The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences called Wes Studi, 71, on set as he was filming his recently released Western, Badland, to tell him that he would receive a Governors Award, an Oscar for lifetime achievement.
But they wanted him to keep a secret.
"They told me, ‘Please do not tell anyone,’ " said Studi, whose credits include Dances With Wolves (1990), The Last of the Mohicans (1992) and Avatar (2009). “It was kind of hard. I was absolutely bursting."
10 other Native American actors older than 50
• Irene Bedard, 52; Cree, Inuit, Inupiat, Métis, Yupik; Ralph Breaks the Internet, Pocahontas
• Gil Birmingham, 66; Comanche; The Twilight Saga, Yellowstone
• Gary "Litefoot" Davis, 50; Cherokee and Chichimeca ancestry; House of Cards, Mortal Kombat: Annihilation
• Rodney A. Grant, 60; Omaha tribe; Wild Wild West, Dances with Wolves
• Saginaw Grant, 83; Sac and Fox Nation; The Lone Ranger, Valley of the Gods
• Graham Greene, 67; Oneida Nation; Wind River, Dances with Wolves
• Michael Horse, 69; Apache, Mescalero, Yaqui, Zuni; Twin Peaks, Passenger 57
• David Midthunder, 56; Fort Peck Assiniboine & Sioux; Westworld, Hostiles
• Steve Reevis, 57; Blackfeet Nation; The Longest Yard, Fargo
• Larry Sellers, 70; Cherokee, Osage, Lakota; Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman, Assassination
Source: Internet Movie Database
He's only the second Native American to win an Oscar for acting, after the Irish and Cherokee American Ben Johnson received one for best supporting actor for 1971's The Last Picture Show.
"It's pretty cool,” Studi said.
Studi, Italian director Lina Wertmüller and filmmaker David Lynch each received the awards Oct. 27 at a dinner in Hollywood. Portions of that ceremony will be televised Feb. 9 during the 92nd Academy Awards show.
"It's about time,” Studi said the night of his award presentation. “I'm proud to be here tonight."
While toasting Studi, his The New World (2005) and Hostiles (2017) costar, Christian Bale, noted that native and indigenous people have been underrepresented on both sides of the camera, but “we're in a room full of people who can change that."
Born in Oklahoma and a veteran of the 1968 Tet Offensive, the Vietnam War's bloodiest campaign, Studi grew up in Tulsa speaking Cherokee and playing cowboys and Indians.
"We all wanted to be the cowboy,” the actor said.
But when he saw blue-eyed Chuck Connors portray the famous Apache warrior in the 1962 movie Geronimo, he felt “somewhat defrauded.” In 1993, Studi played the same role in director Walter Hill's Geronimo: An American Legend.
First, Studi went to agriculture school and then started dabbling in theater and local educational television.
“I had a life before getting into this business. A nonacting life,” he said. “And it turns out that life has served me well. I can connect with characters I play simply by referencing real life. It's been very helpful over the years to have experienced life outside of entertainment."
Only a handful of indigenous people have been nominated for Oscars. In 1983, Cree musician Buffy Sainte-Marie, who was born in Canada, won an Oscar for cowriting the music to best song winner “Up Where We Belong," from An Officer and a Gentleman.
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Q'orianka Kilcher, who acted with Studi in The New World, said he “revolutionized how indigenous peoples are portrayed in cinema, showing us all what is possible."
In 1995, Studi played a Los Angeles police detective in Heat, a somewhat rare opportunity for him to play a character not primarily defined by his ethnicity.
Working toward “more inclusion of Native Americans in above-the-title roles,” as he put it, Studi teaches filmmaking to Pueblo kids through Santa Fe, New Mexico's Silver Bullet Productions.
Contributing: Lindsey Bahr, The Associated Press