We found Buckshot and Ben together at the arena, and I met Ben for the first time. He was worked down and wiry then, and looked as though he could stand flat-footed and jump over a Conestoga. We visited with the two for a while and then asked Buckshot to pay for Spot. Buckshot apologized, but said he was still as broke as he had been the day he drove away from our ranch with the horse.
However, we never came close to leaving Las Vegas with Spot. Ben pulled out his wallet, paid for him, and went on to win the world championship on him.
A Longtime Friendship
In Japan with the Third Marine Division in 1955, I opened a Western Horseman magazine to a picture of Ben on Spot. That hit home. I bragged to every other Marine who’d listen that I knew Ben and Spot.
In 1963, I worked for the Swauger a lot and wondered if I had a copy to Brothers, packing goop to crews that sprayed trees for the U.S. Forest Service at Jenny Lake, Wyo. Jack and Betty Swauger and I ran into Ben in Jackson Hole , where he was working on The Monroes, a television series. We visited with him and bragged on Spot all evening.
In 1968, while I worked for Linkletter Enterprises on the Lida, Nev., ranch, foreman Gene Adams and I made a trip to Elko for a load of bulls. On the way back we ran into Ben and Sam Peckinpah eating biscuits and gravy in a cowboy diner. They were on a hunting expedition to Utah and driving the first motor home I ever saw. Ben took us aboard and gave us drinks. We visited for an hour.
My fiction hadn’t yet been published, but a few months later, while I still worked at Lida, The Dial Press in New York telegraphed me that my first book, Jim Kane, had been accepted for publication.
In 1973, my book The Outfit, based on the cattle, horses and cowboys I knew at Lida, had been out 2 years. After holding a 2-year option on the movie rights, James Garner had returned the rights to me, and I was looking for another producer.
On a day that I’ll absolutely never forget, I was flying a woman to Payson, Ariz., and we’d just passed over the Devil’s Spire in the Superstition Mountains when our engine quit. Gliding, we turned toward the Mesa Airport, but couldn’t see it through the smog.
The ends of the principle Mesa streets had been graded through undeveloped subdivisions all the way to the feet of the Superstitions. Diane figured them out in a hurry and directed us straight in to the Mesa Airport. We landed halfway down the strip and rolled right up to the hangar of a mechanic who went to work on the airplane.
We went to find a little “nervine” after that and ran into Jimmy Miller, a good cowpuncher from Prescott. We then decided to pay a visit to Ben’s nephew, Ben Miller, who was sick at home. Nephew Ben said that he liked The Outfit a lot and wondered if I had a copy to give to Ben Johnson. I did have a copy, so we called Ben at his home in Mesa, and he drove over to get it. That started his 30-year advocacy of The Outfit, which made us good friends who communicated regularly.
About 1978 Ben came to Tucson with the cast of The Sacketts, and he and I worked together for the first time. Ben Miller and I worked as Teamster’s Union wranglers. In the many hours between takes on that picture, Ben Johnson and I plotted to get The Outfit made into a picture. Through the years he showed it to many producers. Good men like Sam Peckinpah and Steve McQueen died on us. Since then, hopes have been with Sam Elliott, another good man who took over the rights, but Hollywood doesn’t seem to be interested in our brand of cowboy anymore.
A Picture of the Man
I traveled with Ben to Oklahoma in 1988 to meet the people and see the places where he’d been raised. He was better received by the people of his home state than the President of the United States would’ve been. He was brother to the older ones, and “Uncle Ben” to the younger ones.
Before and after that, I’d spent many hours interviewing him and his wife, Carol, and his mom, Ollie Rider, in Mesa. I came away with a picture of a good and honorable man, who was a cowboy from the beginning to the end of his life. He didn’t consider anything else he did as more important than being an outside cowpuncher, even though he was recognized as a world champion in movies and rodeo.
Nobody who ever dedicated himself to cowboying ever gives up the principles he learned with that dedication. From the beginning to the end of his life , Ben was that kind. As an actor he made good investments and put away enough money to have his own big ranch and cattle, if he had wanted them. Yet, to the end of his days, he was still content to cowboy at a job he was allowed to do his own way, because nobody else came close to doing it as well. He was proud to be sufficient for any horseback work anyone handed him, as long as it was understood that he wouldn’t stand for bad language, phonies, liars or cheats.
A lot of biographers don’t think they do a good job unless they show all the weakness and poor behavior they can find about their subjects, the bad stuff the subjects did, or tried to hide. All I can say, as Ben’s biographer, is that I found him to be the same good man when he was with his biographer out in the middle of a 40-section pasture as he was in the role of Sam the Lion in The Last Picture Show for all the world to see. He was a man so true to himself, his friends, his livestock and his partners that everyone who laid eyes on him, from the 10-year-old kid in Harlem, N.Y., to the mother in Southern Honshu, Japan, knew he was a real cowboy and, with that, the best kind of man.
Almost everybody in the world has his favorite cowboy. Most of the world-famous cowboys became famous only because of the roles they played on the movie screen. Will Rogers, Will James, Charley Russell and Ben Johnson were the only four who started out as working cowboys and remained so all their lives. Anyone in the world could tell they were the best of all, just by the way they sat a horse, turned a phrase of their own, or looked a camera, or a man, in the eye.
Novelist J P.S. Brown lives in Arizona and has previously contributed to the magazine. Ben Johnson passed away April 8, 1996.