Life for Jay Smith Silverheels – that is the name he legally adopted later – began on the Six Nations Indian Reserve in Ontario on May 26, 1912, according to his family records. It is not unusual for actors to change their birthdays and the Screen Actors Guild and other sources say he was born in 1919. He was a superb athlete and it was his running style that led his uncle to nickname the young Harold “Silverheels.” As a young man, he was also one of the finest boxers and a top lacrosse player on the reserve. Had fate not intervened, Harold Smith may have gone on to be one of Canada`s greatest athletes. But fate was waiting in Hollywood when his lacrosse team made a visit there as part of a tournament in 1938. The great comedian known for his extremely large mouth, Joe E. Brown spotted the talented, good looking young player and told him there might be a future in the movies. With Brown`s help he was able to join the Actor`s Guild and soon he was getting work as an extra.
Jay Silverheels went on to work in more than 30 movies and became a star of television just as it exploded across North American in the early 1950s. His role as Tonto, the ever-present sidekick to the Lone Ranger is the role he is most associated with. The success of the early series led back to the big screen for two Lone Ranger films in 1956 and 1958.
Active in sports all of his life his most important contribution to film may be the founding of Indian Actors Workshop, which he started in 1963, personally getting involved in helping other aspiring actors to get their start in Hollywood.
In 1993, more than a decade after his death, Jay Silverheels was inducted into the Western Performers Hall of Fame at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.
Also see: Jay Silverheels’ filmography.
The close-up of Jay Silverheels at the top of this biography was scanned from an original publicity photo for The Warrior in the Northernstars Collection. The photo of Jay Silverheels and Clayton Moore was scanned from an original publicity photo for The Lone Ranger and the City of Gold also in the Northernstars Collection.
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