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Who Was That Masked Man?

 

Clayton Moore died of a heart attack in Los Angeles December 28, 1999. He is best remembered for his portrayal of The Lone Ranger in a television series that ran from 1949 thru 1957. He was 85.

The Lone Ranger was my second hero. The Cisco Kid was my first cos The Cisco Kid was the first television show I ever saw. My family came to television late. I was six years old before I attained access to TV. The Cisco Kid remained my hero for several weeks, until I saw The Lone Ranger. No one replaced The Lone Ranger. I grew up, sort of, discovered Superman, Tarzan, Star Trek and all the rest. My horizons widened, my tastes matured, sort of, but The Lone Ranger remained my hero. In a sense, at my age of 53, The Lone Ranger is still my hero. And so is Clayton Moore.

The first Lone Ranger I saw had John Hart in the role. I checked the credits. Later I heard there was a financial dispute and John Hart had replaced Clayton Moore for one season. At six years of age I didn’t know all that, but I knew when I saw a show with Clayton Moore in the role that the actor had changed. There was someone else behind the mask. I knew by the way he laughed. I checked the credits and, sure enough, John Hart's name had been replaced by the name Clayton Moore. Maybe Clayton Moore was laughing because he was The Lone Ranger again. For the rest of his life, Clayton Moore never stopped being The Lone Ranger. Even when the Wrather Corporation forbid him from appearing as The Lone Ranger and from wearing the mask, Clayton Moore put on a pair of Foster Grants and he was still The Lone Ranger.

There were actors who played Tarzan. Johnny Weissmuller comes to mind, but his personal life outside the movies was less than inspiring. Sean Connery is remembered for James Bond, but he did mostly other roles. George Reeves was Superman on television, but he committed suicide (or didn’t, depending on which rumor you believe). Clayton Moore remained The Lone Ranger long after the cameras stopped rolling. He conducted his personal life in such a way as not to tarnish the fictional character he had come to be associated with.

And then there was Tonto.

In an age when all screen characters had clowns for friends (The Cisco Kid had Pancho, Roy Rogers had Gabby Hayes, Superman had Jimmy Olsen, Tarzan had Cheeta) The Lone Ranger had Tonto. Tonto was dead serious. You didn’t mess with Tonto or he’d take your face off. You just knew that any man who wore his hair in a bun had to be tough as nails. The Lone Ranger and Tonto were not hero and bumbling assistant, they were partners, friends who stayed together cos they liked and respected each other. Tonto believed in what The Lone Ranger stood for and took on The Lone Ranger’s crusade for his own. Tonto had skills in his own right. He was a better tracker than his paleface partner. He knew the languages of most native American tribes. It’s impossible to imagine Gabby Hayes without Roy Rogers. He would have been a street person. Without Superman, Jimmy Olsen is just another incompetent Archie Andrews, Cheeta without Tarzan is just a sideshow monkey in a loin cloth.

But, if left to his own, Tonto could damn well take care of himself, thank you very much.

And that was an essential part of the mystique, that these two men were partners, not protagonist and clown, not master and serf. Because Tonto was such a strong character, The Lone Ranger was required to rise to greater heights just to measure up to the man he rode with. The Lone Ranger was the first on screen character for which I checked the credits to discover the name of the actor behind the character. Tonto was the second. I’ve always believed Jay Silverheels was in fact at least part American Indian. Perchance my information is in error. Perchance he was just another paleface pretending to be something else. If that’s the case, I don’t wanna know it. I prefer to believe Tonto was real.

It’s the essential relationship between these two heroes, between Tonto and The Lone Ranger, that all subsequent attempts to do The Lone Ranger have failed to understand. It is my memory of the dismal big screen attempt at The Lone Ranger that Tonto was portrayed as a wild savage. He had no class. Jay Silverheels as Tonto has more in common with Cochise than with Geronimo. In fact the relationship between Tonto and The Lone Ranger has a rough parallel in the friendship of Cochise and Tom Jeffords. Another major problem with the movie attempt was that the producers failed to understand The Lone Ranger is a figure of mystery. No one, with the exception of Tonto and a few others (the retired Texas Ranger who works The Lone Ranger’s silver mine and Dan Reid, The Lone Ranger’s nephew), knew the face behind the black mask.

As a child one of my continuing preoccupations was to locate a picture of Clayton Moore without the mask. There were many shows in which The Lone Ranger would be at the mercy of the bad guys and one of them would decide to remove his mask. Something would happened to prevent the dastardly deed, of course, but I always hoped one of the bad guys would succeed, just once. Eventually I found a still from an old Republic Serial where Clayton Moore played the heavy. There he stood without his mask. My curiosity was satisfied. Moore’s face wasn’t exactly that of Adonis, but it was not a face to be ashamed of. He was certainly as good looking as Sean Connery when Connery played Bond, and he was definitely in much better physical shape. He had the body to play Tarzan had he wanted.

It says a lot for Clayton Moore’s embracing of the character of The Lone Ranger that he allowed his own face to be hidden behind a mask for the remainder of his professional career. This removal of his face from public view was also an essential ingredient in creating for the character an aura of mystery shared by no other screen character in the history of movies and television. There’s no mystery surrounding Batman’s everyday identity. Everyone knows Bruce Wayne’s face (depending upon the actor playing the part). There’s no difficulty in discovering The Shadow’s face once he stops “clouding your mind” and reverts to Lamont Cranston. The Lone Ranger remained The Lone Ranger and did not remove his mask to become actor “Clayton Moore” to his public at large.

The Lone Ranger as portrayed by Clayton Moore remained essentially as created by George W. Trendle for the first radio show January 30, 1933. He used his guns only in self defense, he never killed. His habit was to shoot the guns out of his opponent’s hand in such a way that his foe only felt the sting of the bullet’s impact on the gun. No blood was ever spilled. (Yeah, right. As Mad insisted once, even if you’re Annie Oakley you gotta miss some time.) The Lone Ranger used proper standard American grammar and no swear words. He never used alcololic beverages, in fact never even went into a saloon. He was courteous and polite and never overbearing.

An ill advised and mercifully short lived comic book series from Topps a few years back tried to sell a “Lone Ranger” as a buffoon who was overfull of his own press. Tonto was around to keep him in check, minimize his social blunders and sneer at him behind his back. This was not only an insult to the character Clayton Moore portrayed, more to the point it was a total failure of any attempt to understand Tonto. Tonto is a man of intelligence, taste and class. Tonto would not have wasted his time with the fool portrayed in the comic book, nor would Clayton Moore.

There is the insistence in some circles that popular culture is intended to have no effect upon those who are entertained by it. Popular culture is brain candy to be consumed and forgotten as soon as one walks from the theater or turns off the boob tube or tosses the comic book aside. For the most part this argument is used by those who fear being held to account by self styled armchair psychologists who would hold creators responsible for everything wrong with the world. To a greater extent this denial of responsibility is valid. No written story or media distributed picture experience causes an otherwise rational person to decide to commit mass murder. As for influencing the non-rational, there is nothing under the sun from news reports of horrible acts to a house pet giving birth that does not have the potential to influence the easily swayed. Conversely, creators are traditionally happy enough to claim credit for any positive influence their writing may have on impressionable youth. How often do you find creators franticly distancing themselves when grownups insist reading Superman as a child taught them to be good citizens and to help others?

Clayton Moore believed popular culture can influence a person’s choices and he actively used the role of The Lone Ranger to inspire responsibility, honesty and respect for human life. He often spoke to children in an effort to influence them to be good citizens. He lived his personal life as a verification of his beliefs, in such a way that those who admired The Lone Ranger would have no cause to look at Clayton Moore’s off camera life and decide the words that came from his mouth were just empty words without meaning, words that had no relationship to the man's own values.

The Lone Ranger changed my life. He was my hero as a child and I retain fond memories of the series and the character as an adult. But, because of the man Clayton Moore was and because he chose to use the role he had brought to life for a few brief years and transform the character into an inspiration for good the rest of his life, Clayton Moore continues to be a hero to me and a man who has enriched my existence by the very fact that he lived on the same world with me. I am grateful to have been priviledged to have seen many of his performances and I shall miss the man.

“Say, who was that masked man?”

-hanther