BY RICH FOLEY
The newest movie version of “The Lone Ranger” opened last week to big box office numbers. No doubt, most ticket buyers went to see Johnny Depp in the role of Tonto, the first time The Lone Ranger had to take second billing. In fact, most ads didn’t even mention that Armie Hammer was in the film, playing the title role.
At least film buffs have heard of Hammer. The last time Hollywood did a big-screen version of the Ranger’s story, they picked someone with no film credits whatsoever.
Klinton Spilsbury’s only other brush with the movie industry was an audition for the title role in the 1980 film, “Flash Gordon.” That role went to another unknown, Sam Jones. Jones went on to quite a few other film roles and starred in two television series. In 2012, Jones came out of retirement to play himself in the comedy blockbuster, “Ted.” After the 1981 release of “The Legend of the Lone Ranger,” Klinton Spilsbury apparently never acted again. In fact, no one is sure what he is doing, assuming that he’s even still alive.
There was much controversy at the time the film was released because producers of the film had sued Clayton Moore, who played the Lone Ranger on the classic television series, to stop him from wearing the Lone Ranger mask during personal appearances. They were hoping that people would forget the 65-year-old Moore and accept Spilsbury as the real Ranger.
But Moore was smarter than they counted on. First, he got a pair of wraparound sunglasses that looked much like his mask and resumed his personal appearance tour. Then he countersued the studio and won his case. Not only did he win the legal right to wear the mask, millions of supporters decided to ignore the new movie as well.
Back on the movie set, things weren’t going well. There were said to be many fights among those involved. Once, Michael Horse, who played the role of Tonto, was supposedly called by one of the studio guards at 3 a.m. and asked to come pick up Spilsbury, who had been involved in a fight. According to the story, Horse replied “that faithful companion stuff is only in the movies” and hung up.
Later, a problem with some of the audio recording required the actors to come in and re-record some of their dialogue. Spilsbury, who claimed his wife was dying, refused to come in as requested. The producers then hired actor James Keach to come in and overdub all of the Lone Ranger’s dialogue, erasing Spilsbury’s voice from the entire movie.
Finally, the movie was released with disastrous results. Total box office receipts were under $13 million, not even close to covering the estimated $18 million budget.
I saw the 1981 version shortly after its release and recall that I enjoyed it, especially the performance of Jason Robards as President Grant. I wasn’t enough of a discerning film buff at the time to notice Spilsbury’s voice wasn’t being used. The few dollars I spent didn’t keep the movie from being a flop.
In another victory for Tonto, Michael Horse, who was also making his film debut, went on to have a fairly successful acting career. In addition to a number of film roles, he starred in two television series, the quirky “Twin Peaks” and a remake of “The Untouchables.”
Whatever became of Spilsbury is a matter of much conjecture on various internet film buff sites. Some of the stories posted by fans are pretty interesting, even if their authenticity can’t be verified.
One person claims Spilsbury got the role only because no one else who auditioned could ride a horse. Another claims he conducts acting workshops in Vancouver. Or there’s the story that he’s a waiter in New York City. Or working as a model in Europe. Or maybe a rancher somewhere in the Southwest. Take your pick. Or make up your own story.
Many claim to be related to Spilsbury. One says he’s a distant cousin who hasn’t heard from him in years and wonders if anyone knows how to contact him. Another says Spilsbury was married to his aunt and they had a child together.
The late Andy Warhol interviewed Spilsbury, but I can’t say much more than that in a family newspaper. If what Warhol reported Spilsbury said is true, he’s probably embarrassed to be seen in public. If I were Armie Hammer, I’d let Johnny Depp do all the interviews.