Thursday, October 02, 2008

The Lone Ranger gets a new faithful ‘Indian’ sidekick

Johnny Depp is a busy man.

Last week, Depp announced he has signed deals to reprise the role of Capt. Jack Sparrow in a fourth “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie and play the Mad Hatter in Tim Burton’s new version of “Alice in Wonderland.”

Unlike the latter tale’s Queen of Hearts, I have a difficult time believing six impossible things before breakfast. Actually, I have a hard time believing six impossible things before lunch. So, when I read about a third role Depp is undertaking, I didn’t believe it. Not at first, anyway. I checked with at least a half dozen sources before it finally sank in.

Depp has also agreed to portray Tonto, the Lone Ranger’s “faithful Indian sidekick,” in a new version of “The Lone Ranger” to be produced by “Pirates” producer Jerry Bruckheimer.

Just repeat it to yourself: “Johnny Depp is Tonto.”

All three films are Disney projects, and the executives at Disney no doubt hope their take on the Lone Ranger is more successful than the last one, 1981’s “Legend of the Lone Ranger,” which starred two nobodies as the Lone Ranger and Tonto and was a colossal box-office flop. At least Michael Horse, who played Tonto, went on to better things, like a supporting role on “Twin Peaks.”

This is a big risk for Depp. The question is, will Native American activists be more upset that a white actor is playing a Native American character, or will they be more upset that Tonto is in the movie in the first place? I understand that in some circles, Tonto is viewed as a negative stereotype.

This could be the worst case of Native American miscasting since Burt Reynolds starred in “Navajo Joe” or William Shatner starred in “White Comanche.” Take your pick.

Actually, Depp has played a Native American before, in 1997’s “The Brave,” which he also directed.
Fun fact: Iron Eyes Cody, who portrayed “the crying Indian” in a famous 1970s public service announcement, was actually Italian. Jay Silverheels, however, who played Tonto on television in the 1950s, was actually a Native American — and also a Canadian.

While nothing is official yet, George Clooney is reportedly in negotiations to wear the mask, white hat and powder-blue cowboy outfit. Hopefully, this turns out better than the last time Clooney played a masked crime fighter. Otherwise we can look forward to Christian Bale resurrecting the Lone Ranger franchise 10 years from now in a film titled “The Lone Ranger Begins,” to be followed by either “The Lone Knight” or “The Dark Ranger.”

So, let me get this straight: The actor who killed the 1990s Batman franchise might star in a new franchise based on a character who flopped in his most recent movie outing. And the casting of another actor could lead to angry protests. Who greenlights these projects?

Still, I’ll admit I’m interested in seeing exactly how Depp plays Tonto, if for no other reason than it’s certain to be weird. Keith Richards inspired Depp’s portrayal of Capt. Jack, while Depp based his performance of Ichabod Crane in “Sleepy Hollow” on Angela Lansbury. Who will Depp channel for his portrayal of Tonto? Whoever it ends up being, I expect Depp to blow Clooney off the screen. And Depp has, on occasion, made even bad movies watchable — like “Once Upon a Time in Mexico.”

The Lone Ranger was created for radio by Fran Striker, who also created the Green Hornet. In fact, the Green Hornet is the Lone Ranger’s grand-nephew, which I guess makes it appropriate that the upcoming “Green Hornet” movie also involves an odd casting decision.

Stephen Chow is set to direct as well as co-star as the Green Hornet’s partner, Kato, taking on the role that the legendary Bruce Lee filled in the 1960s TV series. If anyone can stand in for Lee, it’s Chow. He’s not the issue.

What I want to know is, who thinks of Seth “Knocked Up” Rogen when casting the Green Hornet?
Of course, this means that in a weird, only-in-Hollywood way, Seth Rogen is related to George Clooney. And that may be stranger than anything Depp can come up with.

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