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Clayton Moore, TV's 'Lone Ranger,' Dies

Obituary: Actor's identification with the masked hero long outlasted the series.

December 29, 1999|STEPHANIE STASSEL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Clayton Moore, whose hearty "Hi-yo, Silver" resounded on television throughout the 1950s and who personally identified so strongly with the Lone Ranger character that he refused even in old age to give up being a Western hero, died Tuesday. He was 85.

Moore died of a heart attack at West Hills Regional Medical Center in the San Fernando Valley, according to his publicist, Katy Sweet Public Relations.

"I always wanted to be a policeman or a cowboy, and I got to do both," Moore wrote in his 1996 autobiography, "I Was That Masked Man."

Already an experienced actor, he first appeared as the Lone Ranger in 1949, when the popular radio program of the 1930s and '40s gave rise to a visual version in television's infancy.

Moore played the champion of justice from 1949 to 1952 and again from 1954 to 1957. But even after leaving the show, he continued appearing as the Lone Ranger in rodeos, parades and other public events, firing blanks from his twin Colt .45s and preaching to his young fans about honesty, law and order, and respect.

"I believe, truly and always, in the Lone Ranger's Creed," Moore reiterated in 1996 during a book tour for his autobiography. The creed includes such lines as "I believe that to have a friend, a man must be one" and "I believe that all men are created equal and that everyone has within himself the power to make this a better world."

Although actor John Hart was seen on TV for two seasons in the part, Moore unabashedly claimed the Lone Ranger's image for himself, an attachment that eventually led to a legal battle with the owners of the rights to the character.

"Once I got the Lone Ranger role, I didn't want any other," Moore said in a 1985 interview with The Times. "I like playing the good guy. I'll wear the white hat for the rest of my life. The Lone Ranger is a great character, a great American. Playing him made me a better person."

The actor was born Jack Carlson Moore, the son of a real estate broker, in Chicago. He performed in a trapeze circus act for several years, after learning acrobatics, tumbling and swimming as a teenager at the Illinois Athletic Club. One of his instructors there was Johnny Weissmuller, the champion swimmer who later played Tarzan in the movies.

An injury ended Moore's circus career, and the ruggedly handsome athlete later became a John Robert Powers model.

He first appeared in films in 1938, playing bit parts and performing stunts in serials including "Dick Tracy Returns" (1938) and "The Perils of Nyoka" (1942). Nicknamed the "King of the Serials" for all the cliffhanger episodes he helped churn out to encourage return visits to movie theaters, Moore first donned a mask in the 1949 serial "The Ghost of Zorro."

His acting career, interrupted by World War II when he served three years in the Army Air Force, included more than 70 feature films. Among them was "Black Dragons," the very first World War II film, starring Bela Lugosi as a German doctor who altered the faces of Japanese spies to look like American industrialists and Moore as the handsome American hero who got the girl.

A fan of the Lone Ranger radio series since its inception in 1933, Moore beat out 75 actors to become television's version of the classic hero. When producer George Trendle told him the good news, Moore said he replied: "Mr. Trendle, I am the Lone Ranger."

The show was the first western filmed for television and a pioneer in its field. Until it came along, television cowboy programs consisted merely of segments cut from feature films.

The legend of the Lone Ranger, as told in the original radio series, begins with an ambush of six Texas Rangers, including the two Reid brothers, by outlaw Butch Cavendish and his gang. Five Rangers are killed but John Reid, presumed dead by the outlaws, survives. Badly wounded, he is found and nursed back to health by an Indian named Tonto (played on TV by Jay Silverheels).

Disguising himself with a black mask cut from his dead brother's vest to conceal his identity from the Cavendish gang, he sets out on their trail as the lone surviving Ranger of the patrol, the origin of the character's name.

He and Tonto travel to Wild Horse Valley, where they rescue an injured white stallion, which the Lone Ranger names Silver. The Reids owned a silver mine that supports John Reid's crusade for justice while also providing the ranger's trademark silver bullets.

The Lone Ranger was the purest of the white hats of the era and a favorite of both the young and their parents. He spoke precisely, acted nobly, didn't drink or smoke and showed no interest in women, money or creature comforts. He always cooperated with the duly constituted officers of the law and never, ever seriously harmed anyone--a feat the writers explained by giving him such superhuman marksmanship that he was able to disarm villains by shooting the guns out of their hands at great distances.

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