May 26, 1912 – Mar 5, 1980 (age 67)
Jay Silverheels (born Harold Preston Smith, May 26, 1912 – March 5, 1980) was a Mohawk actor and athlete. He was well known for his role as Tonto, the faithful Indian companion of the Lone Ranger in the long-running American western television series The Lone Ranger.
Life for Jay Smith Silverheels – that is the name he legally adopted later – began on the Six Nations Indian Reserve in Ontario on May 26, 1912, according to his family records. It is not unusual for actors to change their birthdays and the Screen Actors Guild and other sources say he was born in 1919. He was a superb athlete and it was his running style that led his uncle to nickname the young Harold “Silverheels.” As a young man, he was also one of the finest boxers and a top lacrosse player on the reserve. Had fate not intervened, Harold Smith may have gone on to be one of Canada`s greatest athletes.
Jay Silverheels went on to work in more than 30 movies and became a star of television just as it exploded across North American in the early 1950s. His role as Tonto, the ever-present sidekick to the Lone Ranger is the role he is most associated with. The success of the early series led back to the big screen for two Lone Ranger films in 1956 and 1958.
Active in sports all of his life his most important contribution to film may be the founding of Indian Actors Workshop, which he started in 1963, personally getting involved in helping other aspiring actors to get their start in Hollywood.
In 1993, more than a decade after his death, Jay Silverheels was inducted into the Western Performers Hall of Fame at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.
He was a young man who was determined to escape what he believed would be a dead-end life on the Six Nations Reserve in Oshweken, Ontario. He left behind seven brothers and two sisters, with the dream of making a life as a professional boxer and lacrosse player in Buffalo, New York. In the midst, of a successful lacrosse career in the late 1930s, the handsome Silverheels was told he could make it in movies by comedian Joe E. Brown. Silverheels moved to Hollywood, bussing tables by day and studying Shakespeare at night in his tiny apartment.
But as the years went by, Silverheels never got to use any of the Shakespearean monologues he memorized. He was continuously cast as an “Indian” extra in Western movies, which led to speaking parts and finally the coveted role of Tonto, in the first Western series to be shot for TV, “The Lone Ranger.” While Silverheels had mixed feelings about the character he played, it was a steady job, he was newly married, and the part would eventually lead to something even better, he rationalized. But after Silverheels’s five-year stint on the hit series, he found himself forever typecast as the “stoic Indian.” Playing the “Indian warrior” or “squaw” were the sort of limited roles all Indigenous actors faced. Silverheels helped train the next generation of crews and actors, but was partially paralyzed in 1975 by a series of strokes that would eventually kill him in 1980. It was an especially unjust illness, hitting just as Silverheels was finally beginning to get large parts in films like Santee that allowed the public, and Silverheels himself, to see what a fine actor he truly was.
-“Me do, kemo sabe.” Historica Canada-
The Huffpost – by Dawn Moore
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.
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.