When “The Lone Ranger” rides into theaters nationwide next week, an actor with deep Western New York roots – and a resumé that includes parts in some of the most recognizable films of the past two decades – will play a key role.
But it’s not the first time Buffalo and the lone survivor of the ambush by Butch Cavendish and his band of outlaws have been linked. Not by a long shot with a silver bullet.
“The Lone Ranger” the film, “The Lone Ranger” the radio and TV series and the Lone Ranger the legend all trace their lineage not to the land where the buffalo roam, but to a man who called Buffalo home.
So return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear, before Johnny Depp, before Clayton Moore, even before Blu-ray, and hear the true story of the man behind the masked man.
First, understand that for a child growing up in the 1940s and 1950s – or perhaps for the child of a child who grew up in the 1940s and 1950s – no story, no mythology could compare to the Lone Ranger. He was goodness incarnate. He lived to fight injustice and to save the day, but never wanted anyone to know who he was. (Hence the oft-quoted, “And we never got to thank him.”) Strength and integrity coupled with bravery and humility. He was a perfect hero.
Part of his appeal was that it seemed like he actually could have existed. He didn’t have super powers or high-tech gizmos to help him overcome adversity. He had his six-shooter with the silver bullets – which he used to wound, never to kill – his horse, Silver, his partner, Tonto, and his smarts. With the Lone Ranger, good always triumphed over bad, and it was never even close.
And that music! Technically, it’s known as “The William Tell Overture,” but anyone who wanted to grow up to be a cowboy knew it as “The Lone Ranger song.” And is there a better show introduction than: “A fiery horse with the speed of light, a cloud of dust and a hearty ‘Hi-Yo Silver!’ The Lone Ranger!”
Doesn’t it all just make you want to go punch out a bad guy?
The object of all the booing and hissing starting next week will be William Fichtner, who plays the outlaw Cavendish and the first man the Ranger (Armie Hammer) and his trusty sidekick Tonto (Depp) want to bring to justice.
If Fichtner looks familiar, he should. A partial list of his films includes “The Dark Knight,” “Blades of Glory,” “The Longest Yard,” “Crash,” “The Perfect Storm,” “Black Hawk Down” and “Armageddon.”
Or maybe you know him from Maryvale High School, where he graduated in 1974, or from Brockport State College, where he also is an alum.
While Fichtner will be doing Buffalo proud in the role of the villain, another local actor who made good made his name playing the Ranger’s heroic helper, Tonto. That would be Jay Silverheels, a full-blooded Mohawk who was born on the Six Nations Indian Reservation in Brantford, Ont., but later lived in Buffalo. He played Tonto to Moore’s Lone Ranger on all 221 televised episodes of “The Lone Ranger” and in two Lone Ranger films.
Silverheels also appeared in such Hollywood big screen classics as “Key Largo” and “True Grit.”
He died in 1980, but it’s a good bet that even though more than 30 years have passed since then, many moviegoers will be comparing Depp’s performance to the only man they ever knew as Tonto.
But will they know that Tonto never would have uttered a single “kemo sabe” without another child of Buffalo?
The Lone Ranger got his start on WEBR radio on a series called “Covered Wagon Days,” a program that sprung from the mind and the typewriter of one of the era’s most prolific writers, a Buffalo native named Fran Striker. Striker graduated from Lafayette High School before attending the University of Buffalo.
According to a 1983 Buffalo News story by Jim Bisco, “Covered Wagon Days” was one of dozens of serials that Striker created in the late 1920s and early 1930s, some of which were syndicated and picked up in other markets. One was WXYZ in Detroit, co-owned by George Trendle, who wanted to develop original programming for his station. One version of the story has it that Trendle told his staff he wanted a show with a western hero, perhaps even a loner and a former Texas Ranger. (Get it?) That has led to the widespread – and mistaken – belief that Trendle was the Lone Ranger’s creator.
But in his book, “His Typewriter Grew Spurs,” Fran Striker Jr. included an excerpted letter dated Dec. 28, 1932, from the drama director of WXYZ asking the elder Striker to come up with some “wild west thrillers.” The younger Striker told Bisco: “Dad selected script number 10 from the Covered Wagon Days series and reworked it to include a mysterious masked hero – The Lone Ranger.” His father sent the script on Jan. 6, 1933. A letter dated Jan. 21 from WXYZ to Striker refers to “the character you have created.”
“The Lone Ranger” premiered on WXYZ on Jan. 31, 1933, and you know the rest. Striker eventually moved from Buffalo to Detroit to work for WXYZ and Trendle and write Lone Ranger episodes. For 10 years, news articles referred to Striker as the character’s creator, according to Bisco’s piece. That changed in 1943, when Trendle began referring to himself as the creator. Striker didn’t challenge him because when he went to work for him, he sold him the rights for $106. In 1954, Trendle sold the rights to producer Jack Wrather. For $3 million.
Striker’s involvement with “The Lone Ranger” essentially came to an end after that and he moved his family from Michigan to Arcade, about 45 minutes south of Buffalo. He later took a job teaching a writing course at the University at Buffalo. But the commute from Arcade was too long and in 1962, he bought a house on Kensington Avenue in Snyder.
On Sept. 4, 1962, while making the drive from Arcade to his new home, Striker collided with another vehicle in Elma and was killed.
Seven years earlier, Striker had donated the bound radio scripts for the first five years of “The Lone Ranger” to UB. Five years after his death, his widow, Janet Striker, donated more of his work, where it remains today.
And we never got to thank him.