Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Tonto and SMOKE SIGNALS (1998)

I am not kidding you on this.  Disney has a big, action-packed movie version of The Lone Ranger coming out early July -- and it stars Johnny Depp.  As...Tonto.  Yes, Tonto.  The Native American best friend and crime-fighting partner to the Lone Ranger.  My first thought was, "Johnny Depp is Tonto?  They couldn't find a good Native American actor to play that part?"  Then it occurred to me that the casting could be part of a multi-picture contractual deal with the actor and a sure-bet, in corporate movie executives' minds, for box office success.  Depp brought millions of moviegoers with dollars into theaters to see Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean franchise -- and he got himself a Best Actor of 2003 Oscar nomination for playing whacked out Captain Jack Sparrow. Now he's Tonto.

A long time ago, when babyboomers were kids, Indian actor Jay Silverheels played Tonto in the long-running TV series which was based on a hit radio series.

Silverheels had solid screen credits on his resumé, having acted in Oscar-nominated films such as Captain from Castile, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Key Largo, Broken Arrow with James Stewart and True Grit, the western that brought Hollywood legend John Wayne the Academy Award for Best Actor of 1969.

So why isn't Johnny Depp in the lead role as The Lone Ranger?  I don't know.  And why has he got a bird on his head that looks like something stuffed by Norman Bates in Psycho?  Again, I don't know.  I'm sure the story has been re-tooled and, as they say now, re-imagined for a new generation.  With Depp as Tonto, he probably won't be a "sidekick" in the 1950s/60s television sense.  That role, I'm sure, got beefed up and Tonto will have more business and more of an edge than he did in the old TV series.
If you want to see the Native American experience directed by, written by and starring Indian talent, I've got a totally cool indie movie for you the check out.  Smoke Signals was one of my favorite films of 1998.  I dug it so much when I paid to see it that I asked to interview its director, Chris Eyre, on Fox 5's Good Day New York one morning.  He was a great guest and most appreciative of the airtime to talk about Smoke Signals.

I wanted viewers to know about and see his independent film.
His road movie is only 90 minutes long.  Being a road movie, that means discovery, self-discovery and changes.  You get all that in this very original, well-acted, entertaining comedy/drama.  Adam Beach stars as the handsome, tough basketball player, Victor.

Victor travels with and hears tales from the bookworm storyteller with big glasses, Thomas.  This road movie also has alcoholism, domestic violence, an irresponsible father, a little romance and a look at some American life we rarely get to see -- life on "The Rez"...The Reservation.  Screenwriter Sherman Alexie based the script on a story in his book entitled The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven.
Beach, with his leading man looks, is recognizable to TV viewers from his time as part of the Law & Order: SVU franchise which he went on to do after Smoke Signals.  He also had a recurring role in the last seasons of HBO's Big Love.  He's a very good actor.

Adam Beach went to make movie history delivering one of the best, most moving performances in Clint Eastwood's story of the real-life Iwo Jima heroes from WWII in 2006's Flags of Our Fathers.  Adam Beach became the first Indian actor to play the Native America WWII hero, Corporal Ira Hayes. Previously, Hayes had been played by white actors.  Lee Marvin played him in a 1960 TV production called The American.  Tony Curtis played him in a 1961 movie called The Outsider.  Beach was excellent as the patriotic, emotionally overwhelmed Hayes, a quiet Marine from Arizona.

Eastwood's movie looked at war, patriotism, how war is marketed and how heroes are marketed.  Hayes, one of iconic Iwo Jima flag-raisers, was never comfortable with fame.  Nor did he seek it.  The shy and sensitive veteran turned to alcohol.
Beach truly was moving and memorable.  He got into the wounded soul of the character.

Here's an idea:  In 1966, Burt Reynolds starred on a TV series as a Native American detective in New York City called Hawk.  Perhaps Disney/ABC Network could dust off and re-imagine Hawk.  Make it an action-packed movie or TV series starring Adam Beach.

Just a thought.  It'd be cool to see Adam Beach on camera again.  If that was a new TV series, it'd be cool to have some episodes directed by Chris Eyre.


  1. I love your idea of a Hawk reboot!

    If you haven't seen the documentary Reel Injun (on Native Americans in cinema), I highly recommend it.

  2. Thanks so very much for reading my piece -- and big thanks for the tip on REEL INJUN. I not familiar with that documentary and I am eager to see it. Great recommendation!

  3. Smoke Signals is one of my favourite films of all time. And I have to say that a reboot of Hawk starring Adam Beach would be a great idea. One of the things I have bemoaned the past many years has been the total absence of Native American characters on American television.

  4. SMOKE SIGNALS -- isn't it cool?

  5. Smoke Signals is wonderful! So is Sherman Alexie's own film THE BUSINESS OF FANCY DANCING which was unjustly reviewed and unseen back in 2002. It's going to be re-released in a new version next year! Milestone will be releasing it I'm thrilled to say (he also "presented" our 1961 film THE EXILES) along with two silent era films that feature all-Indian casts. Every time I hear that older films are less "sophisticated," I can say that there were silent and early sound films that actually hired Native Americans rather then, say, hire Valentino to play a Comanche.


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