In Praise Of Tonto

I respect Johnny Depp, but I’ve been chafing at his comments about Tonto as he prepares to play the famous Indian in an upcoming feature. I grew up watching The Lone Ranger and always considered Tonto a noble character, not an illiterate or a stooge. But I need say no more: Dawn Moore, the daughter of Clayton Moore, who played the masked rider opposite Jay Silverheels as Tonto on television and in two feature films,

1955 at my parent’s ranch in Tarzana, California. Jay, Dad and “The Lone Ranger and the Lost City of Gold” co-star, Rod Redwing. Screwing around like guys do.

has written an eloquent and personal tribute to the actor. It first appeared days ago on The Huffington Post, and Dawn has allowed me to reprint it here, along with some of her rare photos.


Jay Silverheels, Kemo Sabe by Dawn Moore

Much has been written about Tonto’s role in one of the most famous partnerships in not only the Western genre but also Hollywood history. Most revolves around resentment. Resentment over the portrayal of Native Americans as illiterate patsies of —

I was probably 32 before I could figure out who these people were. Forgetting that my father had blue eyes. Hmmm… LR and Tonto undercover.

—the white cowboy. Johnny Depp’s quote to Entertainment Weekly, “Why is the f–ing Lone Ranger telling Tonto what to do?” is merely the latest.

Something that Mary Silverheels, a woman of quiet dignity, is perfectly aware. The immaculately cared for and manicured home she and Jay purchased in 1964 is devoid of any displayed memorabilia from Jay’s prolific career. I mention this and she giggles saying she doesn’t like to dust. Well, she is 87 after all. There are two images of her late husband, one a pencil rendering by a friend and the other an arresting photograph from one of his films. I ask how Jay felt about the role with which he became indelibly linked.

Clearly, White Man Out of ‘Hood. Tonto take charge. Or White Man get assed kicked.

“Jay knew this was a character and changed what he could and didn’t dwell on what he couldn’t.” Her voice so soft I had to lean in to hear. “No, he didn’t like the dialogue, but he overcame that with his acting.” Indeed he did. That and more.

Jay Silverheels, strikingly handsome with an athlete’s virile physique, had a long career as an actor before he accepted the role of Tonto in 1949. He was far more established than my father Clayton Moore (by then, 40 films including Key Largo and The Sea Hawk) and blessed with a humor and self-confidence gleaned in part, no doubt, from being raised the son of a respected Mohawk elder who became the most decorated Native Canadian soldier in WWI. His championship-winning athletic skills in boxing, lacrosse and wrestling added to his strongly chiseled features and commanding presence, made Hollywood take notice. But, it was his innate dignity and pride in his heritage that transcended demeaning roles or inane dialogue.

Heading up the American Indian Actor’s Studio 1970.

My father recounted a day when all was not right on the set. “We were working out in Chatsworth where it was terribly hot; this was early on in the show. My costume was very heavy weight wool and Jay’s of course, was suede, so things were pretty uncomfortable. Our dressing room was a small, cramped trailer that we both shared. It was pretty bad, but I didn’t want to complain so I just rolled with the punches. But, Jay was smarter than I was. He said, ‘Clay, this is ridiculous. I am going to say something.’ Now, this was in the middle of the day and any time someone held up shooting it cost money, and sometimes their job! I asked him to wait until the day was over and he said ‘No.’

“I watched as Jay walked calmly over to the director; they talked for a minute and then Jay turned, mounted Scout and took off. I knew this hadn’t gone well, so I jumped on Silver and took off after him. I found him on the top of a far hill. ‘Jay, this isn’t right, you shouldn’t be holding up production like this.’ Jay quietly turned to face me and said, ‘No, Clay. What isn’t right is the way we are being treated. We are the stars of this show and need to have better working conditions. We need to stay up here for a little while to show we mean business and then I will come down and finish the day’s shoot.’ This was hard for me to do, but I understood and wanted to back Jay, so we stayed. The next day there was two shiny new dressing room trailers — one for each of us.”

Jay understood Tonto’s relationship to the Lone Ranger was one of mutual respect and brotherhood. Sometimes what was necessary put Tonto’s life in danger; sometimes John Reid’s. He also understood the tremendous power he had as a role model to Native peoples, and he led by example.

Madison Square Garden 1957. Look at those outstretched hands. And those million-dollar smiles.

I recently met an actor who worked with Jay at the American Indian Actor’s Workshop back in the ’70s. He couldn’t stop talking about how proud Jay made him to be an Indian in this industry and how much he learned about dignity and self-respect from Jay’s example. He recounted how Jay would always pay special attention to the children present, offering them a story or a little recognition. Jay worked tirelessly to teach and coach Indian actors so that the industry would hire them for Indian roles and bring an honesty not then present.

If one wants to look for negative stereotypes, they are easily found. Certainly, in the insensitive decades during which the scripts for The Lone Ranger were written, it is bitingly evident. However, endless tributes from Native Americans about the lessons of tolerance and pride of heritage prove that Jay Silverheels made a difference. By conducting his life with a strong grace and profound nobility, he walked the walk.


  1. Richard Ferrel says:

    Now approaching 60, my youth was moved and immersed with watching "The Lone Ranger". Around the age of 12, my parents took our family to San Juan Capistrano to visit our Aunt. As custom, we stopped in at the famous Walnut Grove restaurant there. While eating, I heard a familiar voice though I could not see the person. I told my mom and dad that voice was "Tonto" of the Lone Ranger. They both said no!, but if I thought so to get out of the booth and ask him. I did and walked up to the table and asked " are you Tonto !"
    " yes kimosabe" I am. Tonto then got out of his seat, walked me to his car, opened the trunk
    and pulled out an 8×10 photograph of him sitting on "Scout". I will never forget that moment and how blessed I am for meeting him. God Speec Jay Silverheels

  2. Bob Paine says:

    Tonto should have been portrayed speaking proper English. I'd have no problem with the character using "Umm, that plenty good, Kemo Sabe" when the pair were with other people – strangers and so on – when they wanted Tonto to be underestimated. But in private and with people they know, the "Me do, Kemo Sabe" is for the birds. I wish I had met Jay Silverheels; I've always admired him. BTW, on radio his greeting was "Ta-i, Kemo Sabe" which is in actuality Potawatomi for "Hail, faithful friend."

  3. John Carman says:

    No one can ever replace the REAL Lone Ranger, Clayton Moore or Tonto, Jay Silverheels. May they live on forever on earth and in heaven.

  4. zig misiak says:

    TONTO: The Man in Front of the Mask, 1st ever biography about the original Tonto, Jay Silverheels, release July 19, 2013, see 'real peoples history' for details.

  5. Mimi Mansky says:

    I enjoyed the Dawn Moore's beautiful article on Jay Silverheels, and, even though I haven't seen the new Lone Ranger movie yet, I would like to despite the harsh critiques it has received.

    I agree one-hundred percent with Ira Cohen's remark on June 24, 2013, regarding the unfair treatment of Clayton Moore when they told him he had to give up wearing the mask.

    Also, I felt it was real shame about the way Jerry Siegel and Joel Shuster (creators of Superman) were treated. They really short-changed them as far as royalties, and recognition were concerned.

  6. Ira Cohen says:

    I too listened from the radio days on (Brace Beymer played the Lone Ranger). Clayton Moore and Jay Silverheels never came across as less than equals. I refused to see the last Lone Ranger movie they made because of the detestable way they treated Clayton Moore, demanding he give up the mask he had represented so effectively for so many years. It reminds me of the treatment given to Jerry Siegel and Joel Shuster, the inventors of Superman, who they pay lip service to today. The principles laid down by all those pioneers in establishing worthy role models are lost today when everything revolves around making incredible amounts of money and paying the little guys involved as little as possible.

  7. Robert Booth says:

    I have been a Lone Ranger fan since radio days. My first television viewing was The Lone Ranger in 1949. He gave me and my children values to live by. Of course, my generation will always have Clayton Moore as the only Lone Ranger and Jay Silverheels as Tonto because that is who we grew up with. I am open to change as well as anyone. But lets keep the basics in tact. We love Dawn and are very grateful she is keeping her dads image out there. She can be very proud of what her dad did to my generation. He was, indeed a role model for millions of kids, and their kids as well. And I can affirm that talking to Clayton Moore, the man, was the same as talking to The Lone Ranger. They WERE one and the same. Unfortunately, over the years, those values have gone down considerably. So low in fact, the phrase "Who Was that Masked Man," has been reduced by many to, "Who or What is the Lone Ranger, never heard of him?" This is the third attempt to bring The Lone Ranger back to life. The first two failed miserably. Third time is a charm, so they say. In my opinion, Depp has made a mockery of the Tonto role. It's called The Lone Ranger and the actual star, Armie Hammer, has secondary billing. These producers are trying to sell an American icon with Depps name, in the role of a secondary character. From what trailers I have seen, Depps portrayal as Tonto is a joke and I for one, will not pay to see my memory of The Lone Ranger disgraced.

  8. Don Blair says:

    Jay Silverheels was Tonto. No question. The new interpretation from Depp just does not appeal to me. I wouldn't expect that he, or the generation of today understand what I mean. They'll have to learn from a future example of representation from their own lives to reflect on.

  9. Doug Hazlewood says:

    I remember my mother taking me to Meyerland Plaza in Houston, TX as a child (I'm 58) to see Tonto. I think the appearance was in front of Playhouse Toys from what I remember. Jay Silverheels was in his Tonto costume and signed autographs. Some he signed with a symbol that looked like an Indian shield (I think). I remember comparing what my sister got with the autograph he gave me.

    What I'll NEVER forget is that when it was my turn he pulled his pistol and 'shot' me. It was pretty loud and startled me. I guess I might have been 7 or so (we lived there for four years–ages 5-8 approximately). He signed my autograph 'Jay Silverheels' (maybe as a reward for scaring me). I wish I still had it, as I certainly have saved a LOT of things from my childhood and have been a long-time collector.

    It didn't scare me enough to make me cry or anything, but it sure made me remember that day. I have long admired both actors from the series, as they seemed like such genuinely good people.

  10. Robert A. Rosenberg says:

    One thing not mentioned in the article is Jay's appearance as Tonto on the Tonight show. Johnny Carson interviewed him about working with (for?) the Lone Ranger and Tonto made some comments about the Lone Ranger owning that Silver Mine but not paying him anything – "Sometimes let me look under mask" . In one article I saw, it was pointed out that it Tonto not only saved Reid's life but was the brain's behind the creation of the character. It was Tonto who dug the 6th grave to hide Reid's survival, gave Reid his new identity ("You now LONE Ranger"), and other parts of the origin.

  11. nelli shu says:

    Okay, okay. It’s like this. Mr. Depp has the bone structure to play Tonto, right? Mr. Depp also can put his own spin on Tonto and make us like it. That is what he does. That is what makes him so watchable. Does everything have to be so pc? Let’s just watch the movie and enjoy it. I’ll betcha there will be at least one”savy” in the dialogue.

  12. Kevin S.Butler says:

    Great Article that gives some insight into the characters of”The Lone Ranger & Tonto”..I’m glad that Ms.Moore added this article about her father and Mr.Silverheels..Lenny.

    I was also lucky enough to meet Mr.Moore at The Nostalgia Convention in NYC back in 1979.Mr.Moore was a kindly,intelligent and sweet man..he did live up to the image of tv’s western hero.

  13. James M. Knuttel says:

    I have read that the 1950 film BROKEN ARROW (with Jeff Chandler as Cochise) was a turning point of potraying Native Americans in a sympathetic light. Although an excellent film it strikes me as being notable that THE LONE RANGER began its run on television a year earlier and that it featured an Indian hero played by a real Indian.

  14. Jim says:

    One thing I liked about the Lone Ranger shows I watched growing up is how Tonto outwitted the local bad guys using their own bigotry against them when he’d go into town to gather information on their doings. He didn’t always use a disguise, he would often just just be there, hanging out and overhearing plots, and let their racism hang them since it didn’t occur to them that some “dumb Injun” would be a threat.

    I always thought that was pretty sly. And the obvious friendship of the Ranger and Tonto always came through, partly it seems because of the friendship between Jay and Clay.

    Depp, unfortunately, has a habit of speaking without engaging his brain.

  15. Jim Reinecke says:

    Okay, let me ask this: Why is f—ing Johnny Depp telling us what to think (or what HE thinks. . .under the perhaps too rash assumption that he CAN think)? It’s easy in light of 21st century sensibilities to poke fun at the political incorrectness of many of the pop culture characterizations of an earlier time. (The PC crowd lost me with their Charlie Chan bashing. I’ve always enjoyed the 20th-Century Fox Chans, whether they starred Warner Oland or Sidney Toler, and if anybody wants to label me a racist for that statement, feel free.) Playing Tonto might be an artistic step up for Mr. Depp after those “Pirates of the Caribbean” stinkers that he’s been devoting his talents to in recent years. Johnny, you’re paid to act, Bub. . .shut up and do so!

  16. Norm says:

    What do you expect form a dopehead ? More shallow statements form “Hollywoods” elite morons…Maybe he should get a real job…Maybe his Tonto smokes loco weed, and wears a dress, now that is progressive…

  17. Dawn says:

    Leonard, thank you for sharing this story with your readers.

    Sam, Kay and “D”… you got it.

  18. Hank Zangara says:

    Marquee value notwithstanding, isn’t there a Native American actor anywhere in the US that could play Tonto? As a fan of the vintage Lone Ranger, I will go see this movie no matter who’s in it. But as I’m watching Johnny Depp, I’ll be thinking “Al Jolson.”

  19. Sam Longoria says:

    Leonard, this piece is delightful, thank you for this.

    I love the affection the Writer has, both for the Characters and for the Actors. I can just feel it coming through.

    I am a long-time Lone Ranger and Tonto fan, and I know they set high standards for me to uphold, in life and in my own films. Love ’em!

    Sam Longoria
    Hollywood CA USA

  20. Kay Noske says:

    I’m so glad you shared this, Leonard. I ALWAYS wanted to be Tonto, not the Lone Ranger, growing up. I had a mad crush on him, thought he was by FAR the handsomer and more commanding, and his voice was divine. That aside, I never once thought of him as a sidekick or unequal. Jay Silverheels was a wonderful actor who did, indeed, rise above the material.
    Thanks again for bringing back memories of my happy youth, eagerly coloring my Lone Ranger coloring book–all the pages with Tonto and Scout were colored in (using Crayola crayons, of course), but not all the Lone Ranger pages were!

  21. DBenson says:

    Recently viewed both the two Lone Ranger movies. They’re only so-so, but both were very “pro-Indian” for their time.

    In the first, the villain is framing a local tribe for cattle rustling; Tonto is nearly lynched at one point. There’s one angry brave trying to usurp the dying chief’s position (leading to a spectacular fight scene) but otherwise our sympathies are with the tribe.

    In the second, there’s a much more explicit anti-bigotry message with a local doctor who’s concealing his Indian heritage; at the end he stands up and declares his parentage and the townfolk turn their backs on the racist sheriff.

    Also, Tonto was always unique as a Western sidekick who WASN’T a comedy relief. Stilted language aside, he was as smart, capable and focused as the Ranger himself. And while he was definitely second in command, he was clearly more of an equal than the humble servants, overeager kids, callow assistants and comic dolts who tagged after all the other heroes.

    Perhaps Silverheels had something to do with this. Or perhaps such a strong actor was cast precisely because that was already central to the Long Ranger mythos.

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