(Editor’s Note: We hope you enjoy this repost of a classic Retroland article)
The story of Iron Eyes Cody is a rather fascinating one. With a solitary tear dripping down his cheek as he mourned the increasingly polluted land around him, his image served as a catalyst for modern environmentalism and encouraged many to do their part in helping to clean up the growing litter problem. A champion of Native-American causes, an actor that appeared in dozens of films, he is without doubt the single most recognizable Native -American face in modern culture. Of course, there’s just one little tiny detail, a seldom -mentioned tidbit of information that somewhat clouds the history of this iconic character – he wasn’t really an Indian.
Let’s first take a look at the iconic commercial that started it all, from the early 70s:
The son of Italian immigrants, Iron Eyes Cody came into this world in 1904, born in Louisiana and given the name, Espera Oscar de Corti. His father would eventually desert the family, moving to Texas, and it wasn’t long before Espera and his brothers followed (literally) in his footsteps. Always an avid admirer of the Native-American culture, Espera realized that being an Indian might help him get his foot in the door in Hollywood. He changed his last name to Cody and moved west, with aspirations of the big screen. He began dressing in full Native American garb, including moccasins and a longhaired wig, and began to describe his heritage as part Cherokee, part Cree – conveniently leaving the Italian part out.
He found work almost immediately in Tinsel Town and its seemingly endless production of cowboy films. In 1925, he appeared in the Cecil B. DeMille film, The Road to Yesterday and would go on to appear in over a hundred others over the next six decades. He also made appearances on the television shows Gunsmoke, Bonanza and Rawhide.
But all of these roles paled in comparison to the exposure and recognition he was afforded by his memorable 1971 commercial for the non-profit group, Keep America Beautiful, a community improvement and educational organization. The ad featured a fully garbed Cody, paddling his canoe past billowing smokestacks and floating pollution before setting foot on land. Within moments of arriving, he is pelted with a garbage bag that spews a pile of refuse around his moccasins. The camera slowly pans in for a close-up of his face and focuses on the lone tear as a voice-over admonishes viewers with the words “People start pollution, people can stop it.” It has been estimated that this commercial was viewed over a billion times in the years that followed.
Iron Eyes would go on to champion a number of Native American causes and act as a spokesman for their assorted groups. He is said to have met with every president since Roosevelt to discuss Indian matters. Eventually, Iron Eyes Cody would marry an Indian wife and adopt two Indian children. His altruistic efforts made him a hero among Native Americans. In fact, even after they found out the truth about his real heritage, they still felt he had done so much for the Native-American community that they couldn’t help but respect the man immensely.
And to his dying day, Iron Eyes Cody always insisted that he was what he appeared to be. Defiantly, he would challenge: “You can’t prove anything.” And the fact is, it isn’t all that important what this man’s heritage actually was. In his heart, he was an Indian and his impact as such was profound.
We welcome your thoughts and comments about this unforgettable presence on the television screens of our youth, as we fondly remember Iron Eyes Cody, here at Retroland