Johny Carpenter, a B Western actor and writer-producer who gained greater fame offscreen for his work with the disabled, died of cancer Feb. 27 in a Burbank, Calif., nursing home. He was 88.
His onscreen claims to fame are four low-budget oaters that he starred in, wrote and produced in the 1950s: “I Killed Wild Bill Hickok,” “Outlaw Treasure,” “Lawless Rider” and “Son of the Renegade.”
Born Jasper Carpenter in Debinsville, Ark., he played for the U. of Arkansas baseball team and eventually moved his way through the minors and was scheduled to join the Chicago White Sox in 1936. But during spring practice, he was seriously injured in a hit-and-run accident, ending his baseball career.
He and his brother, Frank, moved to Los Angeles in the early 1940s, and Carpenter attracted film studio heads with his riding skills. As a stuntman, Carpenter rode a horse in the Grand National race in 1944’s “National Velvet,” with Mickey Rooney and Elizabeth Taylor.
Around the same time, he began doing bit parts in low-budget Westerns such as “Navajo Trail,” starring Johnny Mack Brown, and “The El Paso Kid,” with Sunset Carson. He then worked his way up to larger roles in B Westerns such as “Badman’s Gold.”
At the same time his acting career was taking off in the mid-1940s, Carpenter was approached by a group of blind musicians who wanted to ride horses at his small ranch in Griffith Park. The men, who became regulars at Carpenter’s ranch, eventually were able to ride jumping horses. And as word spread, Carpenter recalled, “I had more blind and disabled people wanting to ride, so I just taught them.”
In 1969, he leased a 4½-acre spread that he dubbed the Heaven on Earth Ranch. With help from volunteers, he built a replica of an Old West town, complete with a saloon, general store and jail. Thousands of children from the Los Angeles Unified School District and groups such as the United Cerebral Palsy/Spastic Children’s Foundation, visited the ranch for free.
Carpenter received numerous awards for his work with the disabled, including the Jefferson Award from the American Institute of Public Service and letters of commendation from then-California Gov. Ronald Reagan and Pat Nixon.
He is survived by a sister.