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Obituaries : Ben Johnson; Oscar-Winning Actor

April 09, 1996|MYRNA OLIVER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ben Johnson, rugged Western actor of about 300 films who won an Academy Award as the movie theater owner in "The Last Picture Show," died Monday He was 75.

The actor died of a heart attack in a Mesa, Ariz., hospital after collapsing during a visit to his mother at a suburban Phoenix retirement home where they both lived.

The highlight of Johnson's career was his Oscar-winning role as cowboy and town tycoon Sam in Peter Bogdanovich's 1971 film about the interwoven lives in a small Texas town.

The first time he saw the script for "The Last Picture Show," Johnson candidly told an Arizona reporter last year, he rejected it.

"It was the worst thing I ever read," he said. "Every other word that I had [as the character Sam] was a dirty word, so I turned it down."

But his old friend and mentor, director John Ford, asked him to do Bogdanovich's film as a personal favor, and Johnson relented.

"I rewrote my part," he proudly recalled, "and I won the English Academy Award, the American Academy Award [for best supporting actor], a Golden Globe Award and the New York Film Critics award, and I didn't have to say one dirty word."

Johnson was a durable hard-riding fixture in predominantly Western films for more than three decades. He was also a genuine rodeo champion whom Bogdanovich proudly referred to as "the real thing."

Born in Pawhuska, Okla., Johnson worked on a ranch for his rodeo champion father. He often joked that he got to Hollywood "in a carload of horses"--escorting stock bought by Howard Hughes for his 1943 film "The Outlaw," which introduced voluptuous actress Jane Russell.

Offered $175 a week rather than his cowboy pay of $40 a month, Johnson stayed on as wrangler for Hughes' movie company. He soon became a stuntman and double in "oaters."

Johnson attracted Ford's attention in 1948 when he saved the lives of several people in an accident on the set of the 1948 film "Fort Apache." Ford put him under contract, cast him in "Three Godfathers" and "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon," and then starred him in the 1949 "Mighty Joe Young" about a gorilla and the 1950 "Wagonmaster," in which Johnson joined a Mormon wagon train heading for Utah.

Johnson left Hollywood in 1952 to pursue a dream from his youth.

"I took one year out of the picture business to go into rodeo and see what I could do," he said last year. "My dad was a world's champion three or four times, so I wanted to be. Fortunately, I won the world's championship in team roping (1953), but at the end of the year I didn't have $3. All I had was a wore-out automobile and a mad wife."

The cowboy returned to Hollywood. Over the years, Johnson appeared in six films with John Wayne and, after Wayne's death, picked up some of the television commercials Wayne had begun for Great Western Savings.

Johnson also acted with tough-guy stars Alan Ladd in "Shane," Marlon Brando in "One-Eyed Jacks," Charlton Heston in "Major Dundee," Clint Eastwood in "Hang 'Em High," Charles Bronson in "Breakheart Pass" and Steve McQueen in "Junior Bonner." He made eight films with his friend and fellow character actor, Harry Carey Jr.

Johnson later worked in several Western television shows, including last year's movie "Bonanza: Under Attack," the 1982 television movie of Louis L'Amour's "The Shadow Riders," the 1979 miniseries "The Sacketts," and his television movie debut in the 1973 adaptation of John Steinbeck's "The Red Pony."

Recognized as a Western icon, Johnson walked easily through a Gene Autry-like role as an elderly cowboy actor turned major league baseball team owner in the 1994 Disney film "Angels in the Outfield."

When the crusty Johnson received his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame three years ago, he remarked: "I don't know why in the hell you all waited so long to give me the star. You waited till I got so old I couldn't hardly enjoy it."

Johnson for many years sponsored pro-celebrity team roping rodeos to benefit children's charities, primarily in Arizona.

In 1990, he was honored at the Ben Johnson Celebrity Rodeo at the Los Angeles Equestrian Center.

His wife of 54 years, Carol, died early last year.

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