Mossback's Northwest: The Palouse cowboy who inspired John Wayne

Hollywood’s greatest Western stuntman was a rodeo champion from Washington state.

Yakima Canutt was born and raised in the Palouse region of Eastern Washington. By the age of 20, he was a rodeo star known far beyond the Whitman County Fairgrounds where he busted his first broncos.

The actor John Wayne came to personify the Old West, a guy who slow-talked and fought his way across the frontier, who could ride and tumble with the best of them. He became the archetypal tough-guy cowboy.

But he wasn’t a cowboy, far from it.

So, who taught John Wayne to be John Wayne?

It was a guy from Eastern Washington who most people have forgotten, if they ever heard of him. A guy who changed how we see the West — and changed Hollywood itself.

He was Yakima Canutt.

Canutt’s real first name was Enos, just as John Wayne’s was Marion. Not very cowboyesque. He was born in the 1890s on the edge of Washington’s frontier. Whitman County back then was still a place where cattle was rustled and the citizens, occasionally, strung up supposed bad guys from the upper floor of the county courthouse.

Enos Canutt’s family were Oregon pioneers in the 1850s and moved to a spread in the Snake River hills south of Colfax to farm and ranch. The land of Palouse country was fertile. Canutt grew tall and was surrounded by family. His uncle was the county sheriff for a time. As a child his family moved for a brief time near Seattle, where he attended and elementary school in Green Lake, his only education.

But Canutt was born to ride horses, bust broncos and bring down steers. His first rodeo was in 1912 at the Whitman County fairgrounds, where he won the bronc-riding contest. He was a tall lad who could take the punishment dished out in the rodeo arena, and he thrived on it. He was the Gretzky of the saddle, the Griffey of bulldogging steers. He went on to win numerous first place awards in competitions throughout the teens and ’20s.

By age 20, Canutt was a major rodeo star. At the Pendleton Round-Up in Oregon one year, he picked up the nickname Yakima, though he wasn’t from there. Some say it was a reporter’s mistake. But Yakima or “Yak” he became, typo or not. The new silent film industry drew some cowboys like Canutt to Hollywood in the rodeo off-season. Guys like Yakima were tapped for a new trend in pictures — action Westerns. He made his first film in 1915. He got mixed up with early stars like Tom Mix and mostly acted in bit parts in dozens of movies, but he could do his own stunts. And that really proved to be Canutt’s cowboy superpower: He could leapfrog onto a horse or fall off it, arrange a wagon crash or stage a convincing fight scene. And teach others how to do it.

His stunt work took off but Canutt’s voice ruled out most acting in the talkies. His vocal cords had been damaged during World War I, when, as a Navy man, he suffered from the Spanish flu in Bremerton. Not only could Canutt transition to performing stunts, he invented techniques and equipment that were new and that allowed more realistic and more dramatic violence — train crashes, wagon attacks, things that goosed entertainment value, but also protected his fellow stuntmen.

In the 1930s, he started working with a young John Wayne, who was fascinated by Canutt and watched him carefully. Wayne wasn’t yet a big star and was just shaping his famous persona. One biographer of Wayne’s said Canutt was a mentor and model — an example of lanky macho without swagger. Wayne later wrote that he spent weeks studying the way Yakima Canutt walked and talked. “He was a real cowhand,” Wayne said. He took his way of talking from Canutt — slower and stronger, especially as he got angry.

But it was Canutt’s stunt work that bonded them. In 1939, Yakima created and performed a spectacular stunt on a runaway stagecoach in the movie of that name — John Ford’s Stagecoach. It’s considered a Western classic, partly because of the scene in which Canutt jumps onto the running team of horses, is shot by Wayne, then drops down and passes under horses and coach only to come out alive. Hard to believe someone actually did what was seen on screen — nothing digital about it.

Canutt worked with lots of great actions stars, including Douglas Fairbanks and Errol Flynn. He stood in for Clark Gable in Gone with the Windfor part of the famous burning of Atlanta scene. He arranged classic stunts and dramatic sequences, like the thrilling chariot race in Ben Hur. Much of his work was anonymous, standing in for other characters, or for masked men like Zorro and the Lone Ranger.

As time went on, Canutt was credited with virtually inventing the profession of stuntman. When his own stunt days were over after too many broken bones, in addition to inventing stunt techniques for the movies, he became well-known as a second-unit director on many films you’ve heard of: Ivanhoe, Swiss Family Robinson, Spartacus, El Cid, Cat Ballou, Where Eagles Dare, A Man Called Horse.

His final directing job was for a Charles Bronson film in 1975 called Breakheart Pass — a tale of the West that involved the spectacular crash of a runaway train full of cavalry soldiers. It was filmed on the Camas Prairie Railroad, across the border from the land of Canutt’s birth, near Lewiston, Idaho. A special extension was built onto the tracks of the trestle so the train would sail spectacularly off into space, then shatter as it crashed and rolled into the canyon 200 feet below.

Such spectacles were part of the legacy of Canutt — who won an honorary Oscar for his contributions to film in general. He also received a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame and was inducted into the Rodeo Hall of Fame.

Today we take special effects and stunts for granted as cinematic fare, but the guy who truly embedded macho stunts in our moviegoing expectations was a guy who did it quietly and without fanfare. The cowboy who inspired John Wayne and became the template for the Hollywood cowboy superhero was a son of the Palouse, Yakima Canutt.

 

About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.