Dear Straight Dope:
My co-worker and I were discussing old commercials and he claims the gentleman who was featured in that famous anti-pollution commercial was really an Italian immigrant. Is this true? True or not, what ever happened to the actor?
SDStaff Euty replies:
Oh yeah. And John Wayne was really gay, Shirley Temple did kiddie porn and Carl Yazstremski threw like a girl. Geez, how many of our beloved cultural icons must we topple to satify the bloodlust of the Teeming Millions? But topple we must.
The commercial in question featured an American Indian canoeing down a garbage-choked river, seeing smokestacks belching smog into the air and other sources of pollution all around him. As the camera pans to his face, we see a single tear rolling down his cheek and the tagline, “People start pollution. People can stop it.” The ad was very effective. It debuted on Earth Day, 1971 and is credited by more than a few for drawing America’s attention to an ever-growing pollution problem. I know it affected me personally. From then on I always looked around to make sure there wasn’t an overly-sensitive Indian watching everytime I threw a bag of trash out of the car window.
Playing the Indian was an actor known as “Iron Eyes” Cody. Cody had made a name for himself in Hollywood as far back as 1919 when he appeared in a silent western entitled “Back to God’s Country.” He went on to appear in more than 80 films as well on television in such shows as “Rawhide” and “Gunsmoke.” His official biography states that he was born under the name “Little Eagle” in Oklahoma, the son of a Cherokee father and a Cree mother. However, some in Hollywood, including Indian actors Jay Silverheels (“Tonto” in “The Lone Ranger”) and Running Deer, an Indian actor and stuntman, doubted his story. And therein hangs the tale.
According to an article in the April 8 Los Angeles New Times, the entire persona was exacty that–merely a persona. “Iron Eyes” Cody was actually Espera DiCorti, born of two Italian immigrants in Gueydan, Louisiana. DiCorti had loved playing Indians as a child and always said he was going to be an actor one day. After a move to Texas, he shortened his name to Cody and headed off for Los Angeles to make his fortune. According to Mae Abshire Duhon, his only living sibling, “The next thing we heard was that he had turned Indian.”
The story is verified by a 1996 article in the New Orleans Times-Picayune that also established Cody’s Italian-American roots. Apparently, it was a not-so-closely guarded secret around the Gueydan community where he grew up. None of the wire sevices picked up the article, so it remained a local historical curiosity rather than becoming a nationwide story. In fact, because of the local notoriety, folks in Gueydan seemed more interested in supporting the fictional legacy of “Iron Eyes” Cody.
In Hollywood, appearance is always more important than reality. Even the tear than ran down his cheek wasn’t real; it was glycerine.
And now you know the rest of the …
Oops … sorry. Wrong column.
SDStaff Euty, Straight Dope Science Advisory Board
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