For nearly a century, going back at least to Tom Mix in 1909, Oklahoma has played major roles in movies, providing stars, locations for movies and dramatic scenes of Oklahoma history.
The “Oklahoma @ the Movies” exhibit at the Oklahoma History Museum in Oklahoma City provides spectacular examples of these historical accomplishments. The exhibit also provides the potential for more presentations of Oklahomans in movies through the Oklahoma Historical Society’s proposed Oklahoma Museum of Popular Culture, or OKPOP, in Tulsa.
“Oklahomans in the movies can often serve as windows to state and local history,” said Bob Blackburn, executive director of the historical society.
“They not only portray characters and scenes from history, but their lives off the screen allow us to trace their stories back to roots in Oklahoma families and communities.”
Visitors can enjoy other Oklahoma museum movie projects at the Tom Mix Museum in Dewey, the Will Rogers Memorial Museum in Claremore, the Cherokee Strip Regional Heritage Center in Enid, the Chickasaw Cultural Center in Sulphur and the Chisholm Trail Heritage Center in Duncan.
Spectacular examples of these “windows to state and local history” at the History Center include exhibits on Ben Johnson Jr., born on a ranch in Osage County; Clarence Nash, of Watonga, and Wes Studi, born near Tahlequah in Cherokee County.
“Like Will Rogers, who was born near Oologah and starred in more than 70 films, Johnson was born on a ranch and grew up in the company of cowboys, including his father,” said Larry O’Dell of the historical society staff. “He worked as a ranch hand and rodeo performer. He entered motion pictures as a horse wrangler and later as a stuntman.
“In 1948, he became a member of the stock company of famed Western movie director John Ford after doubling star Henry Fonda in ‘Fort Apache.’ Johnson went on to act in such Ford classics as ‘She Wore a Yellow Ribbon’ (1949) and ‘Rio Grande’ (1950). In 1971, he won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role in ‘The Last Picture Show.’”
Nash was one of many Oklahomans who contributed to the legacy of Walt Disney cartoons, O’Dell said. Nash voiced Donald Duck from the character’s inception in 1934 until Nash’s death in 1985. Raised on a farm in Blaine County, Nash imitated farm animals as a boy, honing his skills for his future profession.
Studi did not learn English until he was enrolled at the Chilocco Indian Agricultural School in Tahlequah, O’Dell said. Studi was drafted into the U.S. Army and served in the Mekong Delta during the Vietnam War. He returned to attend Tulsa Community College and became active in the American Indian movement.
“He began acting and writing for the American Indian Theatre Company in Tulsa,” O’Dell said. “His first film role came in ‘Pow Wow Highway’ (1989), a Native American road movie that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. Studi gained his first major film role in the Oscar-winning ‘Dances With Wolves.’
“Many more would follow, including ‘The Last of the Mohicans’ (1992), a starring role in ‘Geronimo: An American Legend’ and a non-Native role in Michael Mann’s drama ‘Heat’ (1995). While he has appeared in numerous period Westerns for television, Studi’s film roles in Terrence Malick’s ‘The New World’ and James Cameron’s ‘Avatar’ have made him one of the most recognized Native American actors of his generation.”
Tom Mix was born Jan. 6, 1880, in Mix Run, Pa., and originally was named Thomas Hezikiah Mix. He enlisted in the Army as Thomas E. Mix in 1898. He moved to Guthrie in Oklahoma Territory and then to Zack Miller’s 101 Ranch, where he worked as a bartender and a ranch hand. For a short time in 1911, he served as a marshal in Dewey.
“In 1914, the Selig Polyscope Company filmed ‘In the Days of the Thundering Herd’ on location at the Pawnee Bill Ranch in Pawnee,” said Erin Brown, Oklahoma Historical Society curator for the Pawnee Bill Ranch. Mix starred as the hero in the film, which included Gordon William Lillie, also known as Pawnee Bill.
“All these actors and films show just part of the remarkably broad roles that Oklahoma and Oklahomans can have played in movies,” Blackburn said, “and visitors can now enjoy learning about the places that shaped these people and movies in a variety of Oklahoma museums.”