Bob Hicks, Filmmaker Who Paved Way For Native Americans In Hollywood, Dead at 80

Bob Hicks, who for many years was the leading voice for Native Americans in Hollywood, has died. Hicks collapsed in the lobby of the Holiday Inn in Washington DC from an apparent heart attack on Friday shortly after the first performance of his play, The Dawes Commission, at the Smithsonian Institution. He died a short time later after being rushed to the George Washington University Hospital.

“We did the first performance of the play yesterday,” said his niece, Irene Boatwright. “At least he got to see that. He was concerned that the rehearsal didn’t go well. He told the cast, ‘This is our nation’s capital. We need to do a better job.’ And the performance went off great. He was very pleased with it.”  Two more performances were scheduled today, but the cast and crew were too distraught by his death, so a screening of the film he’d adapted from the play was presented at the Smithsonian instead, and it will play again on Monday.

“I can’t believe he’s gone,” said actress Delanna Studi. “He was the original trail blazer. The work he did opened doors for so many of us. He was such a generous, kind soul. He taught us not to give up. He was just a good, good man.”

“He was such a great friend and mentor,” said actor Harrison Lowe. “He opened doors. He was a great and loved friend.”

Known to virtually every Native American in Hollywood, Hicks was the co-founder and first president of First Americans in the Arts, the annual awards show for Native American filmmakers. A graduate of the American Film Institute, he also served as the executive director of the American Indian Registry for the Performing Arts, which had been established by Will Sampson, of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest fame, as a clearing house for Native American talent.

audrey hepburnWhen Hicks left Oklahoma to come to Hollywood in 1979, there were very few American Indians making a living in the film and television industry. There were a few actors – Will Sampson, Chief Dan George and Jay Silverheels – but no writers, directors or producers. And when Indian roles were available, more than likely, white actors would play them. “White people were always playing Indians in the movies,” Hicks said in an interview with the reporter a few years ago. There was Elvis Presley in Flaming Star, Burt Lancaster as Jim Thorpe in Jim Thorpe: All American, Tony Curtis as Ira Hayes in The Outsider, Jeff Chandler and Debra Paget in Broken Arrow, Jack Palance in Arrowhead, and even Audrey Hepburn in The Unforgiven. Film and TV producers felt that all that was needed to turn a white actor into an Indian character were some beads and feathers, and a little brown make-up – known in the business as “painting down.”

Like white actors putting on blackface to play African-Americans, “painting down” white actors to play Indian characters had been around since the old silent movie days. But unlike blackface, which stopped in the 1940s, “painting down” was still common in Hollywood in 1979. Hicks wanted to do something about that. He’d directed plays in Tulsa, always casting Indians in Indian roles. So he came to Hollywood to make movies – films about real Indians, with real Indian actors. Unfortunately, aside from the student film he made at the American Film Institute, and a few other few short films, he never got the chance. “I was always hoping that I could make a contribution as a director,” he said. “That was my goal and dream. But that didn’t happen.”

Hicks never got to make the movies he wanted to make. And he certainly didn’t make much money out here. But he did something even better. He made a difference. He opened doors for others, and as the founding president of First Americans in the Arts, he brought long overdue recognition to Indians working – and struggling to find work – in the entertainment industry.

Unfortunately, there still aren’t many Indian writers, producers and directors working in Hollywood. And there still aren’t many roles for Indian actors. And white actors claiming to be “part-Indian’ is still a problem. But today, thanks in part to his efforts, “painting down” is largely a thing of the past. Lots of people have come to Hollywood and made movies. But few have made the difference Bob Hicks made.

Hicks was born in a barn in Okmulgee County, Oklahoma, on Feb. 5, 1934. His mother, Ella Scott, and his father, Robert Hicks, were married, he said, “in an Indian way.”

“They were visiting friends on a farm out in the country in central Oklahoma,” he said about the day he was born. “My mom and dad and brothers and sisters went there in a wagon pulled by two horses. When I was born, my mom knew it was time. So she went out to the barn by herself, did the job and came on back in and went to bed. I was the youngest and the last. The first one she had a midwife for the delivery, but all the rest she did herself. My mother later told me why she went out to the barn to deliver me. She said, ‘because I didn’t want anybody to hear me suffer.’” It was the middle of The Great Depression, and to make things worse, it was in the middle of The Dust Bowl – the epic drought that drove hundreds of thousands of Oklahomans off their land.

His family was poor, but they had land. In 1905, the U.S. government had allotted 160 acres to all Creek Indians, and Hicks’ father, mother and maternal grandmother each had 160 acres near Okemah. This program, run by the Dawes Commission, was the basis for the film and play he wrote that were performed at the Smithsonian when he died. “The government was trying to dissolve the Indian governments,” he said of the allotment program. “They were saying, ‘You guys gotta be part of the United States.’”

Hicks grew up in a house that his father had built. “He was a carpenter with only a fourth-grade education,” Bob said, “but he was incredible at math. He spoke mostly Creek, and I spoke Creek before I spoke English.” Times were hard, but young Hicks didn’t know any other life. “Everybody was suffering, so I thought this was how the world was,” he said. “So for me, it was normal. My older brothers and my dad were lucky to go out and make $3 a day. They worked on farms. He would plow and plant fields. We also picked cotton. When I was seven or eight years old, my momma made me a bag that I could drag along and put the cotton in. But I was not a good cotton picker.”

Hicks fell in love with movies in 1939. It was a good year for motion pictures; Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Wuthering Heights, Some Like It Hot and The Hunchback of Notre Dame were all released that year. But five-year-old Hicks’ tastes ran more toward westerns – movies like Stagecoach, Riders of the Sageand Destry Rides Again, which were also released that year.

“On Saturdays, we’d load up the wagon and go into Okemah,” he recalled. “It was a town of only 2,000 people, but it had two movie theaters: The Jewel and The Crystal. The Crystal played love stories, which I didn’t care for. But The Jewel played westerns, and I loved westerns.”

Back then movies were only a dime.

Hicks’ father shared his love for movies, and they often went together to The Jewel: his dad sitting in the back row near the aisle, and Bob planted in the front row with his friends, cheering for the cowboys and the cavalry as they slaughtered the Indians. “When I was a kid,” he said, “I didn’t have any role models in the movies who I could look up to and say, ‘I want to be like that.’ The Indians were always portrayed as the bad guys, so I rooted for the cowboys. I was brainwashed. That kind of thing can leave a kid confused.” Many years later, Bob decided to do something about it.

“That’s what inspired me to try to make changes,” he said. “That’s why I came out to Hollywood to try my hand at changing things.” Hicks graduated from Okemah High School in 1953, and the next year, he left home to attend the Haskell Indian Institute in Lawrence, Kansas, to become a baker. “I’ve been on my own ever since,” he said. He never did become a baker, though. He got a job with his brother James working in an automobile upholstery shop in Tulsa, and then, in 1956, got drafted into the army, serving as a platoon sergeant and the leader of a mortar squad in Korea. After his two-year tour of duty was up, he returned to the U.S. and got a job with his brother Clarence in a car upholstery shop in Albuquerque. By 1967, Hicks was working at a company outside Tulsa that was manufacturing modern versions of the antique Cord automobile that paid him $2 an hour. “It was good money in those days,” he recalled with a laugh. “It was enough to get married.”

He married his girlfriend Terry that year, but before long, his employers went bankrupt and he went to work at a Douglas aircraft factory in their upholstery shop. And when he got laid off there, he decided to open his own business – Classic Auto Restoration – upholstering and restoring vintage cars. Then one day in 1970, he was reading the paper and saw a help-wanted ad for Tulsa’s Little Theater. They were looking for extras – background performers who don’t have any speaking lines – for Arthur Kopit’s play Indians. “I loved movies but never thought about theater until I saw that ad in the paper,” he said. “I called the theater and the director picked up. I said, ‘How would you like to have a real Indian in your show?’” The director, Robert Telford, who was also the theater’s artistic director, asked Hicks to come down to the theater.

“I got there and he gave me the script,” he recalled. “I said, ‘I’m not here for that. I’m just here to be an extra.’ He said, ‘I read everybody.’” He left and I read the script, and when he came back, I read one of the parts for him, but I was terrible.” Telford then showed Hicks around the theater and took him backstage. “I didn’t even know there was a backstage,” he recalled with his signature laugh – a chuckle that shook his entire body. “I thought it all just happened on the stage. He took me back and I saw all the prop people and the shift crew and the costumers and the fly crew. I was flabbergasted. I didn’t know all this went on. But I liked it. I was intrigued at seeing all this activity.”

A couple of weeks later, the director called and told Hicks that he was in the show as an understudy for one of the actors. “The actor was a local disc jockey, and one day he couldn’t get off work, so I was put in,” Hicks said. The play, about the relationship between Sitting Bull and Buffalo Bill Cody, was a symbolic attack on the American genocide of the American Indians. It starred famed Oklahoma actor, artist and author Brummet Echohawk as Sitting Bull. “We were the only two Indians in that show,” Hicks recalled. “There were several other Indian characters, but they were played by whites.”

The play was a hit, and it launched Hicks’ career in show business. He would spend the next ten years working days at his auto restoration business, and nights at the Tulsa Little Theater. He would go on to direct a dozen plays – all but one, The Last Meeting of the Knights of the White Magnolia – with Indian themes. And in each one, he cast native people in native parts. By 1980, Hicks had decided to branch out and take a shot at the film industry to see if he couldn’t make movies with Indian actors.

AFI“I thought, ‘Here I am, always bitching about white people playing Indians,’” he said. “So I thought, ‘Why don’t I do something about it?’ So I decided to make movies.” So he sent off and asked for catalogues from USC, NYU and Northwestern, all of which had good film schools. But then one day he saw in the newspaper that a representative from the American Film Institute was going to be holding a seminar in Tulsa, so he went to see what they had to offer. The AFI rep showed three student films, and Bob was amazed at how good they were. Afterwards, he spoke to her and told her he might be interested in attending the AFI. “She gave me some brochures,” he recalled. “I read them and noticed that they listed the names of the staff and board of directors. George Stevens Jr. was the executive director and Charlton Heston was the board president. So I wrote each one a letter and I told them I was interested in learning how to make films. A few weeks later, I got a letter back from Charlton Heston. He wished me luck and sent me some more materials. I got stuff from USC and NYU, but I said, ‘AFI’s the one for me.’ So I sent in my application and $100, and a month later, I got back a cablegram. I went the whole day without opening it. I didn’t need bad news. Finally, after work, I opened it. It said, ‘Congratulations. You have been selected.’”

But there was a problem. Tuition was $3,000, and Hicks was broke. But then, as now, Hicks had a lot of friends. The American Indian Theater Company of Oklahoma, which he’d co-founded three years earlier, held a fund-raiser for him, and the Osage Tribe put up his tuition. He was grateful, and remained grateful until the day he died. Hicks said his good-byes, and then he was off. He packed everything he had into a U-Haul trailer, hitched it up to his blue-and-white El Camino, and headed west to California. “I felt like The Grapes of Wrath,” he laughed.

There weren’t many Indians working in Hollywood when Hicks got out here. Jay Silverheels, who had received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, was very ill and died just a few months later. “Will Sampson was out here,” Hicks recalled. “He was from Oklahoma, too. He’s Creek. I didn’t know him then, but we became friends and worked on a play together.” Iron Eyes Cody was out here too, but then, he wasn’t really an Indian. But that didn’t matter to Hicks. “He was the most helpful person,” Hicks recalled fondly. “He was my friend. He’s Indian to me.”

Hicks was the only Indian in his AFI class of 74 students. But as is his knack, he got along with everybody. And by the end of his second year at AFI, Hicks had finished his student film – a 25-minute film called Return of the Country – a satire on what Indians would do if they got the country back. It was a great student film, and it was well received. And when it was finished, he took it back to Oklahoma and screened it for the Osage Tribe, who had help put him through AFI. The film helped him land a job as a low-ranking production assistant on Francis Ford Coppola’s The Outsiders, which filmed in Tulsa. “I did everything on that film,” he recalled. “In the beginning I was a voice coach; then a stage manager during the rehearsal period. I even had to knock on Coppola’s trailer to tell him he was wanted on the set. Everybody was scared of him, but I wasn’t.”

One time, Hicks even had to try and pop Coppola’s bad back. “I met Coppola in the hallway at base camp one day,” Hicks remembered, “and he said, ‘Do you think you can lift me up?’ He wanted me to pop his back. I tried but he was too big and I couldn’t lock my hands around his chest to pick him up.” Hicks was paying his dues.

At about this time, Will Sampson helped form the American Indian Registry for the Performing Arts, a sort of clearinghouse for Indian actors. The idea was to let the film and television industry know that trained Indian actors were available. “It was really founded by Zoe Escobar, who was Will Sampson’s girfriend,” Hicks said. “It was her idea. She got a grant for $30,000 from the Administration for Native Americans to put together an organization to create a directory with pictures and resumes to give out to the studios. And with Will on the board of directors, they got a lot of attention.” It wasn’t long before the Registry’s board asked Hicks to be its executive director. “Once it got started, the Registry hit on hard times,” Hicks recalled. “Some of the people lured me into being a board member. I didn’t know I was on the board until they called me and congratulated me. Two weeks later, they asked me to run it. So I accepted. I was broke and I needed the money.”

Hicks spent most of his time putting out a directory of Native American talent, and meeting with studio and network executives, imploring them to make use of that talent. “I was able to turn out a directory and make contact with the studio executives,” he said. “The Registry was more of a casting agency. But there was not a big pool of people who lived here in L.A. That was one of the weaknesses of the thing. All we requested from people was a headshot and a membership fee, and they could be in the book. But it was top-heavy with actors, 70% of whom were from out of town, with no training. But I knew that if things were going to change, it would come with writers, producers and directors. That’s where the power lies. Actors don’t have power. They just wait for the phone to ring.”

And whenever there was a role being cast calling for an Indian character, Bob would try to meet the producers to show them the Indian talent that was available. In the late 1980s, he heard that a little company called Tig Productions was getting ready to cast a western that none of the major studios wanted to distribute. So Hicks arranged a meeting with one of the producers, Jim Wilson, and met him at Wilson’s office at Raleigh Studios. “I went to meet Jim,” he said, “and Kevin Costner was there. I gave them a Registry book and they gave me a script. It was called Dances With Wolves. The film, which featured Indian actors in all the Indian roles, would go on to win seven Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay and Best Actor – and mark a turning point for Hollywood.

Bob Hicks Native American Filmmaker Dead at 80Dances with Wolves was the watershed,” Hicks said. “It showed Hollywood that Native American performers could act. Hollywood has opened the door a crack, thanks largely to Dances With Wolves.” The days of ‘painting down’ white actors to portray Indian characters had finally come to an end.

A few years earlier, in 1987, Hicks was living in an apartment in Los Feliz, a neighborhood of Los Angeles, when the phone rang. It was Maura Dhu, the singer and actress, calling to invite Hicks to see her show at the Cinegrill, a cabaret nightclub at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel. “I said, ‘I’ve got this friend here visiting from Oklahoma,’” he recalled telling her. “He was staying with me – sleeping on my couch – and I didn’t want to go off and leave him. So she said, ‘Well, bring him along.’ So I took him with me, and when they met, it was love at first sight.” Hicks’ out-of-town friend was a struggling young actor named Wes Studi, who would go on to marry Maura and become the biggest Native American star in Hollywood.

Hicks had met Studi a couple of years earlier in Oklahoma when Bob was casting a play – The Royal Hunt of the Sun – that he was going to direct in Tulsa. “Wes was working in a one-act show, and I was invited to watch the rehearsals,” Hicks recalled. “He was outstanding. His timing was perfect. I knew I was gonna be directing this play, and a few weeks later, when I was holding auditions, Wes walked through the door, and I cast him in the lead role.”

In 1988, Hicks would cast Studi again – this time in the actor’s first movie role. “I was working on a two-hour movie for PBS called The Trial of Standing Bear, which was a real-life story of a Ponca Indian who had to go to court in 1879 to prove that he was a human being,” Hicks said.

The TV movie was being shot in Lincoln, Nebraska, for American Playhouse, and Hicks, who was the associate producer, assistant director and second unit director, figured Studi would be perfect for one of the roles. “I cast Wes in one of the parts,” Hicks recalled. “I called him in Oklahoma and said, ‘There’s a good part here. If you can get to Lincoln, it’s yours.’ And he got there and he got the part and he did an outstanding job.’” And from there, Studi’s career took off.

Bob Hicks Native American Filmmaker Dead at 80“Wes eventually moved out to L.A. and started auditioning for movies,” Hicks said. “It didn’t take him long to hook up and start working. He was very fortunate.”  In 1989, Studi appeared in Powwow Highway; and the year after that, in Dances with Wolves; and a year later, in The Doors, and the year after that, in The Last of the Mohicans. Role after role would follow. Hicks and Studi would later play important roles in another project that would make history: an awards show that would, for the first time, honor Native American artists and performers.

Hicks had been divorced from his wife Terry since 1980, but in January of 1990, he learned that she had been diagnosed with cancer, so he left the Registry and went back to Oklahoma to take care of her. He stayed with her until she died that September. And when he returned to Hollywood, the Registry was on its last legs due to infighting and a lack of funds. In 1991, Hicks and nine of his friends met at actress Sheri Foster’s home and came up with the idea for an awards show honoring Native Americans.  “I was running the Registry at the time and I thought it would be great to have an awards show to honor Native Americans,” he recalled. “We didn’t have anything like that. The blacks had their own awards – the NAACP Image Awards; and the Latinos had their own – the Nosotros Awards; the Asians had theirs, and the whites had theirs – it’s called the Oscars. So I thought we should do something of our own.”

The organization they founded on May 9, 1992, was called First Americans in the Arts. Besides Hicks, the ten founders included Sheri Foster, actor-writer Harrison Lowe, actress-singer Maura Dhu, producer Dawn Jackson, make-up artist Selina Jayne, actor Mark Abbott, teacher Vickie Chantlos, producer Roger Ellis, and production assistant Colleen Regan. Hicks was elected president, and would serve as leader of First Americans in the Arts for the next 14 years; producing the last three awards shows. The Registry was honored that first year, and the first film to receive the award for best picture was Thunderheart. And over the next 14 years, First Americans in the Arts would honor hundreds of Indian performers, writers, producers, singers and directors. And Hicks’ old friend, Studi, would be the most honored Native American of them all. “He has won the most awards,” Hicks said proudly. But Hicks was most proud of the many scholarships that First Americans in the Arts has given to Indian students – scholarship that he hopes will one day open more doors for Native Americans.

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