Articles

The two lives of JONAS APPLEGARTH

Some months he’s a Hollywood actor earning $350 a week and hobnobbing with the idols of the bobbysox brigade

ROBERT COLLINS November 1 1954
Articles

The two lives of JONAS APPLEGARTH

Some months he’s a Hollywood actor earning $350 a week and hobnobbing with the idols of the bobbysox brigade

ROBERT COLLINS November 1 1954

The two lives of JONAS APPLEGARTH

Some months he’s a Hollywood actor earning $350 a week and hobnobbing with the idols of the bobbysox brigade

ROBERT COLLINS

ON THE morning of last February 5 a deadpan Cree Indian named Jonas Applegarth arrived at Calgary airport in rumpled brown slacks, a zippered wind breaker, a green cowboy shirt, a battered felt hat and worn shoes. He checked a small dilapidated suitcase and a bedroll at the baggage scales, answered a newspaper reporter’s questions in toneless monosyllables and eyed his Los Angeles-bound plane with the suspicious air of a man who had never been near an aircraft before - which, indeed, he hadn’t.

On the night of May 7 a debonair Cree na ed Jonas Wildhorse alighted from a Los Angeles flight into Calgary, resplendent in double-breasted grey gabardine suit with a razor-sharp crease, black silk shirt, hand-woven tie, jaunty tropical hat and thick-soled brogues. He waved airily from the gangway, claimed a natty traveling bag, kissed his astonished wife in front of the other passengers and when a photographer called “How about a picture, Jonas?” he graciously tilted his right profile and flashed a toothpaste-ad smile.

He looked and acted like a Hollywood actor— which, indeed, he was. It was the same Jonas of thirteen weeks before but now Jonas was in the movies.

The transformation of Jonas Applegarth, of Hobbema, Alta., was a remarkable feat even for Hollywood. In thirteen weeks movieland remodeled him from a farmer with no money, no education and no future info a Sunset Boulevard habitué with a stage name, an agent and a salary of $350 a week. Most Hollywood hopefuls struggle years for what Applegarth attained in three months.

Until last February he had never ventured outside Alberta, he lived in a farmhouse or tent, generally traveled by horse and buggy and attended an average of two movies a year.

Since then he has traveled fen thousand miles by plane and by Warner Brothers Cadillac, seen California, Arizona, Mexico, Florida and the West Indies, lived in Hollywood’s finest hotels and acted in his third movie. Playing an Indian each time, Applegarth has battled his way through two Alan Ladd movies Saskatchewan and Drumbeat — and Battle Cry, in which he joined Van Heflin’s U. S. Marines in fighting the Japs.

Six studios have interviewed him with fut ure roles in mind. He’s a member of the Hollywood Screen Actors’ Guild. Bobbysoxers have even asked for his autograph.

In spite of this, Applegarth, a 33-year-old sixfooter w>'th strong whit e teeth, sharp bronzed profile 'v-^*U)-pound wedge-shaped frame, is still a

Hobbema Indian and proud of it. Between movies he hurries home to his Cree wife and neighbors. He still uses the name Applegarth off screen and will probably retain it on screen too. When he returned home in May his tribe vetoed the stage name, Wildhorse, bestowed upon him by the Warner Brothers publicity department. The Hobbema Crees feel a man should not change his given name even for Hollywood. But he’ll never completely return to the old life, which wasn’t very interesting. In fact, the contrast between his past and present career is a more intriguing tale than most of his movie plots so far.

Applegarth was born on the Cree reservation, fifty miles south of Edmonton. He was orphaned at seven and adopted by a farmer neighbor, Sam Buffalo. Applegarth didn’t care for school and almost immediately went to work in the fields. He speaks fluent self-taught English, apart from occasional lapses into “dese” and “dose.” At sixteen he turned rodeo rider and roamed the Alberta fair circuit each summer for a decade spurring mean broncos and learning to take falls.

He caught the eye of many a girl but plump darkhaired Helen Crane, the Hobbema chief’s daughter, caught his. Ten or eleven years agoApplegarth is not sure which—they were married. Chief Jim

Other flll)1~t11~ he~ a pciini1e~ Cree farn~er and p~tt't-titi~e 1'O(1(~() i)t'OUC()I )l1 st~r on the Hol )betlliL. :~ ill.. i~t~ i'~ at ion

Crane helped his son-in-law set up housekeeping on an oats-and-barley farm. Applegarth settled down to raising a family and living the humdrum existence of the other sixteen hundred Indians on the reserve.

Aside from rodeo season he never traveled beyond the bleak little settlement, of Hobbema with its four grain elevators, write-painted grocery stores, community hall, coffee shop and billiard hall strung out along the Edmonton-Calgary big! way. He cared little for the other towns, where wl ite men glanced disdainfully at him and his people. On rare occasions his wife coaxed him to a movie at nearby Ponoka but Applegarth preferred a good poker game and couldn’t tell one movie star from another.

Although as an Indian he could not legally buy a drink, he enjoyed a swig of homemade wine now and then. He kept out of trouble with the RCMP, attended mass on the reserve fairly regularly and was a devoted father to seven-year-old Rachel and two-year-old Bernice.

Applegarth’s first experience of movie life came in the summer of 1953 when Warner Brothers filmed Saskatchewan in Banff. The studio sent a man around Alberta to draft Indian extras to ride horseback, shoot Mounties, be shot themselves and mutter fiercely in crowd scenes. It seemed like

pleasant work at $9.80 a day. Since Applegarth had nothing else to do he hired on with a hundred or so others from Hobbema. For six weeks he obligingly bit the dust or fell in the river as the script prescribed. The work was easy for an ex-rodeo rider and, at ten dollars extra per fall, Applegarth fell with enthusiasm. Director Raoul Walsh was impressed.

“When Mr. Walsh wanted men I always pick Jonas first ’cause I knew he wasn’t afraid to take falls,” says John Johnson of Hobbema, who, as vice-president of the Alberta Indian Association, took charge of the Banff Indians. “Pretty soon Mr. Walsh always asking me, ‘Where’s the big fella? Where’s Jonas?’ ”

When Saskatchewan was filmed Applegarth and his friends took a bus home, gloated over their adventure a while, then forgot it. But Hollywood hadn’t forgotten Applegarth.

During the winter Walsh began casting for the war movie, Battle Cry. Lead roles went to Van Heflin, James Whitmore, Aldo Ray and Nancy Olson. The minor role of Shining Lighttower, a Navajo Indian in the U. S. Marines, called for “a full-blooded young Indian, tall and husky, with a nose like the Indians on the old buffalo nickel.” Walsh remembered Applegarth, who fitted the description to a nose.

One stormy day in early February a neighbor delivered a telegram by sleigh to the Applegarth farm. Could Jonas come to Hollywood? Jonas, remembering the $9.80 a day, thought he could. He took a sleigh to Hobbema, a bus to Calgary and arrived there shortly after 11 p.m. Arthur Hersh, the Calgary Warner Brothers representative, had reserved a room for him in a better-class downtown hotel. But when Applegarth appeared the night clerk said he hadn’t been able to hold the reservation. A second hotel also turned them down. Finally Hersh found a tolerant night clerk across the railway tracks.

It was not an auspicious beginning and, by morning, Applegarth was afraid he had made a bad move. At the airport Calgary Herald reporter Myron Laka asked, “You pretty excited about going to Hollywood and acting with all the stars?”

“Don’t think I’ll like it,” said Applegarth.

But that evening as he stepped from his plane at the Los Angeles airport a uniformed chauffeur moved forward and touched his hat.

“Mr. Applegarth?” he said. “I’m from Warner’s. Your car is over here.”

A company limousine whisked him to the Hollywood Knickerbocker Hotel and a ten-dollar-a-day room. There was no prejudice there. Applegarth began to cheer up. He dropped his luggage and went out to “look at dat town.” He was dazzled by the blaze of neon and the colored searchlights

that sweep the Hollywood sky.

Continued on page 54

The Two Lives of Jonas Applegarth

CONTINUED FROM PAGE 17

He was dazed the next day when the studio fitted him into a Marine uniform, gave him a crew cut and tossed him a thick script. Director Walsh was so sure that Applegarth would be right for the role of Shining Lighttower that he offered him the part without a screen test. Five days later he caught a plane for Vieques Island, a scrap of land off Puerto Rico in the West Indies, where battle scenes were to be filmed.

Here several earnest young men and women proceeded to turn a Canadian Indian into a Hollywood redskin. After thirty-three years trying to learn proper English, Applegarth was encouraged to use a broken accent. Each morning at eight the make-up department darkened his dark skin and fastened on a wig. As Shining Lighttower, the Indian, he wore long braids. As Lighttower, the rookie Marine, he wore an army hairdo. In the movie script, after seeing himself in a fresh army haircut, Lighttower yelps, “I been scalped.”

Each day Applegarth checked the list of scenes to be filmed and, if required, went before the cameras. “I was kind of bashful at first,” he admits, “with three cameras rolling and all dose guys watching me.” But outwardly, as usual, he showed no emotion.

“He was never flustered,” writes Carleton Young, a U. S.-army lieutenant-colonel, former Broadway actor and fellow player in Battle Cry, who befriended Applegarth. “What he didn’t understand he asked about but he didn’t let any of it rattle him.”

Actors Were His Pals

Applegarth’s rumbling bass voice was an asset. So was the new confidence and dignity that Hollywood imparted. For the first time in his life, he says, white men were treating him as a human being and an equal, rather than as an Indian. All his fellow actors were kind and considerate.

“That Van Heflin, he treated me like his brother,” says Applegarth. Actor Aldo Ray sometimes coached him on his lines. A couple of friendly Texans, brash breezy Justice McQueen and six-foot-five Fess Parker, both fellow Marines in Battle Cry, seeing that Jonas was shy and lonesome, took him in hand.

Parker, a veteran of radio and movie parts, helped Jonas rehearse. McQueen cheered him up when he was homesick, a sometimes hazardous prop; osition. One day, when McQueen had snapped him out of the blues, the mus| cular Jonas draped an arm around the ; 7’exan’s shoulders, squeezed and said, “Mac, I like you. You’re a real friend.” McQueen wheezed like a rusty accordion. Ho told Parker later, “He damn near broke my ribs.”

Although Applegarth was gaining i confidence he seemed to be perspiring unnaturally in the West Indies heat. 11 turned out he was still wearing woolen underwear. In Hobbema, he explained, he always wore winter underwear in February. After sweating it out for a few days in a hundred-degree heat he finally broke with tradition.

The cast and crew, discovering a sense of humor under his blank expression, included him in their jokes. Ancient Indian gags came out of mothballs but they were never malicious. The actors ribbed Applegarth, the Indian, the same way they heckled McQueen, the Texan. Once he realized

this, Applegarth was a willing straight man.

One day the cast stood by while the cameras photographed Marine amphibious tractors storming ashore under simulated shellfire. A tall column of smoke mushroomed from a distant hill. McQueen, pointing to the smoke “signal,” asked Applegarth, “What’s he say, Chief?”

“Him say him scalp-um white man,” grunted Applegarth in appropriate Hollywood-Indian dialect.

From then on he was “Chief” to his friends. One night actors Aldo Ray, Glenn Denning, Carleton Young and Applegarth shared a crowded tent. After lights out somebody grumbled, “This is a helluva setup. We’ll have to make more room somehow.”

“If we had a few cigars,” drawled another voice, “we could stick ’em in Chief’s hand and stand him outside the door.”

Applegarth’s chuckles kept them awake half the night.

Generally Applegarth let someone else do the talking. His economical “Yes” and “No” answers around the set and his built-in poker face, an asset at card games, caused the crew to dub him “01’ Stoneface” and the “Indian Gary Cooper.”

Rut one evening as the crowd sat sampling Puerto Rican rum and swapping yarns Applegarth said he’d tell a story. The room hushed. Applegarth began his joke—in Cree. He apologized and started over—in Cree. Finally he gave up in confusion, explaining that it was a good story but it wouldn’t come out in English.

After three and a half weeks on Vieques, the cast returned to Hollywood for local Marine camp scenes and Applegarth began to live like a wealthy tourist. He had originally been promised $110 a week but this was raised to $250. He sent five hundred dollars home to his wife and bought a new wardrobe—slacks, sports shirts and two suits. On Easter Sunday he joined twenty thousand others for the annual Roman Catholic sunrise service in the Hollywood Howl. He saw the stage musical Rrigadoon and became a regular movie fan. He went to Grauman’s Chinese Theatre four times and gazed at the footprints of Hollywood celebrities imprinted in the sidewalk outside.

McQueen and some friends drove him to Tijuana, Mexico, one day to see horse races and cock fights. Another night they took him to San Diego and his first burlesque show. He began to attend night clubs and discovered “you got to polish your shoes, wear a white shirt and a tie and comb your hair real good or they won’t serve you.” He could order drinks and enjoy Hollywood society like any white man. If newcomers seemed uncertain how to act when Jonas joined a party, Fess Parker broke the ice with, “Meet Jonas Applegarth. He’s a Cree Indian from Canada. Myself, I’m a Comanche.”

Around the Warner Brothers set he was acquiring prestige. He delivered his lines competently and sometimes new lines were written especially for him. One comedy scene in Battle Cry shows McQueen and Applegarth planning to become blood brothers. The original script called for Applegarth to silently produce a huge knife for the bloodletting, whereupon McQueen murmured weakly, “Let’s wait till tomorrow.” But Applegarth brandished his knife with such gusto that the writers gave him the line, “Okay, le’s see some blood.”

Another scene required Applegarth and his buddies to join in boisterous song in a bar. Jonas, no thrush at his best, hadn’t rehearsed the music and his off-key version rose above the others like a doleful war chant, bor-

tunately it made the drunken scene amusing and realistic. Director Walsh was delighted and filmed the scene with few changes. Recalling that triumph, Applegarth rumbles happily, “Yeah, I stole that scene.”

A stand-in posed under the sweltering lights until the cameras were ready; then actor Applegarth stepped forward, cool and composed. A stunt man took his falls, for Applegarth the actor was no longer expendable as Applegarth the extra had been.

He called the stars by their first names, went car riding with Alan Ladd

one night and gave his autograph to admiring little girls, big girls and old girls who frequently asked if he lived in a tepee all year around. He acquired an agent, Vernon Jacobson, who handles all his business matters for ten percent.

When Battle Cry was finished, Parker, McQueen and a few others held a party for him and advised, “Don’t stick around Hollywood between pictures, Chief. That sort of thing has spoiled a lot of actors.” Jonas needed no urging. He’d had fun but he was homesick. He picked up a cheque for

back pay and caught a plane home.

Back in Alberta he avoided large hotels, checking into a small place on the fringe of downtown Calgary. But in other respects it was obvious that this was a new, worldly and wealthy Applegarth. He chatted easily with reporter Myron Laka and conducted himself admirably in a radio interview.

He ran out of cash on a Saturday morning and since the banks were closed asked Arthur Hersh, the Warner Brothers representative, to cash the pay cheque.

“How much?”

“Fifteen,” said Jonas casually.

“Fifteen dollars? Sure,” said Hersh, fumbling for his wallet.

“Fifteen hundred dollars,” said Applegarth.

Hersh gulped, replaced his wallet and finally hunted up a restaurant to cash the cheque.

At the reservation the Hobbema Crees held a dance in his honor. Jonas made a speech saying he would continue to do his best to give Hobbema a good name. He dropped in on his old cronies at Charlie’s Billiards and answered eager questions about airplane travel and Hollywood night life. He also gave a talk for the Catholic school pupils. He bought new beds, chairs and a kitchen range for Helen, new clothes for Rachel and Bernice and a half-ton truck for himself. Two weeks later he flew south for a part in Drumbeat.

In Drumbeat, Applegarth was slated for a speaking part as a medicine man. He proved too young for that role and simply played an ordinary non-speaking Indian. For riding horseback, shooting cavalrymen and generally conducting himself like a Hollywood Indian he earned $350 a week for five weeks.

Taxes Took His Money

“Mr. Jacobson lined up a fine part for Jonas to start right after Drumbeat,” says Carleton Young. “Also a fine raise in salary. But Jonas told me he didn’t want to do the picture. Said he had to go home and farm. There was no use telling him he could pay someone well to do his farming and still have plenty of money left over, or that it was important to get himself well established while he had the chance. His mind was made up. He was going home and he did.”

By mid-July Applegarth was sitting on a corral rail at the Hobbema annual rodeo, dressed in jeans, moccasins and felt hat like any other Indian. Like the others he camped at the grounds for the two-day event, sleeping in a tent, eating meals cooked over a wood fire, cuddling little Bernice on his knee and gossiping in Cree with his neighbors. Of Hollywood he said merely, “Oh, [’ll be going back in the fall sometime. It’s all right long as they pay me. Money’s what counts.”

By that time most of his money was gone. Taxes took some and Applegarth is not particularly thrifty. He was not worried, though, because he knows a lucrative career awaits him if he wants it.

At first glance last summer it seemed that Applegarth didn’t want a career; that he was content to play the part of Cree farmer. But it soon became apparent that Hollywood is in his blood and that Jonas is a Hollywood hero in Hobbema. One evening on the reserva-

tion he produced a tangled armload of snapshots, press clippings and souvenirs for me, while his Cree friend John Johnson looked on admiringly.

There were photos of Applegarth and director Raoul Walsh, Applegarth and Aldo Ray holding a West Indies lobster, Applegarth in Marine battledress, Applegarth and Fess Parker reading Variety. There were postcards of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, the Hollywood Bowl and swank hotels. There was a card from a Mexican race track and an actors’ guild membership card. From time to time Applegarth dropped a first name like “Van,” “Aldo” or “Alan.”

He thumbed through a Battle Cry script, proudly reading extracts: “. . .

then Lighttower—that’s me, Lighttower pulls knife from his boot . . .”

Finally John Johnson could contain himself no longer.

“Boy!” he blurted. “That Jonas! He sure hit the jack pot.” if