Jay Silverheels

First aboriginal actor to portray a Native American on TV

Born: 26 May 1919 on Six Nations Indian Reserve, Brantford, Ontario
Died: 5 March 1980 in Woodland Hills, California

Jay Silverheels, a full-blooded Mohawk, was a champion wrestler, a boxer, and a star lacrosse player with Canada's national team before setting his sights on Hollywood. He worked as a stuntman and extra before landing some bit parts in the early 1940s, almost always credited as simply "Indian" or "Indian Brave". He started to gain some notice in 1948 when John Huston cast him as Tom Osceola in Key Largo but it was television, not the movies, that would bring him fame.

In 1949, Silverheels landed the role of Tonto, the Lone Ranger's faithful sidekick, and found himself forever typecast. He continued to act in movies, appearing several times as Geronimo, but he was often called upon to perform as Tonto for commercials and comic spots long after the series ended. He founded the Indian Actors' Workshop in 1966 with Will Sampson and offered free classes for Native Americans who wanted to work in the industry. Silverheels was partially paralyzed by a series of strokes in 1975 and died in 1980.

Born Harold Jay Smith, Silverheels legally changed his name in 1971. He was the symbolic Indian to an entire generation but, more importantly, he was an inspiration for aboriginal actors and an activist to improve the portrayal of Native peoples on television and in the movies.

Additional trivia:

Silverheels told Johnny Carson that he married an Italian to "get back at Columbus".

More information on:

Lone Ranger FAQ


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Added 22 April 2002.