He truly knew his horses.

Ben Johnson arrived in California in the late 1930s after Howard Hughes bought some horses from an Oklahoma ranch where Johnson worked. Hughes liked the way the cowboy hand-led horses and offered him a job hauling them to northern Arizona, where he was filming The Outlaw starring Jane Russell. When filming was finished, Johnson hauled the horses on to California. In 1939 and during the early 1940s, he wrangled and performed stunt work until he caught the eye of director John Ford while doubling for Henry Fonda in 1948’s Fort Apache. As they say, “The rest is history.”


Ben Johnson’s first star role was in 1950’s Wagon Master, where he, fittingly, given his horse ranching background, played a horse trader. He’s shown in that role (below) and on the run aboard Bingo in the same film (above). Three years later, he returned to rodeo and won a world roping championship. By the year’s end, he realized movies were less riskier and paid better, and he returned to Hollywood. Courtesy RKO Radio Pictures


Johnson went uncredited in movie roles until John Ford’s 1948 Western 3 Godfathers, in which he played posse man #1. His next Western was 1949’s She Wore a Yellow Ribbon: (from left) John Wayne, Harry Carey Jr., Ben Johnson, John Agar and George O’Brien.
Courtesy RKO Radio Pictures


The actor stood with his horse, Steel, in this publicity photo for 1950’s Wagon Master. Steel was a famous movie horse owned by Ben Johnson’s father-in-law, Clarence “Fat” Jones, who ran a horse renting stable in Hollywood. Johnson rode Steel when he won his world champion steer roping title in 1953. In the movies, though, Steel had his own stunt double—a fabulous galloper named Bingo. Courtesy RKO Radio Pictures


The Ben Johnson Memorial Steer Roping event, still held annually in June, honors the actor’s father, a cattleman rancher who was also a champion steer roper. Both father and son were inducted into Oklahoma City’s National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum, in 1961 and 1982 respectively. True West Archives


Ben Johnson starred in 1969’s The Wild Bunch, which the American Film Institute included as one of the 10 best Western films ever made. (From left) Wild Bunch gang members played by actors Ben Johnson, Warren Oates, William Holden and Ernest Borgnine. Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures


His roughly 300 films and TV shows include 1961’s One-Eyed Jacks, the only movie directed by actor Marlon Brando, who turned Johnson into an outlaw. Courtesy Paramount Pictures


Arizona’s official state historian Marshall Trimble traveled with actor Ben Johnson to Monument Valley in the mid-1990s. Trimble is vice president of the Wild West History Association, and his latest book is Arizona’s Outlaws and Lawmen.

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