CLOSE
Original image

Native or Not? The True Stories behind 5 "American Indian" Actors

Original image

Over the years, plenty of Hollywood stars have fudged their resumes and claimed to be American Indians. Today, Kara Kovalchik is shaking the roots of those family trees to see just how authentic those claims really are.

1. Is Cher short for Cherokee?

Prior to 1973, Cher's biography always listed her father (John Sarkisian) as being of Armenian heritage, while her mother, Georgia Holt, was of Irish and German extraction. But when Cher's single "Half Breed" started climbing the Billboard charts (it would eventually hit number one), suddenly she remembered that she was 1/16th Cherokee on her mother's side. That biographical revision probably helped stem protests from the Native community when Cher performed her hit in a full feathered headdress on an episode of The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour. (Watching this clip now, Cher's costume seems pretty tame, but back in 1973 I clearly remember my dad's and brothers' tongues rolling out of their mouths like unfolding red carpets when she rode out on that horse.)

2. The Truth about Tonto

Picture 121.pngJay Silverheels, the actor that will best be remembered as the Lone Ranger's sidekick, Tonto, was born Harold Jay Smith on the Six Nations Indian Reserve in Ontario, Canada. Despite his rather generic birth name, Smith was a full-blooded Mohawk. A talented athlete, Smith excelled at boxing and lacrosse. In fact, he was playing in a lacrosse tournament when actor/comedian Joe E. Brown spotted him. Brown thought the handsome young Smith might have a future in movies. As it turned out, Silverheels (the name Smith legally changed to in 1971) made his fortune in television where, besides his long-running gig with Clayton Moore, he also appeared in several lucrative commercials. Silverheels once joked to Johnny Carson that he'd married an Italian to "get back at Christopher Columbus."

3. The Boy who Cried Pollution

If you children of the '80s and '90s have ever wondered what all this "give a hoot, don't pollute" hoo-rah was about, you have Iron Eyes Cody to thank. From the late 1960s until the early 1980s, litter was a major cause of roadside, park and beach pollution in America. Discarded beer and soda cans, as well as paper bags with left-over fast food debris, were a blight on the American landscape. Thanks to a tearful Indian, however, all of that slowly changed. The Iron Eyes Cody public service announcement used Cody's careworn face to reflect the disappointment of the people who'd founded this land. Not long after, various laws were put into place that significantly reduced roadside litter. Here's the kicker though: Even though the pollution problem was very real at the time, the Native American in the commercial was not; Iron Eyes Cody was actually Espera de Corti, the son of Sicilian immigrants.

4. Emergency! Ethics

Picture 131.pngThe dark-haired paramedic of Emergency! fame doesn't talk too much about his Native American heritage. Mantooth's father was a full-blooded Seminole, and his mother was of German extraction. Randy once told an interviewer, "my mother was German, but no one seems to think that that's remarkable. They always jump on the "˜Indian thing.'" Likewise, Mantooth routinely refuses to play Native American roles, saying he doesn't want to take the part away from a full-blooded actor who deserves it more. What he is proud of, however, is the impact Emergency! had on viewers, and its lasting popularity. He is closely involved with "Project 51," a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting public awareness of emergency medical services in North America.

5. Indian Wrestling

Picture 141.pngChief Jay Strongbow was a well-known fixture in the professional wrestling arena for over 30 years. Standing a little over six feet tall and weighing 260 lbs., his dreaded Tomahawk Chop was a move to be feared, as was his Indian Deathlock.  When the Chief started his trademark War Dance, fans knew the end of the match was near "“ no one could stop Strongbow once he was in the midst of his "ancient tribal dance." However, like much of professional wrestling, the Chief's character was nothing more than a façade. Just like Iron Eyes Cody, Strongbow was actually an Italian-American named Joe Scarpa who'd started out wrestling under his own name with limited success. It was only was he donned his Native American shtick that his career took off.

Original image
John Gooch/Keystone/Getty Images
arrow
entertainment
The Time Douglas Adams Met Jim Henson
Original image
John Gooch/Keystone/Getty Images

On September 13, 1983, Jim Henson and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy author Douglas Adams had dinner for the first time. Henson, who was born on this day in 1936, noted the event in his "Red Book" journal, in characteristic short-form style: "Dinner with Douglas Adams – 1st met." Over the next few years the men discussed how they might work together—they shared interests in technology, entertainment, and education, and ended up collaborating on several projects (including a Labyrinth video game). They also came up with the idea for a "Muppet Institute of Technology" project, a computer literacy TV special that was never produced. Henson historians described the project as follows:

Adams had been working with the Henson team that year on the Muppet Institute of Technology project. Collaborating with Digital Productions (the computer animation people), Chris Cerf, Jon Stone, Joe Bailey, Mark Salzman and Douglas Adams, Jim’s goal was to raise awareness about the potential for personal computer use and dispel fears about their complexity. In a one-hour television special, the familiar Muppets would (according to the pitch material), “spark the public’s interest in computing,” in an entertaining fashion, highlighting all sorts of hardware and software being used in special effects, digital animation, and robotics. Viewers would get a tour of the fictional institute – a series of computer-generated rooms manipulated by the dean, Dr. Bunsen Honeydew, and stumble on various characters taking advantage of computers’ capabilities. Fozzie, for example, would be hard at work in the “Department of Artificial Stupidity,” proving that computers are only as funny as the bears that program them. Hinting at what would come in The Jim Henson Hour, viewers, “…might even see Jim Henson himself using an input device called a ‘Waldo’ to manipulate a digitally-controlled puppet.”

While the show was never produced, the development process gave Jim and Douglas Adams a chance to get to know each other and explore a shared passion. It seems fitting that when production started on the 2005 film of Adams’s classic Hitchhiker’s Guide, Jim Henson’s Creature Shop would create animatronic creatures like the slovenly Vogons, the Babel Fish, and Marvin the robot, perhaps a relative of the robot designed by Michael Frith for the MIT project.

You can read a bit on the project more from Muppet Wiki, largely based on the same article.

Original image
Getty Images
arrow
entertainment
40 Fun Facts About Sesame Street
Original image
Getty Images

Now in its 47th season, Sesame Street is one of television's most iconic programs—and it's not just for kids. We're big fans of the Street, and to prove it, here are some of our favorite Sesame facts from previous stories and our Amazing Fact Generator.

Sesame Workshop

1. Oscar the Grouch used to be orange. Jim Henson decided to make him green before season two.

2. How did Oscar explain the color change? He said he went on vacation to the very damp Swamp Mushy Muddy and turned green overnight.

3. During a 2004 episode, Cookie Monster said that before he started eating cookies, his name was Sid.

4. In 1980, C-3PO and R2-D2 visited Sesame Street. They played games, sang songs, and R2-D2 fell in love with a fire hydrant.

5. Mr. Snuffleupagus has a first name—Aloysius

6. Ralph Nader stopped by in 1988 and sang "a consumer advocate is a person in your neighborhood."

7. Caroll Spinney said he based Oscar's voice on a cab driver from the Bronx who brought him to the audition.

8. In 1970, Ernie reached #16 on the Billboard Hot 100 with the timeless hit "Rubber Duckie."

9. One of Count von Count's lady friends is Countess von Backwards, who's also obsessed with counting but likes to do it backwards.

10. Sesame Street made its Afghanistan debut in 2011 with Baghch-e-Simsim (Sesame Garden). Big Bird, Grover and Elmo are involved.

11. According to Muppet Wiki, Oscar the Grouch and Count von Count were minimized on Baghch-e-Simsim "due to cultural taboos against trash and vampirism."

12. Before Giancarlo Esposito was Breaking Bad's super intense Gus Fring, he played Big Bird's camp counselor Mickey in 1982.

13. Thankfully, those episodes are available on YouTube.

14. How big is Big Bird? 8'2". (Pictured with First Lady Pat Nixon.)

15. In 2002, the South African version (Takalani Sesame) added an HIV-positive Muppet named Kami.

16. Six Republicans on the House Commerce Committee wrote a letter to PBS president Pat Mitchell warning that Kami was not appropriate for American children, and reminded Mitchell that their committee controlled PBS' funding.

17. Sesame Street's resident game show host Guy Smiley was using a pseudonym. His real name was Bernie Liederkrantz.

18. Bert and Ernie have been getting questioned about their sexuality for years. Ernie himself, as performed by Steve Whitmere, has weighed in: “All that stuff about me and Bert? It’s not true. We’re both very happy, but we’re not gay,”

19. A few years later, Bert (as performed by Eric Jacobson) answered the same question by saying, “No, no. In fact, sometimes we are not even friends; he can be a pain in the neck.”

20. In the first season, both Superman and Batman appeared in short cartoons produced by Filmation. In one clip, Batman told Bert and Ernie to stop arguing and take turns choosing what’s on TV.

21. In another segment, Superman battled a giant chimp.

22. Telly was originally "Television Monster," a TV-obsessed Muppet whose eyes whirled around as he watched.

23. According to Sesame Workshop, Elmo is the only non-human to testify before Congress.

24. He lobbied for more funding for music education, so that "when Elmo goes to school, there will be the instruments to play."

25. In the early 1990s, soon after Jim Henson’s passing, a rumor circulated that Ernie would be killed off in order to teach children about death, as they'd done with Mr. Hooper.

26. According to Snopes, the rumor may have spread thanks to New Hampshire college student, Michael Tabor, who convinced his graduating class to wear “Save Ernie” beanies and sign a petition to persuade Sesame Workshop to let Ernie live.

27. By the time Tabor was corrected, the newspapers had already picked up the story.

28. Sesame Street’s Executive Producer Carol-Lynn Parente joined Sesame Workshop as a production assistant and has worked her way to the top.

29. Originally, Count von Count was more sinister. He could hypnotize and stun people.

30. According to Sesame Workshop, all Sesame Street's main Muppets have four fingers except Cookie Monster, who has five.

31. The episode with Mr. Hooper's funeral aired on Thanksgiving Day in 1983. That date was chosen because families were more likely to be together at that time, in case kids had questions or needed emotional support.

32. Mr. Hooper’s first name was Harold.

33. Big Bird sang "Bein' Green" at Jim Henson's memorial service.

34. As Chris Higgins put it, the performance was "devastating."

35. Oscar's Israeli counterpart is Moishe Oofnik, whose last name means “grouch” in Hebrew.

36. Nigeria's version of Cookie Monster eats yams. His catchphrase: "ME WANT YAM!"

37. Sesame's Roosevelt Franklin ran a school, where he spoke in scat and taught about Africa. Some parents hated him, so in 1975 he got the boot, only to inspire Gob Bluth’s racist puppet Franklin on Arrested Development 28 years later.

38. Our good friend and contributor Eddie Deezen was the voice of Donnie Dodo in the 1985 classic Follow That Bird.

39. Cookie Monster evolved from The Wheel-Stealer—a snack-pilfering puppet Jim Henson created to promote Wheels, Crowns and Flutes in the 1960s.

40. This puppet later was seen eating a computer in an IBM training film and on The Ed Sullivan Show.

Thanks to Stacy Conradt, Joe Hennes, Drew Toal, and Chris Higgins for their previous Sesame coverage!

An earlier version of this article appeared in 2012.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios