Behind my desk on the ledge of my bookcase is a prized photo of Ben Johnson and me. It is a constant reminder that God can take a man out of a small unknown town and will make him something. His early days were rough and his running pal’s tough, but in the end he saw a greater star.
A long tall 6' 3" western star that was born in Oklahoma was about all I knew about Ben Johnson on the day I met him. He was in his 70’s, but still a large western type.
I learned he had been a ranch hand and rodeo performer when, in 1940, Howard Hughes hired him to take a load of horses to California. He decided to stick around (the pay was good), and for some years was a stunt man, horse wrangler, and double for such stars as Wild Bill Elliott, John Wayne, Gary Cooper, and James Stewart. His break came when John Ford noticed him and gave him a part in an upcoming film, and eventually a star part in Wagon Master in 1950.
He left Hollywood in 1953 to return to rodeo, where he won a world roping championship, but at the end of the year he had barely cleared expenses. A prize belt buckle that he won for calf roping was stolen from his car when he visited Houston in 1976; but on a repeat visit a decade later he was on radio station KIKK when a caller returned the buckle to him.
The movies paid better, and were less risky, so he returned to the west coast and a career that saw him in over 300 movies. Johnson's weather-beaten features made him an icon for any filmmaker chronicling the American West.
He initially turned down the role in The Last Show (1971), for which he won an Academy Award, because the script contained too many curse words. He later changed his mind when with the permission of the director, Peter Bogdanovich; he rewrote his part with the offensive words removed.
Ben received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1994
He died on April 8, 1996, in Mesa, Arizona, of an apparent heart attack while visiting his mother in the 'retirement community' where not only she but he himself lived. His wife of 53 years had preceded him in 1994.
"You know, I'd say that aside from Mr. Ford's help in my career, I'd lay any success I've had to not expecting too much. I never expected to become a star and was always content to stay two or three rungs down the ladder and last awhile. When I do get a little ahead, I see what I can do to help others," he had once said.
I met Ben and Carol Johnson at my former pastor’s church in Gilbert, Arizona, only a few years before they died. The Johnson’s had a beautiful home in Scottsdale but had no problems in attending the small mission church near them in Mesa where another friend, had befriended them and told them of a greater success. My young friend preached the funeral of both to a host of their Hollywood associates and friends who had watched him from his humble beginning until he became a true western star.
Many amass millions in this life only to leave it in a bank or invested away never to see it again. But what is laid up in heaven is forever. Their days were blessed on earth but they have a brighter forever.
“ Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal: But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal: “