BY GENE TRIPLETT
Armie Hammer is only the latest in a long line of actors to don the mask of the Lone Ranger.
Beginning in 1933, the original radio program featured as many as seven different performers in the role during a run that lasted until 1954. A forgettable guy namedKlinton Spilsbury took a shot at the character on the big screen in 1981 that was a disastrous misfire.
But the one man most identified as the rider of the majestic white steed named Silver was Clayton Moore, who played him on television from Sept. 15, 1949, to the final first-run episode on Sept. 12, 1957 (with the exception of two seasons, when John Hart wore the mask). Millions of kids and adults alike were drawn to the “resourceful masked rider of the plains” and his adventures with his faithful Indian companion Tonto (played to poker-faced perfection by Jay Silverheels), making “The Lone Ranger” by far the biggest hit series on ABC Television in the network’s early years.
And fans who’ve got the silver can own the entire series in the special “The Lone Ranger: Collector’s Edition” for $199.99. This massive set features all five complete seasons (221 episodes on 30 DVDs) in a box resembling a coffee-table book. Bonus content includes two full-length features starring Moore and Silverheels — “The Lone Ranger” (1956) and “The Lone Ranger and the Lost City of Gold” (1958) — a complete episode guide containing a synopsis for all 221 episodes (including the 1952-54 seasons that starred Hart as the Masked Man), an original “Lone Ranger” radio broadcast from 1950, and a rare comic book and photo reprint, in addition to other silver-bullet treasures.
For those who don’t own a silver mine like the Ranger did, there are three affordable “singles” DVD sets: “The Lone Ranger: Hi-Yo Silver, Away!,” “The Lone Ranger: Kemo Sabe,” and “The Lone Ranger: Who Was That Masked Man?”
To promote the sets, DreamWorks Classics arranged an interview with Lone Ranger historian Joe Southern of Rosenberg, Texas, who owns and operates lonerangerfanclub.com.
Q: Who actually created the Lone Ranger? Was it Detroit radio station owner George W. Trendle or the radio show’s writer Fran Striker? There seems to be debate over that.
A: It was actually kind of a committee involvement there. Trendle was the one who wanted to create a new radio program for his struggling stations and he came up with the idea of some kind of a lone rider, which he passed on to Striker, and Striker began to flesh it out.
His first version resembled nothing that we know today. It was very bloody and very brutal. Trendle said no to that one right away and said he wanted it to be a wholesome children’s program … James Jewell, who was the producer of the program began to offer input. So the three of them probably came up with 95 percent of the character as we know it today.
Q: Was there any real person or other fictional character that was part of the inspiration for what became the Masked Man that we now know?
A: I’d say the two characters most often pointed to would be Robin Hood and Zorro. Not so much from the “robs from the rich to give to the poor,” but the stand-up for justice. Defending those that can’t defend themselves.
Q: In the third season of the TV series (1952), John Hart took over the role from Clayton Moore … Later, Moore came back for the remainder of the series (1954-1957). What was going on there?
A: From talking to John Hart and listening to a recorded radio interview (with Moore) from the ’70s, it’s very clear that it was over money. Moore’s admitted it himself. He wanted more money and Trendle was too cheap to give it. Trendle thought he could easily replace him, because who’s going to recognize the face behind the mask?
It didn’t take him long to realize that John Hart wasn’t Clayton Moore, and if he wanted the series to continue he needed to bring Moore back.
Q: Were Moore and Jay Silverheels (Tonto) pretty good buddies off-camera?
A: Yeah, they remained very close friends up until Silverheels passed away (in 1980).
Q: I know that they both continued to do personal appearances as the Lone Ranger and Tonto for years after the series ended. Did they do these together or separately?
A: They did a few things together, especially like television commercials. I know they did a few limited appearances, but not so much. Jay was interested in moving on and doing his own thing. And Clay’s the one who really embodies the Lone Ranger and took it on and made it his own.
Q: He was pretty serious about that persona, wasn’t he? The image of the Lone Ranger?
A: Very serious. In his mind and the minds of millions of fans, the two are one.
Q: What did the silver bullet signify?
A: The silver bullet was to signify the value of life. Because silver is precious, so is life. And it was always to remind the Lone Ranger not to shoot too hastily, but to consider each shot and not to kill.
Q: Do you think this latest big-screen treatment of the Lone Ranger will take great liberties with the character and his story, maybe to the dismay of Lone Ranger purists?
A: I think that’s a yes and no. I’ve already read the novelization of the movie and yes, it takes great liberties from the story as we know it, but you still have the core items there. There’s still the attack in Bryant’s Gap. Tonto still finds Reid alive (referring to Texas Ranger John Reid, who becomes the Lone Ranger). Of course there’s the black mask, the white hat, Silver the white horse, all of those important elements are still there. Of course it has much, much more action than you’ve ever seen in a “Lone Ranger” before.