Resurrecting the Lone Ranger with Johnny Depp must’ve sounded like one of the all-time Hollywood no-brainers when it was pitched to Disney in 2011. After all, the mysterious masked man used to be the all-American icon with the greatest chase-music (“The William Tell Overture”), the greatest sidekick (Tonto), and the greatest catchphrase (“Hi-yo, Silver, away!”). Plus, though Depp is playing a boldly reimagined Tonto opposite Armie Hammer’s Ranger, he was reuniting with producer Jerry Bruckheimer and director Gore Verbinski, the creative triumvirate that made Disney billions with the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. But getting The Lone Ranger into theaters has been a bumpy ride, with an enormous budget that nearly nixed the project before it even hit the trail, subsequent reports of cost-cutting rewrites, and a dangerous horseback accident that nearly mangled Depp himself.
Still, Disney’s saddle pains are nothing compared to the last time Hollywood tried to get the Lone Ranger back on the horse. Older generations will fondly recall actor Clayton Moore dishing out virtuous frontier justice on television in the 1950s, but few remember The Legend of the Lone Ranger, an expensive 1981 misfire that nearly buried the Ranger for good. It was a disaster from beginning to end — the movie’s abrasive producer was so determined to reinvent the franchise that he alienated its core fan base before the first scene was even filmed, the action sequences were so dangerous that a stunt man was nearly killed, and the filmmakers cast a complete unknown whose lack of experience and ultimate inability to sound like the Lone Ranger gave new, ironic meaning to the Hollywood casting concept of “the strong silent type.”
Producers Jack Wrather, Walter Coblenz, and Martin Starger recruited an all-star unit to bring the Lone Ranger back to life more than 30 years ago, including their director, Oscar-nominated cinematographer William Fraker (Rosemary’s Baby), who told his crew he wanted his epic to evoke the look of Lawrence of Arabia. Jason Robards signed up to play President Ulysses Grant, and Christopher Lloyd was the dastardly Butch Cavendish, the disgraced Civil War officer who kidnaps Grant. John Barry (Born Free) composed the rambling score, and a posse of great horsemen provided the old-school Western stunts. All that was left was the selection of their leading man. After witnessing how a little-known actor named Christopher Reeve made Superman fly at the box-office, the producers copied that blue-print and tapped a 30-year-old no-name actor to save the president, kiss the girl (the late Juanin Clay), and ride off on a white horse before the townspeople could thank him. Who was their masked man? His name was Klinton Spilsbury.
Like the character he portrayed, Spilsbury is now something of a mythical figure. Born Glenn Klinton Spilsbury into a large, athletic Mormon family — his father, Max, coached college football — he attended Brigham Young University briefly in the early 1970s before seeking his fortune in Hollywood. His IMDb page lists only one credit – the Lone Ranger – before he totally disappeared from Hollywood as quickly as he emerged. (He may have also appeared in a Lou Grant episode and a 1970s TV movie — he said so while doing press in 1981.) But he was blessed with the chiseled good looks that made important people think he was born to play a Western hero. When Andy Warhol met him in 1980 — during a bizarre encounter that was later detailed in The Andy Warhol Diaries — he compared the strapping young actor’s looks to “a cross between Warren Beatty and Clint Eastwood.”
“I remember the day he walked into my office,” says John Crosby, Spilsbury’s agent at the time. “To this day, I think he is the most striking man that I have ever put my eyes on, and a terrific fella on top of all that. It was like he walked in on a white horse. He was as close as you could come in real life to the Lone Ranger.”
The producers ultimately agreed, giving Spilsbury the life-changing role over more-experienced actors like Stephen Collins (7th Heaven), Nicholas Guest (The Long Riders) and Bruce Boxleitner (Scarecrow and Mrs. King). (Kurt Russell also read a script.) “He looked great in the mask, which seems like an odd thing to say,” says Starger, who had produced Nashville and would go on to produce Sophie’s Choice. “But that was important because we had to find an actor whose eyes were not close together. The mask doesn’t look good if the eyes are too close.”
Not everyone was as enthusiastic. “The famous statement was: ‘He looks great in the mask,’” says casting director Mike Fenton, who thought producers shoved Spilsbury down the throat of an inexperienced director. “Hello? Who cares how he looks in the mask!? You can make somebody into a hero. But you can’t teach him to act.”
David Hayward, who played the corrupt Texas Ranger who betrays his men and leads them into a deadly ambush, read with many of the aspiring Lone Rangers during their auditions, including Spilsbury. “Right away, he wanted the scene shortened because he was having trouble with the lines,” Hayward says. “So that was a problem, but they went by it because he looked exactly like what they were looking for.”
[Note: Spilsbury did not respond to Entertainment Weekly’s multiple attempts to contact him. A member of his family relayed the message that he wasn’t interested in speaking about the making of the movie.]
Spilsbury wasn’t the only inexperienced actor thrust into the spotlight on the project. Michael Horse was a 29-year-old artist and a Native American activist with no Hollywood dreams, and he had mixed feelings about playing Tonto – who’d been egregiously stereotyped in most previous incarnations. “I told them I wasn’t interested,” says Horse, who later appeared in Twin Peaks. “Finally, they told me what they’d pay me… and I went, ‘Ohhhhh, Kemosabe.’”
Meanwhile, Jack Wrather was waging a losing battle on another front. Clayton Moore, who was in his mid-60s, was still appearing at supermarket openings and signing autographs as the Lone Ranger. Moore was even dropping hints that he should play the Lone Ranger in the new movie. Wrather, who’d owned the Lone Ranger character since the early 1950s, sued Moore and won a court order that prevented Moore from wearing the mask in public. But the legal victory backfired, since millions of fans still idolized Moore and couldn’t bear to see the old man bullied by a Hollywood millionaire. When the film crew got to Sante Fe to begin shooting, they quickly found leaflets tucked under their cars’ windshield wipers that read, “Clayton Moore is the REAL Lone Ranger.” Even the cast felt Wrather had gone too far. “I thought that was really kind of nasty and unnecessary,” says Christopher Lloyd, who grew up listening to and loving the radio serial. “Nothing Moore was doing was really interfering with the film. I thought that was kind of terrible.”
The Legend of the Lone Ranger began shooting in April 1980 in Monument Valley, pegged for a Christmas release. The production may have been losing the P.R. war with Moore — who flouted the court ruling by making appearances in black wrap-around sunglasses — and they had an untested leading man, but it’s not like someone had died or something.
Then, during the second week, someone almost died. Terry Leonard, the legendary stunt-man who’d risked life and limb during action sequences in movies like El Dorado and Apocalypse Now, attempted to top the famous Yakima Canutt under-the-horses scene from John Ford’s Stagecoach. Canutt had passed through the gauntlet of hooves quickly in the 1939 movie, so quickly that Leonard thought audiences couldn’t really appreciate the maneuver. He was determined to stay underneath longer so the camera could capture every pounding beat of danger.
“Well, the longer you stay under ‘em, it’s like putting more bullets in the gun when you’re playing Russian roulette,” says Leonard, who’s now 73. “I got underneath there, and I said, ‘What am I doing here?’ I got stepped on and the two-inch thick wheel on the right-side of the coach ran over my leg. I was laying there in the middle of Monument Valley, and I thought I’d cut my legs off. I was scared to look down to see where my legs might have been. Had I come out head first, it would’ve killed me. Going under that coach with six horses is probably one of the wildest things I’ve ever done — and I’ve made a living doing some pretty interesting things.”
Leonard was air-lifted to a hospital and eventually recovered in time to return to the set for more fun. Of course, the nearly fatal scene made the final cut of the film. After all, they only had that one take.
When Spilsbury arrived on set, he began to flex his newfound leading-man power, even if his actual on-camera performance lagged behind. “I’m not sure why, but he came onto the set as if he was playing the role of a movie star,” says Lloyd. “I don’t know whether it was an affectation that he chose to bring with him, or whether he sincerely felt that that’s what was called for. And this was a problem from beginning to end. He did things that simply hindered the production.”
The antics included at least one after-hours brawl, recall multiple members of the cast and crew. “We had problems from Klinton from the very first day of shooting,” says Starger. “He was in trouble, in a fight in a bar. He was just a problem. Some actors are problems. He had a problem. I don’t know what it was.”
The filmmakers tried to help, accommodating Spilsbury’s expensive request to shoot most of the film in-sequence so that he could better convey the emotional arc of the character. “They allowed him to kind of control it,” says Hayward. “I can’t blame him for wanting to at all. For instance, I ended up with maybe close to a month on the movie because he didn’t want to shoot the scene with me in the bar until after the massacre. Because as I remember, he said [he wasn’t] a good enough actor to do that scene without having gone through the [first] scene. So they said okay.”
Whatever concessions Fraker and the producers made, it wasn’t enough to pacify Spilsbury. “He really resented anybody trying to help him,” said Don Safran, the production’s unit publicist. “He didn’t respond to his director very well. He would come to my office all the time, complaining about how Bill Fraker was trying to ruin him as an actor. He said he knew what he wanted to do and they just wouldn’t let him do it. I didn’t want to tell him, ‘Well, Klinton, this is your first time acting. You can’t possibly know what you want to do.’”
“He was really a strong, opinionated young man,” says Crosby. “He’s not a guy you could push around and insist that he do it their way. He was really his own guy, so he listened only to himself.”
In Spilsbury’s defense, Fraker may not have been the most ideal director for him. Given his background as a great cinematographer, Fraker wasn’t exactly an “actors’ director.” “We spent a lot of time with Klint, but it never worked as we had hoped it would,” says Walter Coblenz, whose previous credits included All the President’s Men and The Candidate. “In retrospect, I think he was scared of the whole thing, of this picture sort of resting on his shoulders. He just wasn’t able to compete as an actor with some of the great professionals that we had on the films, such as Christopher Lloyd and Jason Robards. I realize now that he was not ready for that.”
When the producers got their first look at the dailies, they knew there was a problem. Spilsbury looked great, just as they knew he would, but there was simply something… off. “It wasn’t that his voice was high or low or had a strange tenor to it,” says John Bennett Perry, who played the Lone Ranger’s brother, one of the ill-fated Texas Rangers. “I hate saying something like this but he just didn’t sound committed to the material. It just kind of came out the same way all the time. There wasn’t any passion.”
“You just never believed what he was saying because he memorized the lines but he had never internalized them,” says Jim Van Wyck, who was a DGA assistant director trainee on the film. “It was like he was reading the script, but the intonations were wrong.”
The filmmakers decided to plow ahead and make the best of a rapidly deteriorating situation. Spilsbury may not have been Olivier – or even John Wayne – but he looked the part, and perhaps people wouldn’t even notice that his delivery was a little flat. After all, costars Heyward and Lloyd thought his performance was okay enough and weren’t even aware of the production’s growing concerns. Plus, it’s not like the producers could actually fix Spilsbury’s voice at this point.
Or could they? Not long after filming concluded, the producers decided to do just that. In the fall of 1980, Fraker contacted actor James Keach, who’d just played Jesse James in Walter Hill’s The Long Riders, and asked him to loop some of Spilsbury’s lines. “We felt that Klinton’s voice was not strong enough as the Lone Ranger character,” says Coblenz. “And when we started [dubbing] pieces, we realized that we’d be better off doing almost the entire movie.”
“His inflections were a little strange, but I actually didn’t think he was that bad, to be honest with you,” says Keach. “I don’t know why they didn’t have him redo it. But it was a very well-paying job at the time, so I accepted it.”
Since The Legend of the Lone Ranger required additional postproduction work, the release date was bumped from December to the following May, a not altogether unwelcome development because it would debut the new hero during the lucrative Memorial Day weekend. In fact, there was more reason to be optimistic in early 1981 as the difficulties of the production faded from memories. Ronald Reagan had been elected president — a real cowboy in the White House! — and Wrather, who was a close confidante of Reagan’s, arranged for the president to attend the premiere at Washington, D.C.’s Kennedy Center.
Sneak previews only fueled the growing enthusiasm. At one screening in San Diego, people showed up dressed in Lone Ranger masks and Western costumes. During the movie, when the Lone Ranger vows to avenge his brother and the “William Tell Overture” kicks in, the theater erupted. “Sid Sheinberg, [the president of Universal] who was sitting next to me, looked over to me and said, ‘It’s previewing better than Jaws,’” says Coblenz.
But as May approached, whispers began that not only did the new Lone Ranger have a stunt double — like every other Hollywood action star — but that he had a voice double as well. Keach’s voice work was uncredited, and the producers had hoped that audiences wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. But in Hollywood, people knew. “I was at a party and I was introduced to James Keach,” says Hayward. “And he said, ‘I worked with you yesterday.’ And I said, ‘What?’ And he said, ‘I’m dubbing the Lone Ranger. I did your scene yesterday.’ I don’t remember if that’s how I found out, or if that was just confirmation of the rumor.”
“I think most people in Hollywood knew that it happened,” says Keach, “but I didn’t sign a non-disclosure agreement or anything like that.”
The dubbing issue did not explode in the media as it would in today’s Internet age. But Spilsbury had to answer awkward questions about it while promoting the film. (Then, the film’s big unveiling in Washington was diminished because Reagan had to bow out — he’d been shot by John Hinckley weeks earlier and was still recuperating. He sent a taped video greeting instead.)
The movie opened on about 1,000 screens on May 22, and the response was dismal. Critics, who’d been waiting for months to attack Wrather for his treatment of Clayton Moore, pilloried the movie: “The early portion of the movie bids strongly for a niche in the Heaven’s Gate Hall of Fame,” wrote Janet Maslin in the New York Times.
“I went to see it in the theater within a week of it opening, and I remember going to the guy at the box office, ‘How’re ticket sales for the Lone Ranger?’ and he just kind of looked at the floor,” says Hayward. “I went in and there were probably 30 people in the theater.”
The Lone Ranger was clobbered at the box office by Richard Pryor (Bustin’ Loose) and Alan Alda (The Four Seasons) in its opening weekend, and after Raiders of the Lost Ark opened three weeks later, John Williams’ score quickly silenced “William Tell” for the rest of the summer. Ultimately, The Legend of The Lone Ranger earned just $12.6 million. Hollywood shook its head and nearly pulled the plug on the whole Western genre. “When you come back with the Lone Ranger and it doesn’t do well financially, then everybody says, ‘Well, we can’t make Westerns [any more],’” says Leonard. “It put a damper on Westerns.”
There was plenty of blame to go around for the Lone Ranger’s abysmal performance, beginning with the script. “Looking back, I feel that we were trying to please everyone, from 6 to 60,” says Coblenz. “It was too violent for little kids, and not sophisticated enough for an older audience. Maybe we were too intent on staying true to the Lone Ranger story.”
But the media wasn’t going to criticize the writers, or Robards — who mailed in his performance — or the chummy old-hand Bill Fraker — who managed to deliver an epic-looking movie with the help of his cinematographer, the late Laszlo Kovacs (Ghostbusters). Instead, it was the handsome new Lone Ranger who took much of the heat, “winning” two Razzies for Worst Actor and Worst New Star. Practically overnight, Spilsbury went from being a promising newcomer to an easy punchline. And just like that, he was gone, never to act in Hollywood again.
“Seldom has Hollywood built someone up and then thrown him aside more quickly than Klinton Spilsbury,” says Stephen Collins, who never met Spilsbury but watched from a distance as the debacle he narrowly avoided unfolded. “This is a tough town, but he got a kind of instant dose of just how cruel it can be. Must’ve been incredibly difficult. If I’d been in his shoes, I might’ve stopped acting, too.”
Years later, Keach recalls bumping into Spilsbury at a party. “I think I said that I felt bad,” says Keach. “I told him that [the producers] were going to do it anyway, but I felt really bad to do it. I never wanted to embarrass the guy. Jeez, you get your big break in Hollywood: ‘Hey Mom, I’m the Lone Ranger!’ [And she says] ‘But that’s not your voice.’ It must have been horrible.”
Though Spilsbury didn’t make a lot of lifelong friends during the making of the Lone Ranger, several of his costars empathized with his plight and some had fond memories of his kindness. “I remember when I left, I tried to get my hat from wardrobe, and they said, ‘No, it’s from American Costumes. You can’t have it,’” says Hayward. “I said, ‘Can I buy it?’ They said, ‘No.’ So Klinton sent it to me. I still have the hat. It’s hanging in my house.”
Fraker, who died in 2010, would never direct another feature, but he went on to earn two more Oscar nominations for lensing WarGames and Murphy’s Romance. Lloyd, who was then in the midst of his run as Reverend Jim Ignatowski on Taxi, returned to his popular TV show and was just a few years away from Back to the Future. Even Michael Horse emerged relatively unscathed. “It started a whole career for me,” he says. “People like Dennis Banks and Russell Means of the American Indian Movement came up and said, ‘You did a wonderful job. You didn’t embarrass us.’ And they knew that I didn’t have to be stuck in [the role of Tonto]. If that had been a big hit, I don’t know what that would’ve done for me. I don’t really care to be a movie star. I just wanted to be a working character actor. So I was actually kind of relieved.”
Just months after his gruesome injury on Lone Ranger, Terry Leonard set off for North Africa to double for Harrison Ford in Raiders of the Lost Ark, lowering himself under a Nazi truck and getting dragged behind it – a modern version of the Stagecoach-inspired stunt that had nearly killed him. “I’m still getting interviews about that one 33 years later,” he says. “People remember that [stunt] and they don’t remember the Lone Ranger.”
Spilsbury, however, was never really heard from again. Except for a brief interview he gave the Los Angeles Times in 1989 when he was flirting with a comeback, he’s avoided the media and has never publicly revisited his brief encounter with fame — and infamy. In the void, the Internet has filled in the gaps with unconfirmed sightings and scenarios, making him a curiosity and a cautionary tale. In John Crosby’s talent-agency office hangs a poster from The Legend of the Lone Ranger that depicts his former client wearing the mask and holding a silver bullet. “I have that poster framed in my office to remind me and every actor that walks in the door… that they can be recast,” says Crosby.