Well, in the U.S., Thanksgiving is nearly upon us; that yearly celebration of the harvest which stemmed from a mid-16th century feast that found fifty pilgrims and ninety American Indians (since altered to Native Americans) coming together as one for the festive occasion. We're a little bit festive here today ourselves as we mark the occasion by serving up some of those remarkably ridiculous “White actor as Indian” casting decisions that were a movie staple for decades. (Please note: We're not endorsing this practice, nor intentionally diminishing the effect of it on actual Native Americans. We're just using it as a hook to present some vintage photos of famous stars in action – and if you've come here for rigid political correctness, you've probably taken a wrong turn in the first place!)
Our cover girl, Cher, could rightfully adopt the look she sports in this photo thanks to the fact that she did have some Cherokee blood in her, though in truth, it was negligible, as she is half-Armenian with some Irish, English, French, Dutch and German tossed in as well.
But what about La Streisand?! I think you'd have to do some awfully creative family-tree root-digging to come up with any trace of Native American in her genes.
Thanks to the sensational popularity of westerns in the cinema (and, later, television), the entertainment landscape was positively inundated with projects that called for Indian characters. For the longest time, virtually every role was filled by a Caucasian in dark makeup and wig. Here, blonde actor Bruce Cabot (earlier the leading man in King Kong, 1933) is shown essaying the villainous part of "Magua" in 1936's Last of the Mohicans.
The role of "Uncas," a heroic young brave, in the same movie was portrayed by debonair actor Phillip Reed, who enjoyed a three-decade-long career as a second lead and supporting player.
Print-model-turned-romantic-leading-man Alan Curtis (perhaps best known for High Sierra, 1941) went native for 1949's Apache Chief (and you thought The Super Friends came up with that name when they introduced a hero who grew to gargantuan height!)
Li'l Abner (1940) found silent screen funny man Buster Keaton in the role of "Lonesome Polecat."
Almost a quarter of a century later, he showed up in Pajama Party (1964), one of the Beach Party movies, as "Chief Rotten Eagle." Precious little had changed in the interim.
One of the plot contrivances of It Had to Be You (1947) had Cornel Wilde dolling up in Indian drag opposite leading lady Ginger Rogers.
The 1950s were really a time when a certain type of casting exploded. Many men with dark hair or a scintilla of ethnicity other than Caucasian (hello there, Anthony Quinn) already knew what it was like to be shoehorned into Indian roles in various cowboy flicks, but now the genre was taking off to an extent to where light-haired and blue-eyed men (and women!) were being painted up for a turn in moccasins. I'd be lying if I said I didn't find the dark tan makeup and crystal blue eye combination strangely appealing, visually, wrong or not.
1950 marked the first time Jeff Chandler essayed the role of Cochise in Broken Arrow. The role netted him an Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actor (which went to George Sanders in All About Eve) and led to two further appearances playing the part.
Later, a TV show of Broken Arrow ran from 1956-1958 and starred Michael Ansara as Cochise. 6'2” Syrian actor Ansara played countless Indian roles in movies and on TV from the early-1950s onward.
Mexican heartthrob Ricardo Montalban was another man who was cast as any number of ethnicities including Native American. He costarred with Clark Gable in 1951's Across the Wide Missouri as a character called "Ironshirt," though we can't deny we prefer him with no shirt at all and think you will, too!
In the early days of his long, prolific career, Charlton Heston starred in The Savage (1952), though in this instance he was portraying a white man who'd been held captive and raised by the Sioux (and renamed "War Bonnet.")
In 1952's Laramie Mountains, one of the last of many in The Durango Kid series of low-budget westerns which featured Charles Starrett, future-Tarzan Jock Mahoney popped up as a brave named "Swift Eagle" (looking none too authentic in the process.)
Hiawatha (1952) starred a very hunky Vince Edwards in the title role.
I can't say that the fabled story of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's heroic brave has ever stirred much interest in me, but a bare-chested, well-built Edwards certainly does!
Blue-eyed John Hodiak (perhaps best-known for 1944's Lifeboat) starred in Conquest of Cochise (1953) as the famous Apache leader.
Costar of Conquest as a cavalryman was Robert Stack who, that very same year, did the same again in War Paint, this time with Keith Larsen done up as an Indian brave.
Larsen, by the way, had already gone native in Hiawatha (1952) and would again in Chief Crazy Horse (1955), Apache Warrior (1957) and in his very own TV series, Brave Eagle (1955-1956), as the publicity photos below demonstrate.
The famous tale of Captain John Smith and Pocahontas was told in 1953 with Anthony Dexter as Smith (seen here in Indian headdress, however, with Alan Hale, Jr of Gilligan's Island in the middle) and pert Jody Lawrence (seen below) as the legendary princess.
Rock Hudson played Taza, Son of Cochise (1954) in bronze makeup.
Considering the abbreviated costume he's wearing here (and the fact that masterful director Douglas Sirk was at the helm), I may have to check this one out sometime!
Hudson's costar was the lovely Barbara Rush, seen here in some publicity stills exploring her Indian side.
Wisconsin-born Broadway actor Eduard Franz made a habit of playing various chiefs in movies such as Broken Lance (1954), White Feather (1955) and The Indian Fighter (1955.)
The 20th Century Fox film White Feather also had Hugh O'Brian, Jeffrey Hunter and Debra Paget in Native American roles opposite “white man” lead Robert Wagner.
At least they put dark brown contact lenses over the eyes of Hunter and Paget (who'd been cast as a native in Broken Arrow, 1950, and would be again in The Last Hunt, 1956), though they possessed some of the most beautiful blue eyes in the cinema.
Here, in a publicity photo without the contacts, you can see how much more striking, though physically inaccurate, Hunter looked with his own eyes.
The same year found Hunter cast as a Mexican aborigine in Seven Cities of Gold (1955), again with his eyes darkened.
On the subject of blue-eyed Indians, one need look no further than 1954's Apache, which starred Burt Lancaster as one of Geronimo's warriors.
From the looks of this publicity portrait of Lancaster with Jean Peters, things seem to have headed backwards instead of progressing forward in the depiction of the Indian on screen.
A term paper could probably be written regarding the portrayal of not only race, but gender, too, in this shot!
1955 found burly, dark Victor Mature in the title role of Chief Crazy Horse.
Along for the ride in that one was hunky Ray Danton in the part of “Little Big Man.”
(As late as 1975, Danton was still being cast in native roles, such as this one, the title role of Yellow Shirt.)
1955 was also the year that then-recent Oscar-winner Donna Reed portrayed Sacajawea in the Lewis & Clark film The Far Horizons, starring Fred MacMurray and Charlton Heston as the famous explorers.
Would you buy blonde leading man Scott Brady as a Navajo, educated by the white man? 1955's The Vanishing American expected us to do just that.
The 1956 western Mohawk (which lifted a fair amount of stock footage from the 1939 John Ford classic Drums Along the Mohawk) featured a plethora of Caucasian actors in Indian costume and makeup. Mae Clarke was famous for taking a grapefruit to the face from James Cagney in 1931's The Public Enemy, but no one dared to do so here, lest her “red-skin” makeup be wiped off!
Gravel-voiced Neville Brand was a veteran of countless westerns, though more often he played a cowboy or cavalryman.
Several viewers pointed out the absurdity of “malt shop teen” Tommy Cook (below) as a feisty brave in Mohawk (and he certainly isn't very authentic, particularly when it comes to his voice!), but this was but one of many Indian roles he'd done since he was a preteen, with names like "Little Beaver," "Chito," "Little Elk" and so on.
For me, the real lunacy was Rita Gam (seen here with star Scott Brady) as a Mohawk princess. Her bright blue eyes seared the screen.
Not only did she sport full-on, Hollywood glamour makeup, but they even gave her a buckskin pantsuit to wear part of the time.
The whole thing was surprisingly risque, however, as she wound up in a skimpy, low-cut, buckskin, sopping-wet mini-dress! This get-up looks something like what Disney's Pocahontas wound up in for their 1995 animated feature.
One of my favorite on-screen Indians, period, was blue-eyed Caucasian Henry Brandon as the imposing Scar in The Searchers (1956.) Somehow a tribute to this movie has eluded this site for five years even though the movie is a top ten favorite of mine. One of these days...
Blonde, blue-eyed, former Tarzan Lex Barker played an Apache chief in 1957 flick War Drums.
Tall, dark John Russell (of Lawman, 1958-1962) portrayed a Sioux chief in Yellowstone Kelly (1959) opposite towering Clint Walker.
Yet another example of a brilliantly blue-eyed actor playing an Apache came with 1962's Geronimo, starring Chuck Connors in the title role! Connors seemed to be squinting as much as humanly possible throughout the movie in order to diffuse his eye color.
Connors' real-life wife Kamala Devi played his wife in the film. (Hailing from Bombay, India, this was a case of an Indian playing an “Indian!”)
She was breathtakingly lovely in this and other movie and TV projects, though her makeup in Geronimo is, as was par for the time, Hollywood-polished.
Musical star Howard Keel sought refuge in westerns once his genre and style fell out of favor, thus he found himself in The War Wagon (1967) as a half-Jewish/half-Indian ally to John Wayne and Kirk Douglas named "Levi Walking Bear!"
1969's Tell Them Willie Boy is Here starred Robert Blake and Katharine Ross as Native American fugitives, though with her (unusually short) hair in her face throughout the entire movie, it might be hard to spot Ross!
She had played an Indian role earlier in her career, too, as this photo depicts, though I wasn't able to nail down which project it was.
As the '70s dawned, things were not particularly becoming more reverent or appropriate when it came to Native American portrayals. One of the all-time tackiest had to be 1970's Dirty Dingus McGee, which starred Frank Sinatra and had baby-voiced, blue-eyed actress Michele Carey trotting around in a tarty little get-up cut to THERE.
Then there's blue-eyed Brit Oliver Reed as a drunken, horny Indian in The Great Scout and Cathouse Thursday (1976), hamming it up as if his life depended on it!
For decades, TV shows had turned to Indian clothing and headdress for laughs. Here, the gang from F-Troop (Forrest Tucker, Larry Storch and Ken Berry) are in questionable disguise.
Paul Fix, an actor of German heritage and veteran of countless westerns, is shown here in a 1969 episode of Here's Lucy called “Lucy and the Indian Chief.” He'd portrayed Cochise (who hadn't?!) on a couple of episodes of The High Chaparral in 1967 and 1968. (He later turned up in the aforementioned Dirty Dingus McGee as “Crazy Blanket” and in the 1971 Dean Martin western Something Big as “Yellow Sun,” among other similar credits.)
This comparison shot of curvaceous starlet Lisa Seagram shows her contemporary appearance next to her dressed as a maiden for a 1963 episode of Wagon Train. This was something done over and over on 1950s and '60s television.
Advertising was another area in which non-Indian performers dressed up for comic effect to speak “Pigeon English” as they sold product. Here we see Jonathan Winters plugging General Motors campers with air-conditioning.
During his long-running variety show (1965-1974), Dean Martin donned a ceremonial headdress while his resident Golddiggers were decked out in skimpy maiden costumes.
Finally, as the late-1980s and 1990s rolled around, more effort was exerted to see that actual Native Americans wound up portraying the appropriate roles in movies. Dances with Wolves (1990) and Last of the Mohicans (1992) spring to mind as two movies which benefited greatly from employing racially-correct actors in key roles. Hackles were raised a bit, however, in 2013 when Johnny Depp chose the iconic role of Tonto with which to continue his parade of colorful roles in The Lone Ranger.
Before we pick up stakes and depart this post, I leave you with, not a Caucasian cast as an Indian, but one of the screen's most delicious specimens dressed as one for part of his character's job at Cypress Gardens. The movie is Easy to Love (1953) and the star, John Bromfield, is, too!
He put on a headdress as part of the pageantry of the Florida attraction in this Esther Williams swimming spectacle. Later, still in his buckskin pants, he goes nose-to-nose with Van Johnson over their mutual attraction to her. (Meanwhile, she's off dating Tony Martin!)
As they both realize that Williams has been on the town and elsewhere with Martin, Johnson seems unable to resist grabbing Bromfield by the arm and we certainly cannot blame him! If you happen to be in a place that celebrates Thanksgiving, I hope it's a happy one! I'll be back soon with more...