Monday, November 19, 2018

Classic TV’s Most Unconvincing Indians

November means Thanksgiving, a time to remember that celebrated moment when Pilgrims and Indians shared a festive dinner table. Many of us first learned about the history and culture of Native Americans while studying Thanksgiving in elementary school. Hopefully those lessons were more accurate that what we learned from television during the Comfort TV era. 

I’m not going to condemn or defend the broad portrayals of Native-Americans in situation comedies. But I will say that when they were funny, I laughed. I don’t think that makes me a horrible person, but then we are rarely the best judges of our own characters.

There were a few (comparatively) earnest portrayals in this era as well, beginning with Jay Silverheels as Tonto on the classic Lone Ranger series. 

It helped that Silverheels was indeed Native-American – a Mohawk from Six Nations of the Grand River in Ohsweken, Canada. While he spoke in the broken English common to most Indians in film and TV westerns (“Him dead, kemo sabe”), there was also dignity in the character, and frequent acknowledgment that this “faithful Indian companion” was not a sidekick but a full partner in the Lone Ranger’s crime fighting exploits.

And then there was this guy:

Nearly 50 years later it is still a remarkably effective public service announcement, even if the crying Indian, billed as Iron Eyes Cody, was actually an Italian actor named Espera DeCorti. His work here belies the now common assertion that performers should always be the same ethnicity as the characters they play. Could anyone else have made that final image more heartrending?

I think I’d also have to put Ed Ames in the positive category, for his long-running portrayal of Mingo on Daniel Boone (and perhaps also for the most famous tomahawk throw in the history of television).

But enough praise – let’s get to those offensive but amusing stereotypes. Here are the nominees for classic TV’s most unconvincing Indians.

Bernie Kopell as Black Salmon
Petticoat Junction (1964)
In “The Umquaw Strip,” series villain Homer Bedloe discovers that the Cannonball passes through a stretch of land that was never legally acquired from the Indians. His scheme to shut down the railroad fails, but it does offer a chance to see Bernie Kopell, one of TV’s most prolific sitcom character actors, play a member of the Umquaw tribe (one who attended Harvard Business School).

Don Rickles as Bald Eagle
F Troop (1965)
If any series specialized in the type of Native American ethnic humor that typified this gleefully unenlightened era, it’s F Troop.

As if Frank DeKova’s recurring role as Chief Wild Eagle was not enough, the show featured a succession of guest stars who joined the tribe for some equally inappropriate banter, none more memorable than Don Rickles in “The Return of Bald Eagle.”  Rickles is totally unhinged as Wild Eagle’s soldier-hating son. 

Don Adams as Running Creek
Get Smart (1965)
A rogue band of Indians called the Red Feathers demand the return of their stolen land, or they’ll unleash a powerful new weapon. Max infiltrates the tribe and winds up engaged to the chief’s daughter. Of course Agent 86 in buckskins is funny, but “Washington 4, Redskins 3” also unveils one of the funniest sight gags in the history of television. The first time I saw it, I thought I’d never stop laughing. 

Edward Everett Horton as Chief Screaming Chicken
Batman (1966)
The plot of “An Egg Grows in Gotham” is strikingly similar to the Petticoat Junction episode with Bernie Kopell: Arch-criminal Egghead (Vincent Price) finds a technicality that would revert ownership of Gotham City to the Mohicans, now led by Chief Screaming Chicken. Edward Everett Horton steals every scene he’s in with the sort of lines you couldn’t say now without getting in trouble: “Indian poor businessman, my cousin, he sell Manhattan for 24 dollars, could have got 35!”

Burt Reynolds at John Hawk
Hawk (1966)
We’re told that John Hawk, detective with the New York District Attorney’s office, is a full-blooded Iroquois, but that just seems like something this short-lived series came up with to make a standard character more exotic. It’s also a role entirely unsuited to the charismatic Burt Reynolds. The stoic Hawk rarely cracks a smile and speaks in a slightly clipped monotone – like an urban Tonto. It’s a well-shot series that still has its supporters, judging from the high IMDB episode ratings, but Reynolds wasn’t one of them. It was a frequent target of his self-deprecating Tonight Show appearances. If you’re curious, check out the first episode, which features Gene Hackman as a Bible-quoting psychotic killer. 

Raymond Bailey as “Chief” Drysdale
Beverly Hillbillies (1967)
As in Petticoat Junction, another Paul Henning series, we have a white man impersonating an Indian to make a few bucks. Co-written by Henning, “The Indians are Coming” opens with the Clampetts learning about a minor border issue between their oil-rich land and the adjoining Crowfeet Indian reservation. At the bank, Mr. Drysdale is roused by the news: 

“They hit a gusher there! Send a message to my red brothers – Milburn Drysdale speak with straight tongue…send all black wampum my bank, we put in solid steel teepee.”

Miss Jane: “No…there’s been a boundary dispute and the Indians are claiming part of the Clampett oil land.”

Drysdale: “Why those dirty, thieving savages!”

The tribal representatives, Chief Running Wolf and his son, are cultured 20th century men who arrive at the bank to find Drysdale in full buckskins, spouting every Indian cliché from every western movie. The Chief and his son play along, letting him embarrass himself further. 

Willliam Shatner as Kir-ok
Star Trek (1968)
“The Paradise Syndrome” is not quite as bad as “Spock’s Brain” and “The Way to Eden,” but it dwells in the same rundown neighborhood of questionable third-season episodes. The Enterprise visits a planet populated by a tribe that resembles the Native-Americans from earth’s history. Kirk joins the tribe after his memory is wiped, and is soon being worshipped as the great healer, the only brave worthy of marrying the lovely Indian priestess Miramanee. It’s all a bit silly but William Shatner gives it everything he’s got and then some, as he always did to help sell a substandard script. 


  1. It's very much worth noting that Burt Reynolds, God rest his soul, was one-fourth Cherokee in real life.

    Mr. Hofstede, have you seen the 1968 movie "White Comanche"? In that flick, Shatner played twin brothers who were half Caucasian and half Native American. It's my understanding that the Shatmeister hammed it up big time in "White Comanche."

  2. Chief Screaming Chicken on BATMAN was clearly a reference to Horton's Roaring Chicken from F TROOP the season before. BATMAN and F TROOP aired back to back on Thursday nights during 1966-67, and F TROOP had a cheeky BATMAN reference in the "Bye, Bye, Balloon" episode that aired about a month prior to this Egghead/Horton BATMAN installment.

    Roaring Chicken was originally going to be the secondary Hekawi role on F TROOP to Chief Wild Eagle; the character appeared in six of the first 11 episodes, but left to do the revival of CAROUSEL, paving the way for Don Diamond's Crazy Cat to become Wild Eagle's chief foil (a lucky break, IMO, for Crazy Cat was funnier). J. Pat O'Malley stepped in for two episodes as an unnamed Medicine Man, and would have been a decent choice for this list as well. :)

    1. I know to always go to you for F-Troop knowledge, Hal! Thanks for the additional info.