Everything you need to know about The Legend of the Lone Ranger is this: it takes an hour before he even puts on his mask. The 1981 flop has plenty of other issues, which you can see for yourself streaming on Amazon or Pluto TV. All of them are as plainly evident now as they were when critics first roasted it forty years ago. It’s humorless and sluggish. For a movie about character who famously never shot to kill, it’s strangely hyper-violent. Most egregious of all, it’s just no fun. The Legend of the Lone Ranger is a movie so determined to reinvent the western hero that it all but ruins him. And the story behind its failure is one of Texas-size hubris.
The film’s driving force, Jack Wrather, was accustomed to striking out on his own. The Amarillo-born, Tyler-bred Wrather was an adventurous sort who worked summers as a roughneck and wildcatter while he attended the University of Texas at Austin. He could afford to do pretty much as he pleased; he assumed control of his father’s oil company when he was still in his twenties. After a stint in World War II, Wrather took his considerable coffers to Hollywood, where he married Nancy Drew star Bonita Granville and set to prospecting in the fields of show business, sinking his money into whatever struck his fancy. He cranked out six movies in just eight years, snapped up a swath of local TV and radio stations, and even took over the “elevator music” company Muzak. You could say Wrather was a bit of an impulse shopper; a 1984 UPI obituary about Wrather quotes him summarizing his entrepreneurial philosophy thusly: “I never really went into a business that I, personally, and my wife couldn’t have some fun out of.”
When Wrather snapped up the rights to The Lone Ranger in 1954, the story of the nobly rogue Texas lawman had been a TV hit for five seasons. But ABC had recently replaced its star, Clayton Moore, with the actor John Hart, which had proved to be very unpopular. Wrather immediately rehired Moore, and he even ponied up some of his own money to film the new season in color, using real-world locations. But Wrather hated dealing with the network; it was no fun. He took the Lone Ranger off TV and brought him to movies—1956’s The Lone Ranger, followed by 1958’s The Lone Ranger and the Lost City of Gold. Both were modest hits. But inevitably, the character fell out of fashion. Hollywood grew tired of westerns, as it does every now and then.
Then, twenty years later, came Superman. The success of the 1978 film ignited interest in mining other old comics, radio shows, and movie serials, as producers looked for ready-made intellectual property. Along with Flash Gordon, Popeye, and Tarzan, the Lone Ranger was primed for rediscovery, and Wrather jumped on the opportunity to reimagine him for the blockbuster age. To him, there was only one thing standing in the way: Clayton Moore.
By the time Wrather, along with producers Walter Coblenz and Martin Starger, began putting together a new Lone Ranger film in 1979, Clayton Moore had been retired from acting for nearly twenty years. Being the Lone Ranger was now his full-time job. Moore wore the costume to state fairs and children’s hospitals; he saw it as his duty to be an American hero, at a time when the country, beset by post-Vietnam/Watergate cynicism, needed heroes more than ever. But Jack Wrather saw it as a problem. He wanted to make a bold, new big-screen Lone Ranger. He couldn’t have the sixtysomething Moore out there, reminding people of the musty black-and-white TV show. So Wrather took Moore to court, obtaining an injunction that prevented the actor from wearing the mask in public, and forcing him to sign autographs only as “The Masked Man.”
To those weaned on The Lone Ranger TV show, this was an egregious—and unforgivable—overstep. Moore quickly went on the offensive. Donning a pair of black wraparound sunglasses that mimicked his now-forbidden mask, he went on talk shows and held press conferences to tell the world what some heartless Hollywood millionaires had done. Before shooting a single frame of The Legend of the Lone Ranger, the film had alienated most of its intended audience. As Entertainment Weekly recalled in a 2013 article, the cast and crew arrived for the first day of production to find leaflets on their windshields reading, “Clayton Moore is the REAL Lone Ranger.”
None of that would have mattered had the new Lone Ranger been able to hold his own. The producers considered several actors for the role, including Stephen Collins, the future (disgraced) star of 7th Heaven, and Bruce Boxleitner, who was then fresh off of TV’s How the West Was Won. But Wrather and the others were consumed by this idea that they were making their own Superman, which had struck gold with the (mostly) unknown Christopher Reeve. They wanted a new face too—and this would prove to be their second blunder.
The actor they chose, Klinton Spilsbury, wasn’t just unknown, but—as it turned out—borderline unstable. He’d won them over with his jutting jawline and tousled mop of Warren Beatty hair. Most important, as producer Starger recalled for Entertainment Weekly, he had nice, evenly spaced eyes that looked good in the mask. Unfortunately, they also needed him to act. The Legend of the Lone Ranger was about delving into the man behind the mask; it devotes the bulk of its running time to his tragic backstory and to long stretches of dialogue. As the filmmakers quickly discovered, that wasn’t exactly Spilsbury’s strong suit. Tellingly, Spilsbury doesn’t say a single line in the trailer.
His troubles didn’t stop there. Spilsbury was reportedly a prima donna on set, forcing director William Fraker to shoot the entire film in sequence—an expensive and complicated way of doing things—so that he could properly act out his character’s emotional journey. He acted like he was “playing the role of a movie star” on set, according to costar Christopher Lloyd. Off set, Spilsbury became notorious for his rowdy behavior, including getting banned from at least two Santa Fe–area bars for brawling, smashing beer glasses, and hitting a waitress in the face. A 1980 interview with Andy Warhol that was meant to build excitement for the film also went awry, with Spilsbury drunkenly confessing to an affair with the famed fashion designer Halston, confessing to crushes on the actors Dennis Christopher and Bud Cort, and otherwise “blowing his whole image,” Warhol wrote in his diaries.
Eventually, the producers were so dismayed by Spilsbury’s performance, they made the incredible decision to have all of his dialogue dubbed by the actor James Keach. Spilsbury’s voice was just wrong, they said. “I hate saying something like this but he just didn’t sound committed to the material,” costar John Bennett Perry (father of Friends star Matthew Perry) later told Entertainment Weekly. “It just kind of came out the same way all the time. There wasn’t any passion.” Keach felt bad about taking the job—“His inflections were a little strange, but I actually didn’t think he was that bad,” he would later recall—but still, he gladly took the money. As word spread that Spilsbury was essentially being cut out of his own film, it only compounded the negative buzz that had begun with Wrather’s legal bullying of Clayton Moore. By the time The Legend of the Lone Ranger was released on Memorial Day weekend of 1981, the critics were raring to tear it to pieces. Unsurprisingly, it was Spilsbury who bore the brunt of the backlash.
In one typically scathing takedown, Sneak Previews host Gene Siskel—who flatly called The Legend of the Lone Ranger a “total waste of time” and “one of the worst movies of the year”—suggested that the film was little more than a future trivia question: “Not ‘Who was that masked man?’ but ‘Who played him?’ The answer: Klinton Spilsbury.” At the end of a prolonged critical pile-on, Spilsbury was awarded Worst Actor at the 1981 Razzies. And as Siskel predicted, he soon disappeared. Spilsbury did some time as a model in Europe, and years later he turned up as a photographer working in Los Angeles. But he never acted again. Every attempt to interview Spilsbury about his sole movie credit has been firmly rebuffed.
Still, even if Spilsbury had proved to be the second coming of Clint Eastwood, there’s plenty else wrong with The Legend of the Lone Ranger. Fraker, a talented cinematographer who’d worked on classics such as Bullitt and Rosemary’s Baby, was clearly out of his depth in the director’s chair. His pacing is stiff and plodding, drowning in gratuitous slow motion. Filming in the Arizona-Utah Monument Valley that was home to so many John Ford westerns gave it a fittingly epic scope, but you’ve seen everything here before, like those familiar rusted-red buttes in the background—and often done much better. The film’s only quasi-modern invention was some musical narration from a bored-sounding Merle Haggard, which ends up giving the whole thing the same dramatic weight as a Dukes of Hazzard episode.
The Legend of Lone Ranger did add one welcome update by giving the Lone Ranger’s partner, Tonto, more of an equal role, and casting future Twin Peaks star Michael Horse—a Native American activist who signed on despite his understandable misgivings. (“Finally, they told me what they’d pay me, and I went, ‘Ohhhhh, Kemosabe,’” Horse told Entertainment Weekly.) But while Horse escapes unscathed, the rest of the film is filled with some surprisingly high-caliber wasted talent. As the Lone Ranger’s archnemesis, Butch Cavendish, Christopher Lloyd feels totally wrong. Perhaps trying to distance himself from his wigged-out role on Taxi, Lloyd plays this mad Texas outlaw as an uptight priss, Connecticut accent firmly intact. Still, that’s more than can be said of Jason Robards’s Grant, who spends half his screen time drunk or asleep. And what self-respecting western casts Tom Laughlin, Billy Jack himself, only to immediately kill him off?
Despite this strong supporting cast and millions of dollars in advertising, The Legend of the Lone Ranger flopped hard upon its release, trampled in its opening weekend by the Richard Pryor comedy Bustin’ Loose before being buried by Raiders of the Lost Ark just a few weeks later. The premiere in Washington, D.C., was supposed to get a big boost from Wrather’s old friend, President Ronald Reagan, but this had to be scrapped after Reagan was shot by John Hinckley Jr. Reagan sent along a videotaped introduction instead, but even an assist from the Cowboy in Chief couldn’t save it. Ultimately, The Legend of the Lone Ranger wound up losing around $10 million, by Starger’s estimation. It ended both Spilsbury’s acting aspirations and Fraker’s film directing career, and—along with the contemporaneous disappointments of Heaven’s Gate and The Long Riders—it very nearly killed the western genre all over again. (At least until Lonesome Dove came along in 1989.)
As Wrather’s UPI obituary notes, he was always sanguine about failure. “’I thoroughly expect to flop sometime,” he said. “We’re not that damned smart.” The Legend of the Lone Ranger definitely proved him correct. Still, it wasn’t alone: Disney’s 2013 reimagining of The Lone Ranger was a bomb too—among the biggest in box-office history—despite having Johnny Depp and a battalion of blockbuster producers. Attempts to reboot The Lone Ranger as a kids’ cartoon, first in 1966 and again in 1980, were short-lived, while a 2003 TV movie version for the WB that starred Chad Michael Murray was roundly drubbed as well. Decades after Clayton Moore’s final ride, filmmakers are still trying to replace him, and still coming up miserably short.
In 1984, Wrather was dying of cancer and, with The Legend of the Lone Ranger already forgotten, he finally dropped his injunction, allowing Moore to don the mask once more, which he did until his death in 1999. “It’s my symbol, it’s the Lone Ranger, and if I may say, it’s Americana,” Moore told the New York Times. “I guess when I go up to the big ranch in the sky, I’ll still have it on.” As Wrather found out, it was a mistake to try pulling it off him in the first place.