Clayton Moore Jaye Silverheels

The Masked Man

Dec. 17 update: My friend Walt Powell sent me this treasure: an autographed photo of the Lone Ranger pitching Amoco gasoline in the late 1960s. Note gas pump nozzle in his holster! That day at the Dodge dealership, I did not think to get the Lone Ranger’s autograph; thanks to Walt’s generosity, now it’s as if I did. Thank you, Walt. Hats off–white hats, that is–to Clayton Moore, the Lone Ranger, for remaining relevant during the most turbulent period in American history.

The time I met the Lone Ranger in person, it struck me all at once that he was in color! He wore a powder-blue shirt and matching pants, with a red kerchief around his neck. I was maybe 10 or 11 and Clayton Moore was appearing for Dodge at a dealership only 10 miles from my house, and so my dad took me to meet him. It remains a vivid memory for several reasons, first and foremost because at that time we didn’t have a color TV and so I had only ever seen The Lone Ranger TV show in black and white. But man, oh man, seeing him in color—wow!

The Lone Ranger and Tonto as I was used to seeing them, in black and white.

Now, if you recall (that is, if you’re ancient enough to recall) a Lone Ranger feature film was released in 1981, and at that time they forbad Clayton Moore from appearing as the Lone Ranger for copyright reasons, but his promotional work for Dodge preceded that controversy, and he looked just about exactly like the hero from television. There he was in the mask, white hat, and blue outfit, with two gleaming chrome-plated Colt .45s.

It astonished me that my dad could stand there and chat with the Lone Ranger as if the Lone Ranger was just a person and not a legendary hero of the Old West. And that Saturday, late in the morning, for whatever reason, there was nobody there to see the Lone Ranger but my dad and me, so there was my father engaged in this serious conversation with the masked man who had bested Butch Cavendish and his gang and so many other villains, which increased my admiration for my dad by, like, 5 billion percent.

Among the things your future Hollywood historian did not ask Clayton Moore, aka the Lone Ranger, while in his presence: What are your best stories from Warner Bros., where you had bit parts in five pictures in 1938? How did you make the transition from WB to MGM, where you worked in a half-dozen pictures in the golden year of 1939? Talk about your rapid rise to become a king of serials at Republic in The Perils of Nyoka, The Crimson Ghost, The Ghost of Zorro, and many others. In the contract dispute when you walked off The Lone Ranger series for a year, did you fear you’d never wear the mask again? What were the differences working on the weekly TV series from 1949-57 vs. the splashy Lone Ranger Warner Bros. feature films of 1956 and 1958? Noooo, none of that. As an idiot pre-teen, I didn’t dare squeak more than “Hi” when my dad introduced me to the Lone Ranger.

The Lone Ranger in color, as I saw him that day.

One of the upper cable channels is back to showing The Lone Ranger and I’ve been DVRing them. The last season was in color, and I’ve been admiring the pretty-good stories and the abundant action. By that last season, they had polished the production to high gloss and Clayton Moore had matured as an actor. In retrospect, however, he was no match for Jay Silverheels as Tonto, a god of a human generations ahead of his time—brave, wise, loyal, and able to match the Lone Ranger’s heroics move for move, punch for punch, and shot for shot. How many times did Tonto save his white friend’s bacon…a hundred maybe over the course of the series. The presentation of Tonto as a hero whose indigenous roots gave him an advantage over friend and foe alike stands out to me today as astonishing and progressive.

My father died in 1982 and Clayton Moore 17 years later. The Dodge dealership where I met him was razed decades ago and I couldn’t even find a photo of the place to post here. And the silver bullet given to me by the Lone Ranger that day, which was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen, has likewise been lost to antiquity. All I have is the memory of a Saturday when two heroes met and stood toe to toe, the Lone Ranger and my dad.