A real shoot ’em up
Jerome Bonaparte Ward may be the most durable and least known movie actor ever to come from south Louisiana.
“Black Jack” Ward, as he was known in the industry, was born in Franklin in 1891. He was a bit player who appeared in 160 cowboy films from the late 1920s to the late 1940s, but his name appeared in the film credits of only four of them: “Rainbow Riders” (1934) as the Candy Kid, “Lightning Bill” (1934) as Ranch Hand Red, “The Ghost Rider” (1935) as Henchman Chalky, and “Texas Stampede” (1939) as Ave Avery.
Although he never played a lead role (or even second fiddle), he was apparently good enough to keep steady work. He was in 42 films during 1931 and 1932 alone—years when half the country was thrown out of work by the Great Depression.
Ward was one of dozens of real cowboys who found their way to Hollywood to work as extras during those hungry days. He was a rough-and-ready guy who actually worked cattle for much of his young life and who claimed to have ridden with Pancho Villa during the Mexican Revolution in 1910.
According to one biographer, “His skill on horseback kept him busy in the hundreds upon hundreds of westerns that required competent riders, and his villainous scowl and expressive eyes secured him plenty of work as a background henchman.”
That’s what kept him in shoot ’em up cowboy movies. A real-life shooting put him into the newspapers.
That was on February 23, 1940, when Ward and about 50 other cowboy extras were gathered outside a drug store on Sunset Boulevard near Columbia Studios. The cowboys assembled there regularly because the drug store let the men give the number of its pay phone to Central Casting, which was the agency that provided work for the extras.
One of the other cowboys gathered there was a stunt man named John Tyke, who apparently had a longer list of credits at the Los Angeles police department than in the movie studios. In fact, on that February morning the police were looking for him to discuss an armed robbery at a nearby gas station.
Ward told the newspapers after everything was over that Tyke had been threatening him.
“I fed and helped that varmint for years,” Ward said in a newspaper interview. “A few months ago he was in jail for drunk driving, but I didn’t go to see him. When he got out he kept pestering me because of it. We had an argument and he threatened me. One day he said he was going to beat me to death or use his Bowie knife on me.”
The old argument came to a head that morning, but Tyke’s big knife didn’t do him much good. It seems lots of the old cowboys still carried six-shooters—“it was just a habit from the days on the range,” Ward said.
Ward — and most of the witnesses — said Tyke attacked him with his knife. Ward had his six-gun and this time it wasn’t full of the blanks he loaded it with during movie scenes. He had real bullets in it and he shot Tyke dead.
Ward claimed self-defense and most of the cowboy community sided with him. They said Tyke had “always been mean and ornery.” They said he was a good stunt man who “was always working himself out of jobs because he was so mean.” On July 18, 1940, the Los Angeles district attorney found that Ward fired in self-defense and dismissed all charges against him.
Even before the shooting, however, Black Jack had a reputation as “a tough old cowboy” who stood his ground—and that apparently didn’t change. Two years later he served a year in jail for pistol whipping another cowboy extra during an argument about Tyke’s killing. Witnesses said Ward might have shot him but his this time the old six-shooter was unloaded. Several years after that Ward was fined for chasing a man through a market with a meat cleaver after the man refused to lend him a dollar.
He did mellow a bit in his later years, but just a little bit. Ward died peacefully in bed in Los Angeles in 1954. According to some of his old buddies, his last words were, “Tell my friends adios, and my enemies I’ll see them in hell.”
You can contact Jim Bradshaw at email@example.com or P.O. Box 1121, Washington LA 70589.