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The wild, 32-year journey to bring The Lone Ranger back to the silver screen

Updated on April 19, 2013

The Lone Ranger and Tonto

The Lone Ranger (Armie Hammer) and Tonto (Johnny Depp) will ride on the big screen July 3, 2013. It was a long road traveled to bring back the Masked Man and his Indian companion.
The Lone Ranger (Armie Hammer) and Tonto (Johnny Depp) will ride on the big screen July 3, 2013. It was a long road traveled to bring back the Masked Man and his Indian companion. | Source

The Lone Ranger rode hard through development hell

The 11-year journey to bring The Lone Ranger and Tonto back to the movies for the first time in 32 years is finally at its end.

On July 3, 2013, The Lone Ranger starring Armie Hammer and Johnny Depp will ride across movie screens nationwide. Getting there, however, has been one wild ride. At one point, before Depp donned the makeup and flighty bird hat, the part of Tonto was supposed to have been played by a buxom bombshell! (One might have called it The Lone Ranger and Ta-ta.)

The Lone Ranger last left the cinemas in disgrace in 1981 when The Legend of The Lone Ranger failed to capture the hearts of movie-goers and was lashed by the scorn of fans when television actor Clayton Moore was stripped of his right to wear the mask during public appearances. (It was later reinstated.)

Fast-forward to 2002 and talk of dusting off the white Stetson and black mask surfaced when Columbia Pictures, a subsidiary of Sony, announced plans to make a new Lone Ranger movie. At the same time, The WB gave the go-ahead for a pilot episode for a new Lone Ranger television show. In 2003, the pilot aired as a made-for-TV movie, and set a new low bar for TV Westerns. The series was cancelled. The movie, however, moved forward and the $70 million spectacle was to bring a new twist to the classic tale. One executive said Tonto should be cast as a lithe, buxom woman.

The movie was put into the hands of Doug Wick and Lucy Fisher of Red Wagon Productions. David Webb Peoples cane aboard to write the script. As the film trudged along, writers and other personnel came and went. Eventually, at the end of 2007, Sony shut down production and sent The Lone Ranger back out to pasture. He didn’t stay there long.

A few months later in 2008 – the 75th anniversary of the character – producer Jerry Bruckheimer announced he wanted a shot at The Lone Ranger. Disney Studios announced that Bruckheimer would pair once again with his Pirates of the Caribbean star Johnny Depp in a remake of the masked hero. This time, Depp would play Tonto and the story would be told from his perspective.

For the next two years the project lingered on. A script was penned by the writing team of Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, who coincidentally wrote the first three Pirates of the Caribbean movies. Disney rejected that script and handed it to Justin Haythe for a rewrite. While Haythe went to work, rumors persisted as to who would get the title role and who would sit in the director’s chair.

Depp had several projects ahead of The Lone Ranger, including Alice in Wonderland, Public Enemy and another Pirates of the Caribbean movie. Bruckheimer focused on his popular television shows and birthed lukewarm films such as Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time and The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Finally, in 2012, the Lone Ranger movie moved into production. Director Gore Verbinski, who directed the first three Pirates movies for Bruckheimer, joined the Lone Ranger team. His last outing was with Depp in the animated animal western Rango.

Fresh of his breakout role as the Winklevoss twins in The Social Network, Armie Hammer won the right to wear the mask. An all-star cast began to fill out the cast list. Among them were Helena Bonham Carter as a brothel owner, James Badge Dale as Dan Reid Sr., Dwight Yoakum as Butch Cavendish, Tom Wilkinson as Latham Cole, and Barry Pepper at Capt. Jay Fuller. Yoakum later backed out and was replaced by William Fichtner.

Set construction began in New Mexico in late 2011 and casting for extras was announced. The movie was given a Dec. 21, 2012, release date. Just as soon as work began on the project, Disney CEO Robert Iger pulled the plug over budgetary concerns. With a $250 million budget and lackluster outings by modern-day Westerns, Disney was not ready to gamble with an uncertain economy and fickle moviegoers.

Following a week-long dollar détente, Depp and Bruckheimer trimmed their own fees but refused to trim their vision for the project. A short time later, Bruckheimer, Depp and Verbinski returned to the table from their budget-chopping pow-wow and struck a deal with Disney to make it for a reported $215 million – a budget that reportedly blossomed back beyond the original $250 million mark as the cameras rolled.

Given a second chance, production resumed in areas of New Mexico and the original cast came back on board. Casting calls for extras went out in Albuquerque, N.M., Moab, Utah, and Creede, Colo. Shooting started in February and wrapped up in California in October. The cast and crew braved snow, rain, sand storms, 120-dgree days and numerous hardships while on location. Depp, who claims to be part Cherokee, was adopted into the Navajo Nation. He also had a major scare when he fell under his horse while riding at full gallop.

The woes didn’t end when the crew returned to California for the second unit filming. A crew member drowned in a water tank on the set. Despite all the hardships, the movie is pressing on and The Lone Ranger has his sights set on an Independence Day weekend bonanza.

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