Ben Johnson: The Prince of Cowboys
Photos and Story by Gary "Arizona" Johnson
He was the luckiest Cowboy, the Prince of all the Hollywood Cowboys, respected and admired by everyone he met from rodeo champions to stable hands. His name, Ben Johnson, a hard riding, straight shooting, Cattleman in a Silver Belly Stetson, he was a great man among men, a rawhide ripcord tough as they come stunt man and an Oscar winning movie star appearing in over 360 films. His likeness appeared on the silver screen for over forty years with such Hollywood movie icons as Actor John Wayne, and Director John Ford. America will always remember with pride those unforgettable Film classics, “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon,” “Shane,” and “Fort Apache.”
I was sitting on the porch at the D-Spur Ranch waiting for a group of guests to go out on a hay ride. It was spring of 1994 near the western face of the Superstition Mountains. At sunset the sky was turning orange and a beautiful warm light bathed the barn and stable in an unearthly amber glow, the mountains turned ten different shades of purple in the sunset just like a scene from a Hollywood western. I sat on the porch playing my guitar and singing old trail songs. The sunset was…merely fabulous.
A white Cadillac convertible pulled up and stopped at the hitching post a familiar face dismounted, it was my hero Ben Johnson. After introducing ourselves he asked if there was any work around he could do, like mucking stalls or feeding and watering and if not, could he stay for dinner? I must have looked like the village dolt, I just stood there with my mouth open, it was like being in a dream state. Ben said “Well what do ya think?” I blurted out. “Heck yeah I'll buy if no one else does!” It was the first of many encounters with my boyhood hero.
A few months later I found myself riding the range of the Navajo Nation with Ben and Historian Marshall Trimble in Monument Valley on the Arizona-Utah border, the location of thousands of motion pictures and commercials and home to the Navajo People. I spent 11 summers riding with Don Donnelly in that beautiful place taking people on 8 day horseback adventures.
On the first night of our ride the moon rose full over Sentinel Mesa, there is no place like it on earth, Monument Valley in the moonlight near Thunderbird Mesa. We sat in a circle around the crackling fire telling stories and spinning yarns.
Marshall asked Ben if he liked working with Hollywood celebrities. Ben said. “I don’t cotton much to actors.” Then smiling easily he admitted that John Wayne and Tom Selleck were his good friends. He said. “John Wayne was the most polite, gentle, and humble man I ever had the privilege to know. He also had a hard left hook.” He added smiling slightly, staring at the fire while rubbing his chin in a wistful way.
Ben rode a fine black stallion, his favorite mount was a tall, black stud named Dollar, Ben said. “He could turn on a dime and give you a dollars worth of change.” At 16 hands high the thoroughbred was quick, strong, smart and easy to ride, Ben knew how special Dollar was, and you could see it in his eyes when they rode together.
We crossed the Valley floor from Artist Point and made the long dangerous climb up Mitchell Mesa as we rode silently along the edge of the precipitous ridge, Ben was looking wistfully and sad as if he knew this would be his last time in Monument Valley. He continued riding the edge of the Mesa the rest of the afternoon, no doubt reminiscing about his colorful past I quietly captured this moment with my camera riding behind him at a distance, this is how I remember him every day.
Ben Johnson, who was a Rodeo Champion and an inductee into the Cowboy Hall of Fame, told me one of the strangest things I had ever heard from a working cowboy. He said he never had stitches nor ever broke a bone in his entire career.
I asked him how’d he avoid all the punishment of stunt riding and rodeo? At the age of 62 years old He said. “I was just lucky I guess, but mama told me to be careful and when you’re from Oklahoma you best listen, to your mama.”
In his last days on earth he won “Best all around Cowboy” in a senior circuit rodeo, donated a truck load of a Christmas toys to an orphanage and put the final touches on a church he had helped build using his own money and labor. The man lived a charmed existence by anyone’s standard.
His favorite group was the Sunshine Acres Orphanage. The residuals from all of those movies made him a very wealthy man, he insisted in giving 80 percent of his wealth away to kid’s charities. Ben when asked about his money said. “Well sir, I live quite well off of those movies and all I need is twenty percent. The kids who need it can have the rest.”
Uncle Ben, as we called him, was my friend. He revealed this on our third night around a campfire at Thunderbird Mesa. Although I didn’t know him long I got to spent a week riding and camping with him in Monument Valley. It was the best time of Cowboy adventure and riding of my life. He was the ultimate Cowboy a true and honest rider through and through.
When he died… We cried like a little kids at his memorial service, it was a whose, who gathering of television western stars and movies such as Harry Carey Jr., Red Stiegel and James Drury of the Virginian. One thousand of us all crying together at the sight of Ben Johnson laid out in a fine western suit and a 100x silver belly Stetson.
The press asked Tom Selleck several questions about their work together Tom just excused himself politely and rode off into the sunset. It was a very touching and reflective service and we were all glad we were there and disappointed that we had to watch him go on that sad sunny day in Mesa Arizona. I would trade almost any week in my life to re-live that week in Monument Valley with Ben Johnson the Prince of the Cowboys.
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