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The legend of Yakima Canutt

Bronc rider’s antics captivated Pendleton’s heart, took Hollywood by storm

By Emily Olson

East Oregonian

Published on September 14, 2017 8:16PM

Last changed on September 14, 2017 9:24PM

Yakima Canutt poses with the Roosevelt trophy in 1923.

Photo courtesy of the Pendleton Round-Up and Happy Canyon Hall of Fame

Yakima Canutt poses with the Roosevelt trophy in 1923.

The family of Yakima Canutt, from left, Michelle Canutt, Harmony Canutt, Zander Canutt, Zeke Canutt, Gail Canutt and  Joe Canutt sit in a booth at The Rainbow Cafe where two of Yakima’s photos are on display for the years he won the Pendleton Round-Up.

Staff photo by E.J. Harris

The family of Yakima Canutt, from left, Michelle Canutt, Harmony Canutt, Zander Canutt, Zeke Canutt, Gail Canutt and Joe Canutt sit in a booth at The Rainbow Cafe where two of Yakima’s photos are on display for the years he won the Pendleton Round-Up.

Yakima Canutt competes in bulldogging at the 1919 Pendleton Round-Up.

Photo courtesy of the Pendleton Round-Up and Happy Canyon Hall of Fame

Yakima Canutt competes in bulldogging at the 1919 Pendleton Round-Up.

Yakima Canutt waves to the crowd in this undated bulldogging photo.

Photo courtesy of the Pendleton Round-Up and Happy Canyon Hall of Fame

Yakima Canutt waves to the crowd in this undated bulldogging photo.


This year marks a full century since Yakima Canutt took his first step toward immortality in both rodeo and Hollywood by winning the Pendleton Round-Up all-around title.

Canutt went on to win three additional all-arounds — and countless more rodeo trophies, awards and honors. He looked for a new challenge in the film industry, where he became known as the inventor of the stuntman profession and an early pioneer of the Western genre. It’s rumored that John Wayne’s drawling speech and giddy-up gait were inspired by Canutt.

Canutt was inducted in the National Cowboy Hall of Fame, the Pro Rodeo Hall of Champions and the Pendleton Round-Up Hall of Fame. Then he was inducted into the Stuntmen’s Hall of Fame and the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

On the silver screen and off it, Canutt possessed the kind of grit that we associate with cowboys today. As his grandson, Zeke Canutt, puts it, “his best feature was perseverance to perfection.”


The Young Buck


Yakima Canutt, christened Enos Edward Canutt, was born in 1895. The baby came in at 12 pounds, possessing such vigor that when the doctor arrived at the home, tucked in the hills of Snake River, Wash., he’d already “torn a strip off the sheet, made a loop in it and commenced to rope the bedpost,” according to one tall tale Canutt recalled in “Stuntman,” his autobiography. Another story suggests he teethed on a branding iron.

Canutt grew up as a maverick, learning to hunt, trap, shoot and fight. He broke his first bronc at age 11 in an act of vengeance. The horse had thrown his brother a few days earlier, cracking his skull.

Over the next five years, he’d try again and again to jump on the backs of well-known broncs, with his father stepping in to say it was too dangerous. At age 16, Canutt won a bronc competition at a county fair in Colfax, Wash. He took to the circuit and only a year later, in 1914, he was off to the Pendleton Round-Up where he competed in saddle bronc riding and bulldogging and received his lifelong nickname.

He and two pals had downed a quart of Kentucky bourbon before trying out some broncs in advance of the competition. Needless to say, the horses were winning. At some point, Canutt yelled, “Bring out another one of your good broncs and I’ll show you what a Yakima rider can really do.”

A photographer from Portland named William Bowman snapped Canutt upside down, mid-ejection. He captioned it “Yakima Canutt.” The cowboys took to the nickname in jest, and it stuck.


The Reigning Champion


In 1917, Canutt entered the Round-Up’s saddle bronc and bulldogging competitions.

The audience broke the young rodeo’s attendance records, and the saddle bronc competition alone featured 69 professional cowboys.

“In a contest with that many competitors, you’ve certainly got to have what it takes to emerge a winner,” Canutt wrote. He surely had what it took, because at 21 he became the all-around champion.

The years 1918 to 1923 saw Canutt in the winner’s circle many times. He gained three more all-around titles at the Round-Up in 1919, 1920 and 1923. He won the first leg of the Roosevelt Trophy, which was granted to cowboys who accumulated the most points between the Round-Up and Cheyenne’s Frontier Days. The Fort Worth Rodeo in Texas came to be known as “Yak’s show” after he won the title there in three consecutive years.

In the fall of 1918, Canutt was given a 30-day furlough from his World War I post in Bremerton, Wash., to defend his rodeo titles. He wore his navy uniform in the bulldogging competition and was such a hit with the crowds that the show directors felt the need to create a mandatory western dress code for competitors, according to Randy Thomas, the Round-Up publicity director. The code is still in place today.

The Hollywood Hero

Canutt’s first visit to Los Angeles was for a rodeo competition. The year was 1919, and he decided to stick around through the winter, spending time with the emerging western film social set. Former Pendleton steer roping champion Tom Grimes introduced Canutt to director Tom Mix. By the next winter, Canutt held a role as a horseman for a 12-part series called “Lightning Brice.” It was his first role in a 50-year career that included nearly 350 films.

Canutt spent the first bit of it as an actor, starring in “blood-and-thunder quickies,” as they called them, produced by small no-name studios. But by 1928 all films were talkies, and Canutt had suffered permanent vocal damage during his stint in the Navy.

“My voice lacked resonance,” he wrote. “When I heard it for the first time on a sound track, I thought they were kidding me. It sounded like a hillbilly in a well.”

Fortunately, he saw his opening in what the new talkies lacked: thrills, action and adventure.

It’s his stunt work that Canutt is most known for today. According to the Academy of Motion Picture Art and Science, Canutt created the profession. He possessed the mix of courage and wits to design means of keeping actors and livestock safe during daring crashes and realistic fights.

You might have seen Canutt in “Gone with the Wind,” rescuing Scarlett O’Hara from flaming debris, galloping through Atlanta’s streets with only a one-horse hack. In “Stagecoach,” Canutt doubles for John Wayne, fording a river in an eight-horse rig and jumping from the top of the coach to a galloping horse — “a gag that you could easily rub yourself out with if you make the wrong move,” Canutt claimed.

Indeed, Canutt’s six-foot frame did feel the toll of stunt work. Over his career he broke both ankles, a shoulder and six ribs. Later in life, he took roles behind the camera as a producer and second unit director. His most famous directing work takes place in “Ben Hur,” for one of the most iconic scenes in film history. Canutt orchestrated the wild chariot race using 18 cameras, 70 Lippizaner horses and a $15 million budget.


‘Full of life’


Canutt died in 1986. When asked how his grandfather wanted to be remembered, Zeke Canutt said “it doesn’t matter. Everyone already knows him.” He added that if given the chance, the cowboy would surely have another go at it. “He was full of life,” he said.

Today, the Round-Up plays tribute to the 100th anniversary of Canutt’s first all-around title. His son, Joe, and his family are visiting Pendleton this week from Santa Barbara, Calif. And folks can see Canutt as the center figure on the 2017 souvenir poster, the star of a video documentary played in the arena and a prominent feature of the Round-Up Hall of Fame.

He’s one cowboy who’s guaranteed to be remembered.

As acting great Charlton Heston said, “It’s not only his work, but he, himself who provides us with a model of the best kind of professional — the kind who always gives his best. In a time when, increasingly, nobody cares about excellence, Yak cared.”



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