For the week of January 27, 1999   thru February 2, 1999  

A tear for Iron Eyes Cody

Commentary by PAT MURPHY


Mention the name Iron Eyes Cody and the inevitable question is, "Who?"

If the name draws a blank, his character won’t-- at least not among those who remember the start in the 1970s of the movement to rattle people about environmental abuses.

Iron Eyes Cody was "the crying Indian" in TV spots for Keep America Beautiful – a tall, sad-faced Native American with black pigtails, viewing the landscape from a horse or canoe, then, as the camera moved in for a tight facial shot, wept a single tear.

In those days, Iron Eyes was the most compelling, widely known influence in awakening Americans to abuse of the environment. In the TV spots, he never spoke a word, only looked forlornly at the landscape, then wept that single tear.

It was the environmental movement’s most powerful message.

Iron Eyes Cody died a few weeks ago, probably in his 80s or 90s, a veteran of 80 movies, always in non-starring roles.

And this was a peculiarity of his fame. Beginning as an extra in a 1919 silent film, "Back to God’s Country," Iron Eyes was always an obscure Indian actor, usually listed as "Indian."

But he finally became a national celebrity as a mystical watchdog of the environment, not as an actor in shoot-‘em-up cowboy-and-Injun movies.

As such, he did more late in life for the environment than anyone.

After meeting Iron Eyes in Phoenix at the height of his popularity at one of the appearances he made as a spokesman for Keep American Beautiful, he agreed to meet for an interview at his home in the hills outside Los Angeles.

From the moment he greeted me at the front door, the experience was a letdown. I’d forgotten Iron Eyes was an actor at heart, not merely a passionate champion of the environment.

Iron Eyes’ home was small, probably built in the late 1920s or 1930s, now a fading relic of Hollywood’s halcyon glamour days. He trotted out stacks of old scrapbooks with yellowing clippings and autographed photos of filmdom greats, near-greats and never-greats.

Talk was about movies, the old days, stars he’d known and with whom he’d worked.

Instead of the serene, speechless Indian of TV spots, the Iron Eyes I saw that day was garrulous, hyper, eager to boast about Hollywood of the past.

The telephone rang. Iron Eyes engaged in animated conversation. When it ended, he said it was so-and-so, one of the biggest male names in Hollywood. One of his close friends, he said.

I doubted it. The call seemed staged for my benefit.

Even his jet-black hair and pigtails had the appearance of a theatrical hairpiece.

When we finally got around to talking about the TV spots, he found it amusing that paddling an Indian canoe was strange for him an Indian. But a walkie-talkie was hidden inside the canoe to give him instructions as the camera rolled.

Departing was a relief.

I wanted to remember Iron Eyes the "crying Indian" who did so much to awaken Americans about their environment, not the aging actor in his twilight years in a musty old home among scrapbooks and fading theatrical photos, trying to re-live a vanished past of silent screen glitter so reminiscent of Gloria Swanson’s world in "Sunset Boulevard."

Murphy is the retired publisher of the Arizona Republic and a former radio commentator.

 

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