Movie Talk

The Secret History of the Lone Ranger

Movie Talk

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Armie Hammer and Clayton Moore

Armie Hammer, left, and Clayton Moore — arguably the most famous masked man (Photo: Walt Disney/Everett)


The Lone Ranger is a mystery, all right: On one hand, the character's seemingly been around forever; on the other hand, it seems forever since he's been around.

The second part of that changed with Wednesday's arrival of the $250 million summer-popcorn flick "The Lone Ranger," with Armie Hammer as the iconic western do-gooder and Johnny Depp as the just-as-iconic Tonto.

But do audiences still know their silver bullets from their Silver horses?

They will now. Your cheat sheet, kemosabe:

1. The Lone Ranger Is Older Than Superman (and Batman, and...): One of the 20th century's original superheroes, minus the superpowers but with the secret identity, the Lone Ranger first saddled up, via his eponymous radio drama, on Detroit's WXYZ (yes, the hero of the wild, wild West got his start in the future home of Motown) in 1933 on a date that even expert sources, such as the Lone Ranger Fan Club, can't exactly pinpoint. In any case, the Lone Ranger beat the Man of Steel to the heroic punch by five years and the Caped Crusader by six years.

2. The Character Behind the Mask: While the origin story has varied, the most common version (and the one used, more or less, in the Hammer-Depp version) is this: Six Texas Rangers, including brothers John and Dan Reid, are ambushed by the dastardly Butch Cavendish gang. All die, save John, who creates a mask out of his slain brother's vest, and, with Native American guide Tonto at his side and snow-white stallion Silver doing the legwork, goes off to bring Cavendish to justice.


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3. It's "Hi Yo," Not "Hi Ho, Silver!" A 1980s song by singer-songwriter Jim Diamond begs to differ, and admittedly it's a fine enunciation line between "yo" and "ho" in Fred Foy's famous narration, but history notes the line as a hearty "Hi-Yo, Silver!" Wikipedia, seriously, has a good rundown of the full "Lone Ranger" intro and its evolution over the years. (Foy, it's also worth noting, was neither the only nor the original "Lone Ranger" announcer, but as the New York Times put it, he was "certainly the best known." In addition to the radio show, he was heard on the 1949-1957 TV series.)

4. The Too-Alone Ranger: Tonto was not in the radio program's first episode. Or its second or third, for that matter. It wasn't until Episode No. 11, in fact, that Tonto made his debut, a byproduct of writer Fran Striker's dramatic need to "giv[e] the Lone Ranger someone to talk to," Striker's son, Fran Striker Jr., told NPR in 2010.

5. The Depp Twist: In the beginning, Tonto was Potawatomi. In the new movie, Tonto is Comanche, the tribe that accepted Depp as an honorary member. The actor, who claims Native American ancestry, told Yahoo! Movies he was committed to do right by the character and, even more so, the character's people, so often reduced to stereotypes in Hollywood westerns. Depp, by the by, is the first onscreen Tonto to receive top billing over the man in the Lone Ranger getup.

Exclusive: Watch 'Lone Ranger' Featurette — Legacy:


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Zorro and the Green Hornet

(Photo: Marvel/Harvey)


6. The Zorro Connection: Lore and George W. Trendle's New York Times obituary have it that the WXYZ station owner wanted to brighten the Great Depression (and enhance Trendle's sagging fortunes) with a kid-friendly show about a hero who was a mix between folklore's Robin Hood and pulp-fiction's Zorro, who, not incidentally, rode a horse and wore a mask.

7. The "Green Hornet" Connection: In 1936, Trendle and Striker introduced the "Lone Ranger" spin-off, "The Green Hornet," featuring Britt Reid, a modern-day crime fighter who was a descendant of John Reid.

8. The Lone Ranger Creed: Literally, there is a Lone Ranger creed. ("I believe that to have a friend, a man must be one," it begins.) There are also rules by which the straight-arrow character and his writers, at least during the Trendle-Striker era, must adhere. One notable bylaw: The Lone Ranger must not shoot to kill. Another: The Lone Ranger must not drop that mask. (Indeed, early on, the actors who portrayed the Lone Ranger weren't billed in order to help build the character's mystery.)


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9. "William Tell" Explained: Composer Gioachino Rossini's overture for his 1829 opera "William Tell" is so linked to "The Lone Ranger" it's essentially "The Lone Ranger'"s theme song by the modern audience. The music, which has been with the masked man for his entire journey, was selected, in part, because it fit the budget: It was a public-domain tune.

10. Silver Bullets Explained: So, basically the Lone Ranger uses silver bullets 'cause he's got an "in." "The Lone Ranger ... own[s] a secret silver mine, hidden in the hills," Fran Striker once noted.

11. Kemosabe Explained: As Cecil Adams's "The Straight Dope" laid it out more than a decade ago, Tonto's term of endearment for the Lone Ranger was coined by "Lone Ranger" radio director Jim Jewell, who cribbed it from a boys' camp called (wait for it) Kamp Kee-Mo Sah-Bee. The show intended the word to mean "trusty scout."


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George Seaton, 1955 (Photo: Corbis)

George Seaton, 1955 (Photo: Corbis)

12. The Lone Ranger Fraternity: Over the years, a not-small posse of actors have given life to the Lone Ranger on radio, in film, in public appearances, and on TV, both in live-action and animated shows. Three notable ones: George Seaton (pictured left), who was the original radio voice; Lee Powell, who starred in the "Lone Ranger" movie serial of the 1930s, thus becoming the first onscreen masked man; and, Clayton Moore, who, with apologies to Hammer, remains the most famous Lone Ranger, having endeared himself to the baby-boom generation via the long-running TV series and its two related big-screen adventures.

13. One Lone Ranger You Probably Forgot About: The pre-"One Tree Hill" Chad Michael Murray donned the mask (but not the name John Reid) in the 2003 TV-movie (and failed series pilot), "The Lone Ranger."

14. There Is No Such Thing as a "Lone Ranger Curse": After leaving "The Lone Ranger" radio show after only a few months, Seaton went on to write the Marx Brothers' "A Day at the Races," win two Oscars, for his adaptations of "The Country Girl" and the holiday favorite "Miracle on 34th Street," direct and script the disaster-classic "Airport," and serve as president of the Motion Picture Academy.

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The Lone Ranger circa 1980


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Johnny Depp and Jay Silverheels

Johnny Depp and '50s-era Tonto, Jay Silverheels, right (Photo: Walt Disney/Everett)

15. Then Again...: Not all Lone Rangers went out on top like Seaton.

In a tale that would foreshadow Moore's legal battles over the Lone Ranger mask, Powell tangled with his movie bosses over the right to bill himself in traveling circuses as "Lee 'Lone Ranger' Powell." Powell lost, and not long after died in World War II. (Moore, in contrast, won his fight, and passed away a beloved figure at age 85.)

Earle W. Graser, who took over Lone Ranger radio duties from Seaton in 1933, saw his tenure — and life — prematurely end when he was killed in a car crash in 1941. He was only 32.

Another sad, though far-less tragic story than Graser's is that of Klinton Spilsbury, an unknown who got the full-court media press for the 1981 Lone Ranger big-screen revival, "The Legend of the Lone Ranger." The film flopped, critics jeered — and, for bad measure, Spilsbury was robbed of his voice when filmmakers overdubbed him with veteran actor James Keach's voice. Spilsbury never starred in another movie.

16. One Last Bit of (Regrettable) Trivia: Per a 1957 Associated Press story on the death of John Todd, who long portrayed Tonto on the "Lone Ranger" radio show, "a real Indian" was hired to occasionally fill in for the veteran, non-Native American actor. But whenever the understudy appeared, children called to complain "the real Indian didn't 'sound like an Indian.'" The understudy was pulled from the air, the wire service reported, and "put to work running a mimeograph machine."

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