‘Lone Ranger': Johnny Depp won’t be traditional Tonto, director says [Updated]

Feb. 17, 2011 | 12:30 p.m.
johnny depp Lone Ranger: Johnny Depp wont be traditional Tonto, director says [Updated]

Johnny Depp at the British premiere of ”Public Enemies" (Max Nash / Getty Images)

Johnny Depp will play Tonto when the Disney version of “The Lone Ranger” finally gallops into theaters, but don’t expect him to be a typical second-saddle sidekick.

Director Gore Verbinski – who has made four films with Depp — said he’s interested in a sly, somewhat subversive version of the classic Old West adventure that presents the “faithful Indian companion” as the wry central voice of the story.

lone ranger1 Lone Ranger: Johnny Depp wont be traditional Tonto, director says [Updated]

Masked in the past: Klinton Spilsbury and Michael Horse met the press in March 1980 (Associated Press)

“The only version of ‘The Lone Ranger’ I’m interested in doing is ‘Don Quixote’ told from Sancho Panza’s point of view,” Verbinski said Tuesday. “And hence I was honest early on with Johnny that Tonto is the part. We’re not going to do it [straight], everyone knows that story. I don’t want to tell that story.”

I visited Verbinski’s office on the Universal lot to talk about “Rango,” the animated film that arrives on March 4 with Depp in the title role and surrounded by a dream team of character actors (Bill Nighy, Ray Winstone, Ned Beatty, Alfred Molina, Harry Dean Stanton, Isla Fisher, Stephen Root, Timothy Olyphant and Abigail Breslin), and you’ll see a lot more about that ambitious project here at Hero Complex in the weeks to come. But I also had to ask the “Pirates of the Caribbean” director about his still-forming plans for the Lone Ranger, a hero that dates back to the 1933 radio adventures that galloped out of the imagination of Fran Striker.

lone Lone Ranger: Johnny Depp wont be traditional Tonto, director says [Updated]

Masked in the past: Clayton Moore and Jay Silverheels made television history in "The Lone Ranger" (Los Angeles Times archives)

Instead of Striker, though, Verbinski cited Cervantes and seemed eager to put Depp into a character that (like Jack Sparrow)  is good in a fight but also a bit slippery compared to some of the boy-scout personalities around him.  The 46-year-old director explained: “I want the version from the untrustworthy narrator who might be a little crazy — but somehow the question is, is he crazy or is the world crazy? That, I find fascinating.”

Disney and producer Jerry Bruckheimer have been talking about a Lone Ranger feature film for years and announced in 2008 that Depp would be on board.  The project has been slow to the screen, though, with Depp’s dense schedule and the emphasis by the studio, producer and star on their massively successful “Pirates” franchise, which has pulled in $2.68 billion in worldwide box office with three films and has a fourth scheduled for release this summer. [FOR THE RECORD: An earlier version of this post misstated the franchise box office total.]

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides,” which opens May 20, marks the handoff of the maritime adventure franchise to director Rob Marshall (“Chicago“). Verbinski was officially announced as the director on “The Lone Ranger” in late November.

In Verbinski’s office, one high shelf behind his desk has a solitary book on it — a hardcover history of the Texas Rangers. He’s in promotion mode now for “Rango” — he’ll be in Europe for events this weekend — but “The Lone Ranger” is moving up on his list of time priorities.

“It’s just at the primordial stage,” Verbinski said. “We’re working on the screenplay but if we can pull that off — find that story I want to tell — then it will be worth doing.”

I asked Verbinski if he had ever seen the classic Lone Ranger gag from “The Far Side,” the loopy single-panel cartoon by Gary Larson. He shook his head, so I explained that it showed an elderly, retired Lone Ranger looking up the English translation “kemosabe” and making the unpleasant discovery that it means “horse’s rear end.” Verbinski chuckled. “Well, that’s kind of the world we want to be in. It’s an odd couple, the two of them together. Getting that tone right is going to be a blast.”

– Geoff Boucher

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