Klinton Spilsbury came from Mormon settlers in Mexico and spent much of his childhood in Arizona, before his family moved back to Mexico, settling in Colonia Juárez. He briefly attended Brigham Young University before trying to break into Hollywood as Max Keller.
Once he took on the name Klinton Spilsbury — he was born Glenn Klinton Spilsbury — and he was picked for the major role of the Lone Ranger in a time when superhero and movies of past culture seemed like sure bets. To get there, they often erased the past when now the stars we love at least get cameos.
For example, Clayton Moore, star of the popular 1950s Lone Ranger TV series, was a beloved pop culture icon who had been allowed to wear a mask for personal appearances. Jack Wrather, who owned the Lone Ranger character, obtained a court order prohibiting the 65-year-old actor from making future appearances as the Lone Ranger, as believed Moore’s public appearances in character would undercut the value of the movie.
Moore often was quoted as saying he had “fallen in love with the Lone Ranger character” and strove in his personal life to take the Lone Ranger Creed to heart. Which is:
- That to have a friend, a man must be one.
- That all men are created equal and that everyone has within himself the power to make this a better world.
- That God put the firewood there but that every man must gather and light it himself.
- In being prepared physically, mentally, and morally to fight when necessary for that which is right.
- That a man should make the most of what equipment he has.
- That “This government, of the people, by the people and for the people” shall live always.
- That men should live by the rule of what is best for the greatest number.
- That sooner or later…somewhere…somehow…we must settle with the world and make payment for what we have taken.
- That all things change but truth, and that truth alone, lives on forever.
- In my Creator, my country, my fellow man.
Moore was so identified with the role he played that he is the only person on the Hollywood Walk of Fame to have his character’s name along with his on the star.
Wrather’s lawsuit wasn’t just bad PR. It killed this movie.
Moore responded by filing a countersuit and then slightly changed his costume, replacing the domino mask with a pair of Foster Grant wraparound sunglasses as part of that company’s “Who’s that behind those Foster Grants?” ad campaign.
Christopher Lloyd, whose role of Butch Cavendish is one of the few bright spots in this movie, said: “I thought that was really kind of nasty and unnecessary. Nothing Moore was doing was really interfering with the film. I thought that was kind of terrible.”
Meanwhile, Andy Warhol interviewed Spilsbury during the promotion for the movie, during which the actor went off the rails claiming that before making the movie, he had been an art student married to a rich woman and that they had a baby together. He went on to state she had left him because he needed too much time with his own thoughts, as well as the fact that he had fallen in love with actors Dennis Christopher and Bud Cort. Warhol described Spilsbury as “very drunk” and that post-interview, “he’d been picked up by Halston and woke up in bed with Halston.”
Spilsbury demanded script changes as he had trouble delivering his lines, which ended up being dubbed by James Keach. He also demanded that this movie be shot in sequential order so that he could better portray his character’s dramatic arc.
He hasn’t acted in a movie since.
Speaking of Butch, the movie begins with his gang of outlaws are chasing two young boys, one a Comanche and another white, who narrowly miss their villages being attacked. The Comanche grows up to be Tonto (Michael Horse, Deputy Tommy “Hawk” Hill from Twin Peaks) and the white boy is, of course, John Reid (Spilsbury). Later, the same gang kills several Texas rangers, which include Ranger Captain Dan Reid (Matt Perry’s dad John Bennett Perry) before Tonto again saves him. Cavendish then abducts President Ulysses S. Grant(Jason Robards) and tries to start his own country.
With Richard Farnsworth as Wild Bill Hickok, Ted Flicker as Buffalo Bill Cody, Lincoln Tate as General Custer and an appearance by Billy Jack himself, Tom Laughlin, this movie was trying to get audiences to care about westerns in 1981.
As for Grade, this was just one of his many film failures, including Saturn 3 and Raise the Titanic.
Two of the movie’s four screenwriters, Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts, had previously created the hit TV series Charlie’s Angels. That didn’t help the film, nor did the direction by William Fraker, who was the cinematographer on two other huge bombs that I love, 1941 and Exorcist II: The Heretic.
Nor does Merle Haggard’s Dukes of Hazzard-style narration.
In his 1992 autobiography Still Dancing: My Story, Grade said he thought that the problem was that it took an hour and ten minutes before the Ranger first pulled on his mask.
There were a ton of problems beyond that.
That said, the movie gave us a great toy line by Gabriel and a newspaper strip that had gorgeous Russ Heath art. I was so excited for this movie as a nine-year-old geek and I remember asking my dad, “Why is this so boring?”
PS: Gavan O’Herlihy auditioned and almost got the role of the Lone Ranger. Although he lost out to Klinton Spilsbury, O’Herlihy made a great impression on director William Fraker and the two remained good friends. When O’Herlihy was cast in Death Wish 3, he had his character renamed after Fraker.
You can watch this on Tubi.