Sunday, July 9, 2017

Sunday Rerun: On a role

As a kid, I was that kid who read the Information Please Almanac as if it were a novel or something.  I would just sit and read and read that book, learning stuff.  I figured there would come a day when someone ran up to me, demanding to know the height of the tallest building in Cleveland, Babe Ruth's lifetime batting average, or Edward G. Robinson's real name (Emanuel Goldenberg).

So the Internet was a natural fit for me, being a cornucopia of information.  And with a few taps on the keyboard, one can hopscotch from place to place, learning this, that, and the next thing.

We watched "Key Largo" on tv the other night, that great black and white movie from 1948 with Edward G. Robinson and Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall and Jay Silverheels.

Jay Silverheels?  The guy who played Tonto on The Long Ranger? 

Yes, Kemo Sabe!  Silverheels played John Osceola in the movie.  I am always thrilled when I see someone who later became known for other big roles playing smaller roles at the beginning of their careers, such as the time that Jack Nicholson appeared on The Andy Griffith Show as a guy whose child was lost, or the time that Ronald Reagan shared billing with a chimpanzee. The chimp went on to do some great things.  So I went to Wikipedia and found out some facts about Jay Silverheels, one of which is that he was born a Mohawk from Six Nations of the Grand River in Ohsweken near Brantford, Ontario, Canada.  Another interesting fact is that his birth name was Harold J. Smith.  He changed it to Silverheels when he went into acting, taking his old nickname from when he was a speedy lacrosse player in the 1930s.

So, from there I went to an article about the experiences of Native North Americans in the field of showbiz and learned something about that Iron Eyes Cody guy, the guy who was in the public service announcement in the early days of the ecology movement.  You probably remember it - Cody is paddling along in his birchbark canoe when people zooming along in a speeding car throw some trash out of the car.  Cut to old Iron Eyes, and a tear rolls down his eye as William Conrad says "People start pollution.  People can stop it." You can watch it by clicking here.  Go ahead; we'll wait for you!

All right then.  The man who billed himself as Iron Eyes Cody, the man who claimed to be Cherokee, was no more a Native American than Cher.  He was born Espera DeCorti in 1904 in Louisiana, son of Italian immigrants Antonio DeCorti and Francesca Salpietra DeCorti.  When Espera was five, the senior DeCorti decamped for Texas, where he was to change his surname to Corti.  Espera and his brother later showed up in Texas to join their dad, after their mother remarried, to one Alton Abshire, and bore him five children.  After his father died, Espera "Corti" moved to Hollywood and got into the motion picture business by presenting himself as a Native American, appearing in hundreds of movies and television shows.  He married a woman of Indian descent and they adopted two Indian boys, and for the rest of his 94 years on earth, Iron Eyes Cody went everywhere in Indian garb, pretending to be an Indian.

By the way, the articles I read online also said that the tear that rolls down Cody's cheek in that PSA was glycerine.  Not a real tear. It reminded me of what Oscar Levant said about Hollywood, how when you strip away the phony tinsel of Hollywood, you'll find the real tinsel underneath.

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