Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Legendary cowboy, actor earned name accidentally

Yakima Canutt is a legend. But he got his famous moniker by mistake, according to a 1977 interview with the East Oregonian.

The four-time all-around winner at the Pendleton Round-Up (1917, 1919, 1920 and 1923) was born Enos Edward Canutt on Nov  29, 1896, in the Snake River Hills near Colfax, Wash. He rode his first bronc in 1912 at the age of 16, but only after he got his father’s permission. “If he bucks you off, your riding is through  — you’re finished,” his father told him. Canutt rode the bronc to a standstill, and his rodeo career was off like a rocket.

Canutt first attended the Pendleton Round-Up in 1914 with a group of cowboys from Yakima, Wash. The group was trying out bucking horses and Pendleton photographer Walter Bowman captured Canutt on one of his attempts. Not knowing the cowboy’s name, he asked around and was told, “Oh, that’s Canutt of Yakima.” When Bowman labeled the picture for a newspaper article, Yakima Canutt was re-christened — a name that stuck with him for the rest of his life.

Yak, as his friends called him, continued to compete in rodeos even while serving in the U.S. Navy. In 1918, while on a three-week furlough, he showed up at the Round-Up in his sailor’s uniform “that just didn’t seem to match his cowboy boots.” As the first successful competitor in bulldogging that year, Canutt wrestled a longhorn steer halfway around the arena before subduing it, though he ran over the two-minute time limit. He still received a standing ovation.

After winning his fourth all-around title in 1923, Canutt took his skills to Hollywood. He appeared in 48 silent movies, all westerns, but moved to stock and stunt work after “talkies” were introduced in 1928 (his voice had been damaged by the flu while in the Navy). And much of John Wayne’s on-screen persona, including the drawling, hesitant speech and the hip-rolling walk, was copied from Canutt after the two began working together in 1932. Canutt later became a director for action scenes, most notably the 20-minute chariot racing scene in the 1959 production of “Ben Hur.”

Yak earned a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for his contributions to the motion picture industry, and an honorary Academy Award in 1967 for his achievements as a stunt man and for developing safety devices to protect stunt men. He was inducted into the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum Hall of Fame in 1959, and into the Round-Up and Happy Canyon Hall of Fame in 1969. And he played himself in the movie “Yak’s Best Ride” in 1985.

Yakima Canutt, “... the most famous person NOT from Yakima, Washington,” according to author Elizabeth Gibson, died May 24, 1986, at the age of 90 at his home in North Hollywood.

Yakima Canutt competes in the 1918 Pendleton Round-Up in his sailor whites (EO Howdyshell file photo)

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