Jay Silverheels – Tonto, as he was known to children all over the world in the 1950s – was born a full-blooded Mohawk Indian on Canada’s Six Nation Reserve in 1919, one of 11 children of A.G.E. Smith, who had served as a decorated officer during World War I.
As a boy, Jay excelled at all sorts of athletics such as wrestling, horse racing, football,
Boxing and hockey, and he became a local star at lacrosse. While still in his teens, he left home to travel about North America, supporting himself in boxing and wrestling matches.
He picked up the nickname of “Silverheels” during his brief boxing career because of his fancy dancing while competing in the ring against his opponent, and since Jay Smith didn’t seem like much of an Indian name to him, he simply adopted the nickname “Silverheels.” During that brief boxing career, he competed as a middleweight in a Golden Gloves bout in New York City's Madison Square Garden.
That bout got the attention of actor Joe E. Brown, and with his help, Silverheels moved to California in 1938 and got work as a stuntman and an extra in several Hollywood films. There he met and married Bobbie, but that soon ended in a divorce. Following his military service in World War II, Silverheels remarried a second time to Mary Diroma, with whom he remained the rest of his life. Together they raised four children.
Of course, Jay returned to film work and landed small, often stereotypical roles as an Indian warrior in Westerns. He worked in a number of films through the 1940s, mostly in bit parts.
His big break came when John Huston cast him as one of the fugitive Osceola brothers in the Humphrey Bogart film “Key Largo” in 1948. His career then took off, and Silverheels followed with the two roles that would define his career from that point forward. The first role was the Apache leader Geronimo, who he would play several times beginning with the Western classic “Broken Arrow.”
Then he worked in the movie “The Cowboy and the Indians” with another B-rated actor named Clayton Moore. Immediately following that success, Silverheels was hired to play the faithful Indian companion Tonto in the TV series “The Lone Ranger” with Moore. The TV series brought him the fame that his motion picture career never did.
In 1952, Silverheels played Tonto on the big screen with Moore in “The Legend of the Lone Ranger, followed by “The Lone Ranger Story” in 1955, “The Lone Ranger” in 1956 and “The Lone Ranger and the Lost City of Gold” in 1958.
After the TV series ended in 1957, Silverheels’ enormous fame as Tonto overshadowed everything else and he could not escape the typecasting of Tonto. He could only manage to pick up an occasional film or TV part, so his film career was basically over.
Silverheels then became an outspoken activist for Indian rights and a respected teacher within the native acting community. He did a number of commercials, comic guest spots and spoofs, and appeared on talk and variety shows performing his own poetry. On “The Tonight Show” in 1962, Silverheels told Johnny Carson that he had married his Italian wife to "get back at Christopher Columbus." They called their children "Indalions."
On July 17, 1979, at noon, Jay Silverheels received a star at the Hollywood Walk of Fame dedication ceremony. He attended this special Hollywood event in a wheelchair due to a stroke. During the ceremony, a native-American group danced around his star. Silverheels could not speak well, but did manage to mumble a few words of thanks.
Tonto died of a second stroke in 1980, a beloved figure of the Baby Boomers.
Reference: “Lamparski’s Whatever Became of…?,” by Richard Lamparski.
To reach Ted W. Stillwell send an e-mail to Ted@blueandgrey.com or call him at 816-896-3592.