On this day, 3 April, in 1904, actor and stunt artist Iron Eyes Cody was born. I picked him for two reasons.
Iron Eyes Cody made a career out of playing Indians. But he was Italian. I’m sure you’ve heard how Hollywood used Italians to play Indians in their films for decades. Well, Cody was one of the better-known actors who did this.
I don’t blame him. Everybody’s got to eat. What’s more, his work wasn’t just a reflection of prejudice against Native Americans; it also reflected prejudice against Italians.
But I wouldn’t say that the casting of Italians to play Indians was racist. Rather, it reflected the systemic racism of the country. For example, most Americans take a while to warm up to Japanese films because “everyone looks the same.” That’s just a function of unfamiliarity with Japanese faces.
In America of that time (and let’s face it: mostly today as well) so few faces of non-northern Europeans were seen that pretty much anyone with darker skin could “pass” for any ancestry. And if they weren’t dark enough, well, there was make-up for that. Just look at Sam Jaffe in Gunga Din.
Iron Eyes Cody is most remembered not for his films but for a PSA about pollution. It features a stereotypical Hollywood Indian (appropriately played by an Italian) crying. But it is absurd because ultimately, it comes off more like an anti-litter PSA when it ends with people throwing garbage out a car that lands at the Indian’s feet.
Iron Eyes Cody was also a stunt artist. I don’t know how many films he was in because then stunt work was largely not recognized in Hollywood. It was treated as a kind of dirty secret. We don’t want people to know that their favorite stars are a bunch of wimps made to look heroic through movie magic.
But here’s the thing: the same could be said of special effects artists. Naomi Watts and Adrien Brody aren’t really acting atop the Empire State Building in King Kong. Yet no one tries to hide the names of all the techs that made them look heroic when they were really just acting.
I think this is a class thing. People who work in stunts tend to have less social standing than people who work on special effects. So the Oscars have no stunt category. But it isn’t because anyone thinks people don’t know about stunt work. It’s simply that those in power don’t think people who do stunt work deserve the credit.
It won’t surprise me if they start giving out Academy Awards for catering before they do stunts.
Iron Eyes Cody stopped working in 1987. He died of mesothelioma in 1999 at the age of 94.
I can’t leave today without mentioning that Dooley Wilson (Casablanca) was born in 1886, Doris Day (Pillow Talk) was born in 1922, Marlon Brando (One-Eyed Jacks) was born in 1924, and the great comedic director Jonathan Lynn (The Whole Nine Yards) is 77.
Iron Eyes Cody and Roy Rogers via Republic Pictures in the Public Domain.