The Restless Gun Sheriff Tim Malachy No Way to Kill (Season 2, Episode 9)
1958 Alfred Hitchcock Presents Jeff, The Sheriff "And the Desert Shall Blossom" (Season 4, Episode 11)
1958 Wagon Train Wagon Driver episode: Bije Wilcox Story
1959 Border Patrol Hank Colman Everglades Story (Season 1, Episode 1)
1960–1961 Laramie Various Seasons 1–2; 3 episodes
1961–1962 Route 66 Various Seasons 1–2; 2 episodes
1960–1962 Have Gun – Will Travel Various Seasons 4–6; 3 episodes
1962 Stoney Burke Rex Donally Point of Honor (Season 1, Episode 4)
1962 Bonanza Deputy Sheriff Stan Mace Episode: "The Gamble"
1964 Perry Mason Kelly, Mine Foreman "The Case of the Reckless Rockhound" (Season 8, Episode 10)
1965 Bob Hope Presents the Chrysler Theatre Burt Wade March from Camp Tyler (Season 3, Episode 3)
1966 Branded Bill Latigo McCord's Way (Season 2, Episode 20)
1966 ABC Stage 67 Sheriff Barbee Noon Wine (Season 1, Episode 9)
1966–1967 The Monroes Sleeve Recurring role; 14 episodes
1963–1968 The Virginian Various Seasons 1–7; 4 episodes
1969 Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color Himself Ride a Northbound Horse: Part 1 and 2 (Season 15, Episodes 21 & 22)
1969 Bonanza Sergeant Samuel Bellis Episode: "The Deserter"
1971 Bonanza Kelly James Episode: "Top Hand"
1963–1971 Gunsmoke Ben Crown / Vern Morland / Hannon Seasons 8–17; episodes: Quint-Cident / Quaker Girl /Drago
1980 Wild Times Doc Bogardus Television miniseries; 2 episodes
1984 Hollywood Greats Himself episode: John Wayne
1986 Dream West Jim Bridger Television miniseries


  1. ^ a b c Jensen, Richard D. (2010). The Nicest Fella – the Life of Ben Johnson: The World Champion Rodeo Cowboy who Became an Oscar-winning Movie Star. iUniverse. ISBN 9781440196782.
  2. ^ a b Thurman, Tom (September 1, 1996). "Ben Johnson: Third Cowboy on the Right". IMDb. Retrieved April 30, 2018.
  3. ^ a b c Erickson, Hal. "Ben Johnson profile". AllMovie. Retrieved April 30, 2018.
  4. ^ "Ollie Susan Workmon Rider obituary". Osage County, Oklahoma USGenWeb Project, Archived from the original on February 18, 2008. Retrieved June 24, 2015.
  5. ^ Smith, Annick (1996). Big Bluestem: Journey Into the Tall Grass. Tulsa, Oklahoma: Council Oak Books. pp. 78, 80. ISBN 9781571780317. The most famous foreman on the Chapman-Barnard spread was Ben Johnson, Sr., a world-champion rodeo roper, the hero of the Osage. Ben, Jr., his son, known as 'Son' Johnson, would also become a world-champion roper, and a movie star to boot.
  6. ^ Cartwright, Gary (June 1, 2015). The Best I Recall: A Memoir. University of Texas Press. ISBN 978-1-4773-0539-3. Ben Jr. got into the film business when his father sold some livestock used in Howard Hughes's film The Outlaw and sent his son along to help manage the stock.
  7. ^ Stratton, W. K. (February 12, 2019). The Wild Bunch: Sam Peckinpah, a Revolution in Hollywood, and the Making of a Legendary Film. Bloomsbury Publishing USA. pp. 91–92. ISBN 978-1-63286-214-3.
  8. ^ "Ben Johnson". May 2, 1996. Retrieved June 24, 2015.
  9. ^ a b Brown, David G. (September–October 1995). "Last of a Breed". American Cowboy. 2 (3). Active Interest Media: 43. ISSN 1079-3690.
  10. ^ McBride, Joseph (2003). Searching for John Ford: A Life. Macmillan. p. 496. ISBN 978-0-312-31011-0.
  11. ^ Pitts, Michael R. (1999). Charles Bronson: The 95 Films and the 156 Television Appearances. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company. p. 38. ISBN 978-0-7864-1702-5.
  12. ^ The Monroes at IMDb Edit this at Wikidata
  13. ^ Anderson, Nancy (June 4, 1972). "John Wayne A Father Figure On Movie Set in Durango, Mexico". The Joplin Globe. Copley New Service.
  14. ^ Curtis, Gene (March 29, 2007). "Only in Oklahoma: Real cowboy rode into Hollywood lore". Tulsa World. McClatchy - Tribune Business News. p. 1. ProQuest 459446501. In addition, he sponsored the Ben Johnson Pro Celebrity Team Roping and Penning competition in Oklahoma City to benefit the Children's Medical Research Inc., and the Children's Hospital of Oklahoma.
  15. ^ a b "Ben Johnson – Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame". Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame. Archived from the original on April 13, 2017. Retrieved April 12, 2017.
  16. ^ "Actor Ben Johnson dies at 77", The Press of Atlantic City, Atlantic City, NJ, April 9, 1996, retrieved August 31, 2012
  17. ^ "Actor Buried Near Pawhuska". Tulsa World. April 15, 1996. Retrieved October 4, 2018.
  18. ^ Profile,; accessed June 24, 2015.
  19. ^ "Ben Johnson". Western Heritage from the Texas Trail of Fame. June 6, 2013. Retrieved May 11, 2017.
  20. ^ "The Ben Johnson Cowboy Museum". Facebook. Retrieved January 26, 2020.
  21. ^ May, Jon D. "Johnson, Ben, Jr". The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture. Retrieved April 30, 2018.
  22. ^ "Ben Johnson Monument Project Opens At Preserving Arts In The Osage Show" (PDF). Ponca City News. May 11, 2016. p. 5-C. Archived from the original (PDF) on October 12, 2016. Retrieved June 3, 2016.

Further reading