Actors who appeared in classic westerns recall their experiences. As imagined by me.
INDIANS IN THE MOVIES
“First thing, I’m Italian. How did I get the part? I looked like an Indian. Producers took one look, they said, ‘That’s an Indian.’ Of course, I had my shirt off, and I was wearing a headdress. When you’re dressed like that, everyone looks like an Indian.”
“I couldn’t ride for beans. Bareback, you can forget about it. There’s this big bone, goes down the middle of the horse, gets you right in the Cachungas, if you know what I mean. They had to do the ‘blanket’ thing for me. You know, they put a blanket on the horse, but under the blanket there’s a saddle. It fooled no one. Even the horse had a smile on his lips. I know what he was thinking. ‘Italian Indian’.”
“I never played an Indian that existed, no Geronimo, no Sitting Bull. I played made-up Indians with made-up names: Yellow Horse, Tahakta. ‘Tahakta.’ It sounds Jewish. Which makes sense. We had Jewish screenwriters.”
“The best part of being chief? Your people listen to you. You say, ‘We go to war’, they go to war. You say, ‘We must return to the reservation’, no arguments, they go right back. The chief also gets the best-looking horse, and the prettiest squaw. She wasn’t Indian either. Puerto Rican.”
“One thing I never understood. They always had the Indians saying, ‘Me wantum this’, ‘Me wantum that.’ Who talks like that? I mean, okay, you’re an Indian, you don’t know the language. But you hang around the fort, you pick things up. What I want to know is who were they hanging around the fort with? Who told them, ‘This is English’?”
“My whole life, I’ve hated to lose. But the Indians, you know, except for the Custer thing, it was downhill all the way. ‘Course, no way it was a fair fight. Indians with bows and arrows, soldiers with repeating rifles? Gimme a break!
“I liked playing Indians, except for the losing. And the stuff they ate. Starting out, this old actor – always played Indians – gave me some wonderful advice. He said, ‘Never look in the pot.’”
“We got paid extra for ‘falls.’ We’d watch those pictures and laugh our heads off. One gunshot, and four Indians would go flyin’ off their horses.”
“Our ‘attacking strategy’ was a joke. What’s the point of riding in a circle? It’s like, ‘Shoot me as I come around.’ There’s this one picture, Stagecoach, where we’re chasing this stagecoach, and finally, we catch up to it. Some of us are even ahead of the stagecoach – you can see it in the picture. We're in front of the stage coach!
"So what do we do then? Do we surround the stagecoach? Do we grab hold of the horses? No. We just keep riding. It’s ridiculous! We spend all this time chasing this stagecoach. Wouldn’t you think we’d do something when we got there?”
“The way they had us fightin’ on foot was even stupider. Indians are famous for our ability to sneak up on people and take ‘em by surprise. So what do they want us to do? They want us to sneak up on someone, and just before we whack ‘em with our tomahawks, we’re supposed to let out a ‘bloodcurdling scream.’
“Is that the craziest thing you ever heard? Why would you let out a ‘bloodcurdling scream' if you’re tryin’ to take somebody by surprise? It doesn’t make any sense.”
“The actors playing all the big parts, you know, the chiefs, none of them were real Indians. They’d come to us for help, you know, askin’ us how to pronounce certain phrases that were in the script. We’d tell them if they really want to be accurate, they should say another thing instead. Then we’d teach them these phrases that were a little off-color.
“Now comes the big scene. The chief has called us together before the battle, and he’s supposed to be sayin’, ‘The White Man must be driven from our land!’ Only what we’ve got him sayin’ is, ‘The Medicine Man have a big, hairy butt!’ I’ll never forget it. The guy’s sittin’ there – this serious face, you know – and he’s sayin’ ‘The Medicine Man has a big, hairy butt!” We're all bitin’ our lips to keep from crackin’ up!”
“You know how to make a movie where the Indians win? You take any old western, and you run it backwards.”
INDIAN WHO SHOOTS THE FLAMING ARROWS
“Did they use flaming arrows in the real West? I wouldn’t know, I’m Macedonian. I won the “Bronze” in archery at the Olympics, so they gave me the job.”
“The idea of flaming arrows always seemed strange to me. I understand if you’re shooting at something made of wood, like a fort or a cabin. You’re trying to burn it down. But shooting flaming arrows at a person, what’s the point? You’re killing the man and you’re burning him up. Isn’t one of those enough?
“The whole thing a question of timing. You had to move fast. You light the arrow, you string it in your bow, you aim and you let fly. If you move too slowly, the flame burns down the arrow, and before you know it, your bow is on fire.
“If you were really slow, you ended up burning yourself. It happened to me my first time. Very embarrassing. They had to put me out.”
“You had to be a decent shot with those flaming arrows. One fella missed the cabin and burned down the studio.”