Tuesday, August 25, 2015
MICHAEL HORSE – FROM TONTO TO DEPUTY HAWKS!
Michael Horse & Klinton Spillbury
More than a year ago I was at the Autry’s Annual American Indian Marketplace, where I met artist, actor and musician Michael Horse. He’d starred on David Lynch’s cult TV series TWIN PEAKS, as Dep. Tommy ‘Hawk’ Hill, but first gained fame playing Tonto in the infamous THE LEGEND OF THE LONE RANGER (1981). (That’s the one that caused an uproar before they even rolled camera, when the producers forced former Lone Ranger Clayton Moore to stop wearing his mask. They went on to cast virtual non-actor Klinton Spillsbury as LR, and continued downhill from there.)
While Spillsbury never acted onscreen again, Michael Horse has had a long, successful acting career on big-screen and small, worked extensively as a voice actor, a stuntman, and as both a graphic and jewelry artist. When the more recent infamous LONE RANGER came out, responding to Johnny Depp’s headgear, Horse Facebooked a picture of himself with a chicken on his head. When we met, he was very excited to have just guested on an episode of HELL ON WHEELS, where he actually wore a bird on his head.
Michael Horse at the Autry
Time flies! When we did this interview, there was talk of a possible revival of TWIN PEAKS. Now the show is in pre-production, and Michael Horse is back as Deputy Hawk.
HENRY: Playing Tonto is a pretty big way to start an acting career.
MICHAEL: Yuh, went right into a huge movie.
H: Was that your first acting role?
M: No, I did a couple of MARCUS WELBYs. I was a musician with Universal Records, and once in a while they’d throw me something, but I never wanted to be an actor. I still don’t know if I am. Recently I was working on something, and the guy goes, “Give me this look.” I go, “Look, I’ve got two looks: I’ve got this way and this way. I can give ‘em both to you all day long, but that’s about the extent of what you’re gonna get from me.” Olivier I ain’t.
H: As a musician, what do you play?
M: I was a fiddle and bass player. I did a lot of bluegrass and rock & roll for years, and just got tired of it. It sounds very glamorous, but you’re doing these big tours and staying in Holiday Inn, and we used to travel by bus – and we’re not talking the buses they have now, we’re talking by bus. It was pretty hard traveling. We didn’t have a lot of electricity when I was a kid, so everybody played music; we entertained ourselves. When I was growing up everybody in my family played something. I am an artist; I’m a jeweler, a painter. That’s what I do.
Counting Coup - Ledger Art by Michael Horse
H: I know you grew up near Tucson.
M: Yes, on the Yaqui reservation.
H: What was your childhood like?
M: It was wonderful. It was hot, not a lot of amenities. But I went out and played in the desert. We had goats and horses and mules. It was nice; it was my playground. We moved to Los Angeles when I was about ten. We’d go back and forth. My grandpa had moved there a long time before us to get a job at Lockheed; they had a relocation program. So I would go back and forth from Arizona to Los Angeles as a kid. I grew up in the San Fernando Valley, in the Sunland Tujunga area. My stepdad was an outfitter, took people on hunting guides. We had a little ranch there; it was a great place to grow up. There were bears up there, and you could fish. They built the Hanson Dam. Los Angeles has the biggest urban Indian population in the United States, especially in the Burbank area. So there were powwows there. I grew up in kind of an inter-tribal culture. That’s why I know a lot about Plains people. I grew up with a lot of Lakota, Cheyenne and Comanche people. I bought my first house in Topanga Canyon in 1974 for $35,000 bucks cash – it was a shack, but had an ocean view. I couldn’t get a p.o. box down there for that kind of money now.
H: What were you doing when you were asked if you wanted to play Tonto?
M: I was just renting my art studio from an agent. She said they’re casting a big movie; they’re doing THE LONE RANGER and looking for someone to play Tonto. Are you interested? I said no. She said that’s too bad because they’ll pay a lot of money. And she quoted a figure at me, and I went, “Oh, Kemosabe!” I looked up (director William) Fraker, and he had shot some of my favorite films.
H: Not a very experienced director then, but a great cinematographer – ROSEMARY’S BABY, PAINT YOUR WAGON, BULLITT, and later TOMBSTONE.
M: I went down to talk to Mr. Fraker; I didn’t think they’d hire me. I said you send Tonto to town one time, you’ll have more Indians on your lawn than Custer saw. And Bill Fraker, who I really admired, kind of talked me into doing it. The only thing, I said I never wanted to hear the words ‘faithful companion’ ever. But it was a hoot for me. And I had family in New Mexico, and I’d gone to the Union Art Institute, so we were filming in my home town, Santa Fe area and around Monument Valley, so it was a blast. But it was not well-written. And the casting was really wrong.
H: Klinton Spillsbury?
M: Yeah, they knew that (was wrong) right into the picture. They should have let him go, and got somebody else. James Keach had to dub his whole voice in.
H: The budget was $18 million, which was a lot of money in 1981. And Lazlo Kovacs did a beautiful job shooting it.
M: Beautifully shot, just badly cast and badly written. It was so funny making THE LONE RANGER. I said, I don’t care how much money these people have. I don’t care where they’re filming it: we’re going to end up at Vasquez Rocks. And then at the last minute we had to shoot some stuff out there. That’s where I did most of my commercials and most of my stunts, most of my horseback stuff, and I chased so many people around those rocks.
H: Did you have a sense while it was shooting, did you think it was going to be a hit, or were you worried?
M: I was just hoping that I could show my face at a powwow again! (laughs) Please, please get me out of here alive! I mean, I was on the box of Cheerios. I’m thinking, I’m an old American Indian Movement member. Oh God, what have I done here? A lot of my friends said look, you can do some stuff here. I lobbied for the Indian Child Welfare Bill, I went to D.C., I did a lot of stuff for both reservation and inner city kids, so it worked out okay for me. I escaped, and actually had a career from it.
H: And you’re good in it.
M: I did okay! They were worried about me, because I was telling them, you can’t do this, you can’t do that. But (Spillsbury) was so bad he screwed up before I could do anything wrong. It had potential, but I think, especially after the Johnny Depp thing, none of us Indian people ever have to see Tonto again. I think he’s put away for a long time.
H: A young man named Patrick Montoya played the young Tonto, but I’ve never seen him in anything again. Do you know what ever happened to him?
Sketch by master poster-artist Drew Struzman
M: Oh yeah, I see him. He lives in Santa Fe, he comes up once in a while. I think he has a print shop. They still call him Tonto. It was fun to do. Made some good friends, Mr. Fraker and I became good friends. Ted Flicker played Buffalo Bill; we became really good friends. He created improvisational theatre. He wrote BARNEY MILLER. He moved to Santa Fe and became a sculptor. He would tell me stories about making films in the old days. He and Fraker were friends, so he gave him a part. And he told Fraker look, this is not well-written. Why don’t you let me re-write it? But Fraker didn’t want to rock the boat. I was lucky to have it, and lucky to escape from it! (laughs). Not a very good film. I wasn’t even really an actor. I just wanted to do okay. But I thought, one day they’re going to do a really good one, and I’ll be known as the guy who did the crummy one my whole life.
H: Flash-forward to 2013.
M: And the Creator went, “I’m going to make this one worse than the one you did!” I’m a huge Johnny Depp fan. But something went wrong – I don’t know what it was. The jokes weren’t funny; the story wasn’t all that good; the special effects looked all digitized. The Lone Ranger is an icon you don’t really want to mess with. Just because you want to make Tonto a more interesting character, you don’t want to dumb down the Lone Ranger. I think that was a mistake.
H: That’s well put, and that’s exactly what they did. They made him foolish, to make Tonto more important.
M: And even though Jay Silverheels had some of that stilted dialogue, he still was such a dignified man that it shined through. You know, that was one of the few real native people we had seen as kids in the fifties.
H: I was doing an interview with Dawn Moore, Clayton Moore’s daughter. She was talking about how people forget that when they started doing THE LONE RANGER series, it was Jay who was the star, who had been in KEY LARGO and lots of big movies, while Clayton Moore had just been playing heavies and doing Republic serials.
M: I knew Jay. I loved him dearly. He had an acting workshop that was for native people. That’s how I knew about KEY LARGO and all that stuff. I knew Jay and really liked him. He was in the Motion Picture Hospital when they said they were going to remake it. He asked, who’s going to play me? They said Michael Horse, and he laughed! He thought that was very funny. Later I met Mr. Moore – I was at one of the rodeos, and I went up and introduced myself – (this was) after we had done THE LONE RANGER. I said, “I’m really sorry, sir, for what they did. You’ll always be the Lone Ranger to me, and long may you ride.” He said, “How sweet,” and we had a picture taken together. I said, how come they didn’t use you? And he said, “Well, I asked them for some money. I didn’t ask them for an outrageous amount of money, but look, you’re going to kind of retire me. I want a cameo and I want some money.” And they just put them out to pasture. He approached them with this idea. “Look, I’m getting ready to retire as the Lone Ranger, and I find this kid that’s who’s on the fence between right and wrong. And when I think he’s going in the right direction, I’ll turn my back to the audience, and I’ll hand him the mask.” And I went, and they didn’t go for that? They’re idiots: it would have been an iconic, chilling moment!
H: Absolutely; they needed to make that connection. When I re-ran your movie, there was the role of the newspaper editor, and I thought it would be a perfect role to give Clayton Moore as a cameo. And of course it was John Hart, the man who replaced Clayton Moore for a year on the TV series when he wanted a raise.
M: Clayton Moore had been such a role model all those years. Even in the police department, they used to teach the Lone Ranger rules – you never shoot to kill unless you have to. A lot of those old westerns, when you go back and look at them, they had a certain ethic to them. They meant well.
Michael Horse with bird headpiece
H: Let’s talk a little about your appearance on HELL ON WHEELS. About the headpiece, was that a comment to Johnny Depp?
M: No, it wasn’t. The lady who did it, she went through a lot of books on the Comanche. And there were a lot of people who wore birds: we just didn’t wear them that big. And when he wears something like that, that’s a piece of medicine. That’s something to be respected.
H: You seem very happy to be associated with the show.
M: Well, it’s so well written, number one; it’s well-acted, and it’s historically interesting. The railroads were one of the first of the big corporations that started pushing everybody around. Especially indigenous people. If you know anything about herd animals, if you put anything in their way, not just a fence, anything, they’re almost autistic. The railroad actually changed the migrations of the buffalo and elk. And then from the east came this big piece of iron that was smoking and making noise, and people were killing animals just for the sake of killing. To the Plains people it must have been the Devil incarnate. I do this kind of artwork like you saw at the Autry, like the Ledger art. I was painting something from the same week as The Battle of Little Bighorn. And I realized from all these periodicals that I read that when that happened, in the east the Civil War had been over for four years; the Brooklyn Bridge was built; the first baseball game between Kansas City and Missouri had been played; Edison was showing the first light-bulb at a symposium. But that’s how wild it still was in Montana and Wyoming and Colorado. And the Plains people had no idea what was coming their way.
H: Then it came, and it was Hell on wheels.
M: And the Comanche, they were pretty bad boys. There’s a book out on the Comanches, and I have a lot of Comanche friends. And I said, “You guys were pretty bad.” And they said, “Yeah, but basically we just said, ‘Don’t come here.’” That’s why the Mexican government allowed a lot of the migration into Texas: they figured it would be a buffer between them and the Comanche. Some of the finer flight cavalry to ever exist were the Comanche people. There’s one piece that I’ve always wanted to do. They’ve always done Sitting Bull’s story; they’ve done Crazy Horse’s story. But they haven’t done the story of Quanah Parker, which is a really interesting piece. I did a one-man play last year, down in Buffalo Gap, Texas, about Quanah, and he was an amazing man, a person that lived in two worlds like me, a person of mixed blood, and understood both worlds, and how they had to come together. Actually a pretty wise man for the Comanches when they finally decided to come to the reservation. He made some pretty interesting deals with the United States government.
H: Yes he did. It would have helped if the government had been a little better at keeping those deals.
M: Well, all governments do that; not just ours. I liked back in the ‘60s, when all these young people were going, ‘The government lies,’ and all us indigenous people were saying, ‘No kidding?’
H: News flash!
M: What an epiphany that is! The railroads, it made this country, connected this country. Ran goods from point to point – that’s what actually made the whole money-machine of this country work; the railroad. It was a pretty grand scheme. But a lot of times progress rolls over the people that live on the land. Not just the indigenous people, but ranchers and farmers. It’s kind of the same thing that’s happening now, with the energy needs. It’s what makes the engine run, but it’s kind of screwing up a lot of ranchers and farmers and indigenous people.
H: Who’d have guessed they’d all end up on the same side?
M: Yuh, it happens. And that Swedish villain on HELL ON WHEELS, that’s one of the greatest villains I’ve ever seen on TV!
H: Oh man, isn’t he fun!?
M: I met him recently; he’s a very sweet man.
H: He’s like a train with no brakes and no tracks – you just don’t know where he’s going!
M: Well, I imagine there were probably a lot of people like that back then. It was pretty open; you could do pretty much whatever you wanted to do back then.
H: And of course, in the Indian Territories, once you got there, there was nothing much the government could do about it.
M: No. But they gave the railroads a hundred acres of land on both sides of the (tracks) that they could do whatever they wanted to with them; they could sell it, they could develop it. It’s really good to see that – like I said, I’m a big fan of Westerns. I grew up with Westerns; I think they’re going to come back. It’s just how they’re written. But TV’s doing these small, little mini-series, with big stars that don’t really want to commit to a full series. Doing nine-episode things like TRUE DETECTIVES was brilliant, it was really good. FARGO was freakin’ hysterical. Cable’s really allowed for some really fine television. Last year they did a seminar at USC about how TWIN PEAKS changed television. And what it did was, it showed people that anything was possible on television. It opened all kinds of doors, and changed formats. It had pretty-much been a formula kind of thing until that went, and people went, ‘Oh, you can do anything.’
H: I think all of the miniseries, and shows like HELL ON WHEELS, which they don’t call a miniseries, but it’s a continuing story; none of them would have happened, none of them would have been the same without David Lynch being ahead of them.
M: He opened that door, and said there’s huge audiences for different things. It’s really funny; there’s a lot of young kids who are seeing it now on the internet. So it’s more popular than it ever was. We live in the Berkeley area, and I’ll be going to the movies, and my wife goes, “Those kids are following you.” Usually young film students. I’ll go, “Can I help you?” They’ll go, “Are you Deputy Hawk?” “Yuh.” And then they go crazy. My wife thinks it’s hysterical.
H: What was David Lynch like to work with?
As Deputy Hawk
M: David is the sweetest man, such a sweet man. He’s like Jimmy Stewart with Salvador Dali’s intestines. He’ll go, “That was really keen, whatcha did! But this time, could you get naked, and bark like a dog?” David is an artist. Both as an indigenous activist, a native activist, and as an actor you don’t get a chance to do art in television that often; and TWIN PEAKS was art. And that was a wonderful native character. It got rid of stereotypes, and held some mirrors up to the others, you know. I’m still looking. I’ve been turning down a bunch of stuff, but there’s a couple of scripts out there that I’m getting ready to do. And I’ve been doing all these student films. It’s nice in my career that I can afford to do this. These film students will get in touch with my wife. I don’t get on the internet – I’m such a Luddite, I just learned there’s a redial button on my phone. My wife’ll go, “This film student is looking for you.” They won’t go to my agent, because he won’t return their call, because they don’t have any money. I’ve done three or four of these little films for these kids. And it reminds me that filmmaking is art. It’s been very nice.
H: I know you did some stunt work.
M: I used to be around horses. I did a little stint at rodeo riding; wasn’t very good at it. The first time somebody paid me to fall off a horse I said, “I can do that!” Staying on’s the hard part. Then we started the Native American Stunt Association. We didn’t get the work we thought we were gonna get. I dabbled in it, did a lot of fight stuff, and it was fun. Did some stuff in PASSENGER 57 with Wesley Snipes.
H: You acted in a few WALKER, TEXAS RANGERS.
M: And God bless Chuck (Norris), I love him, I knew him for years, and friends ask why do you WALKER? I said it’s so bad, I can’t suck. But there are some wonderful scripts out there. Some guy sent me a script from Washington State about a little native kid in the 1950s who worships Elvis, and wants to win a talent contest. It is so sweet and so well done I told them I’d do it for free. But working on HELL ON WHEELS, that’s a class act. The series I did in Canada, it was on for seven years, I did three years of it, called NORTH OF 60. It was strictly for Canadian television. It was so well done, so well written – some of it written by native people, directed by native people. It had all these great native actors, Gordon Tootoosis, Tantoo Cardinal, and Graham Greene. I was one of only two Indian people from the States ever to be on it. It was a joy to do. It was contemporary, about people who live way above the 60 parallel. I play a therapist and a bush pilot. I’m hoping to squeeze out a couple of things before I retire. I’ve done three or four of these little sci-fi films, but I’m not going to do anymore because it’s the same thing. My wife laughs, the last one, “You’re the holy man, you’re inside by the fire, with these two beautiful girls bringing you food.” I go, “Yeah, I’m not going outside – the monster’s outside!”
H: In 1982 you were the star of THE AVENGING, and I’m sorry it’s not better known, because it’s a very impressive independent film. How did this project come about?
M: They just got in touch with me, I said send me the script. It wasn’t a lot of money, and I’d just finished the LONE RANGER, and I said I’d do it, I like this.
H: And you got to work with Ephrem Zimbalist Jr.
M: Yeah, we became pretty tight too. I love working with these old guys, and make them tell me stories. Wranglers are the best – they’ll tell you everything. My favorite thing to do is I do cartoon voices. It’s all those people who used to make gas-noises and got sent to the principal’s office. It’s all old stand-up comics, and guys who used to have imaginary friends.
H: What is your favorite of the voices you’ve done?
M: It’s probably SPIRIT: STALLION OF THE CIMARRON (2002), the horse. I’m fifty voices in that, even the old Indian woman; she didn’t show up. “I’ll do my very best.” I’m such a fan of animation. And usually you record and then they do the animation. But we were watching them as they were making it, so there were drawings that moved, and half-painted things. It’s almost a classic old Disney kind of piece. There was a series I did for a while called COWBOYS OF MOO MESA. I played this buffalo called J.R. He was a Rube Goldberg kind of guy; he used to make all these inventions. I just loved him.
H: In 1990 you starred in BORDER SHOOTOUT for Ted Turner’s TURNER PRODUCTIONS. It’s adapted from an Elmore Leonard novel.
M: That was fun too. Elmore Leonard – I didn’t realize until the last five years that he wrote HOMBRE, one of my favorite movies. Just (Paul) Newman sitting in the bar listening to those two rednecks hassling those two native guys. Him and Richard Boone, just amazing. That was an interesting little film. And working with Glenn Ford.
H: On his last Western, too.
M: It took him a little while to get ready. One of these young kids was complaining. We’re working in the middle of the night, and it’s freezing. Finally they get him outside and the kid said, “You had me waiting outside for him!” And I said, “It’s Glenn Ford. I’ll wait as long as it takes.”
H: What was he like to work with?
M: I was in awe. I liked the character actors, too. I used to go to the Beverly Garland Hotel, have breakfast with Monte Hale, and he would tell me stories about the old days. Same with the old fiddle-players. I’d say, I’ll buy all your drinks, just tell me about the old days – I’m fascinated by it.
H: In BORDER SHOOTOUT, you also worked with Michael Ansara. Although he was from Syria, he spent much of his career playing American Indians. A number of non-Indian actors have specialized in Indian roles – in addition to Ansara, X. Brands and Iron Eyes Cody.
M: A lot of them. Ricardo Montalban, Sal Mineo.
H: Any problems with that?
M: You know, the process of acting is to portray something that you’re not. But if you’re doing a cultural piece, and you don’t bring somebody who comes with that culture, you’re going to cheat yourself. I’ve talked to casting people, and they’ll say, we’ve seen a hundred guys, and they’re not doing what we want them to do. And I said, if you’ve seen a hundred Indian guys, and they’re not doing this, maybe they don’t do that. Will Sampson was more interesting just standing there, not saying anything, than all the non-native actors that ever played anybody. And there were exceptions. Paul Newman nailed it. Charles Bronson used to come pretty close. A really good actor can do it. But the native guys, the full-blood guys don’t get a chance to play anything else. But it’s changing. Digital film has put it back in the hands of filmmakers. There are a lot of native filmmakers that are making films out there. And they don’t need Hollywood, they don’t need big money, they don’t need the big stars. And there are wonderful, wonderful films.
H: What’s your favorite film?
M: LITTLE BIG MAN. That was the first time I saw one of those funny old elders that I grew up with (on the screen). Those little people are just so funny, and Chief Dan George was just magic. “Am I still in this world?” “Yes, grandpa.” “Ahhh!” Dustin Hoffman tells him, “I have a white wife.” “Does she show enthusiasm when you mount her?”
I really know how you make a bad movie, but I’m really trying to figure out how you make a good movie.
THAT’S A WRAP!
Just one topic this week, so I hope you enjoyed it!
All Original Contents Copyright August 2015 by Henry C. Parke – All Rights Reserved