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Who is That Masked Man? 6 Things to Know About the Lone Ranger

The character has been around for 80 years but hasn't been a hit for 50. A quick primer on the famous Western hero.

"The Lone Ranger"

The Lone Ranger is 5 years older than Superman and celebrates his 80th birthday this year.

FILM REVIEW: The Lone Ranger

Having appeared in movies, TV, radio shows, novels, comic books, as a toy and heck even on lunch boxes, he's one of the most enduring and successful characters in pop culture.

But the Lone Ranger's heyday was 50 years ago. Those under 40 probably know the name but not much else about the masked hero. 

Here are six things to know about character and his history in advance of Disney's big-budget Johnny Depp-Armie Hammer reboot, The Lone Ranger, arriving in theaters on July 3:
 
 
1. He's older than Superman.
The Lone Ranger premiered in January 1933 on WXYZ in Detroit, meaning the character celebrates his 80th birthday this year. Superman, by contrast, did not make his debut until 1938.
 
The character was the brainchild of station owner George Trendle and writers James Jewell and Fran Striker. The idea was, play off the popularity of cowboys but add elements of Zorro and Robin Hood to the story. From the beginning, Ranger was to be a wholesome hero who didn't drink or smoke, did not use violence recklessly and would be a role model.
 
The basic origin story was outlined: Six Texas Rangers chasing the notorious criminal Butch Cavendish are ambushed by him and his gang. When Tonto, a Potawatomi Indian (never mind that the Potawatomi are from the Great Lakes, not the Southwest), discovers the bodies, they are all dead except for John Reid, the younger brother of Capt. Dan Reid, the head of the detachment, who coincidentally had once saved Dan Reid's life. Tonto nurses Reid back to health and creates a fake sixth grave to fool Cavendish into thinking everyone died. The Lone Ranger and Tonto team up to capture Cavendish and chase other criminals across the Southwest. 
 
The other familiar elements were also there early on: Tonto, the mask (made from Dan Reid's vest), Silver, the theme song.  
 
And, of course, those familiar opening lines: "A fiery horse with the speed of light, a cloud of dust and a hearty 'Hi-yo Silver!' The Lone Ranger! ... With his faithful Indian companion Tonto, the daring and resourceful masked rider of the plains led the fight for law and order in the early western United States! Nowhere in the pages of history can one find a greater champion of justice! Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear! From out of the past come the thundering hoofbeats of the great horse Silver! The Lone Ranger rides again!"
 
The radio show was an instant hit. A promotion designed for 300 fans drew 25,000 responses. The program ran for more than 2,500 episodes before going off the air in 1956. 
 
 
2. It was the first Western made for television and one of ABC's first hits.
In 1949, the show made the leap to the new medium of television, becoming the first Western made exclusively for television. This is the iconic version of the character, with Clayton Moore as the Lone Ranger and Jay Silverheels as Tonto (a contract dispute replaced Moore with John Hart for one season, but those episodes were taken out of syndication for the next 30 years).  
 
The show was a huge hit -- the biggest show on ABC, the last-place network. Moore and Silverheels took their position as role models seriously and often cited the Ranger's creed, which included: To have a friend, a man must be one; all men are created equal; and everyone has within himself the power to make this a better world. "God put the firewood there, but that every man must gather and light it himself, a man should make the most of what equipment he has, that 'this government of the people, by the people, and for the people' shall live always, that men should live by the rule of what is best for the greatest number."
 
The production schedule was brutal. The first "season" consisted of 78 straight episodes that were then reran in sequence. The second and third seasons were 52 episodes long. The last season consisted of a then industry-standard run of "just" 39 episodes.  
 
Texas oil magnate and producer Jack Wrather, who had acquired the rights to the character in 1954, canceled the show in 1957 in the hopes of turning it into a movie franchise, making two movies, 1956's Lone Ranger and 1958's The Lone Ranger and the Lost City of Gold
 
 
3. Silver bullets, "Hi-yo Silver" and that cool theme song. 
Like any good superhero, the Ranger has cool stuff (see Batman's utility belt, Spider-Man's web shooter). He uses silver bullets in his gun (and, no, they aren't for killing vampires werewolves). The explanation is varied. Early versions attributed them to a silver mine the Reid family owned that the brothers were going to use to fund their retirement. The Ranger used the bullets to remind him of the family he lost. The TV version tweaked the story (in a very 1950s way) to emphasize that the Ranger used an expensive metal in his bullets to remind him of how precious human life is and to be cautious in how he often he shot someone.   
 
Silver, the Ranger's trusty horse, was introduced a few episodes in. The legend has Silver, a wild horse, agreeing to serve the Ranger after he saved the animal from being killed by a charging buffalo. (OK, how does a horse "decide" to serve a man?").  "Hi-yo Silver," the famous phrase the Ranger utters before he starts riding, originated as a way to signal to radio listeners that a riding scene was about to begin. 
 
One of the most enduring and recognizable aspects of the Ranger is his theme song, which comes from the "William Tell Overture" by Gioachino Rossini, which has been part of the character since the radio show (when classical music on shows was common). Less well-known is the theme song written for the TV show that recounted the Ranger's origin. 
 
4. Armie Hammer is Seth Rogen's great uncle (and James Lipton his dad). 
In 1936, Trendle and Striker created a new serial for WXYZ: The Green Hornet, a modern era masked crimefighter equipped with the (then) latest high-tech gadgets. The Hornet's real identity was newspaper publisher Britt Reid, the son of the Lone Ranger's nephew Dan Reid, marking one of the first times a creator had tried to build a shared universe (DC and Marvel would not have crossovers until the 1940s).  
 
The Lone Ranger-Green Hornet connection means that Armie Hammer (the Ranger in the new Disney flick) is technically Seth Rogen's great uncle. Even weirder, Inside the Actor's Studio host James Lipton, who played the part of Dan Reid on the radio as a child actor, is Rogen's dad and Hammer's nephew. 
 
5. "Kemosabe" is a made-up word. 
The show's creators never said where the word came from, and fans have been arguing about its origins ever since. Slate has a great run down of the word's history here. One theory has the name coming from a Michigan boy's camp called Ke Mo Sah Bee. Other says it comes from a play on the Spanish phrase for "Who knows?" Still others root it in Pueblo Indian language. Slate has the full rundown on the theories here. The truth is, no one knows. Striker said it meant "good friend" or "trusty scout," and that's the interpretation that has stuck. In fact, that meaning has become so popular that Webster's added it to the dictionary in 2002. 
 
6. He hasn't had a real hit in 50 years. 
Since the TV show stopped producing new episodes in 1956, Hollywood has tried repeatedly to revive the character without much luck.  
 
A 1961 CBS pilot, The Return of the Lone Ranger, did not get picked up for the network's schedule. 
 
Two short-lived animated series came and went. The Lone Ranger lasted 30 episodes in the late 1960s, and the Tarzan/Lone Ranger Adventure Hour lasted just 14 episodes in the early 1980s.
 
A 1981 movie revival The Legend of the Lone Ranger was a bomb, grossing about $12 million on an estimated $18 million budget. The movie is notable only for the bad publicity surrounding a lawsuit by Wrather to force Clayton Moore to stop wearing the Lone Ranger mask and costume at promotional appearances. Wrather won the suit but the negative publicity was terrible. A few years later, he caved and let Moore start wearing the mask again. 
 
A 2003 WB TV pilot featuring Chad Michael Murray as the Lone Ranger failed to make the network's schedule but was eventually repurposed as a TV movie of the week. 
 
If the Depp-Hammer version of The Lone Ranger is successful, it will be the first time since John F. Kennedy was president that the character will be part of a hit.