News Column

Wes Studi, famed actor, set for TATE Distinguished Artist award

June 23, 2013


June 23--Wes Studi holds a unique distinction among the recipients of the Distinguished Artist Award from the Tulsa Awards for Theatre Excellence.

He's the only honoree to have appeared in a production nominated for the TATE Awards.

That was in 2010, when Studi took time out from his work in films and television to play a role in "Buffalo Gallery," an original play by Julie Little Thunder presented by Thunder Road Theatre Company.

"Well, that's almost honor enough," Studi said, laughing, when the fact was pointed out to him.

But Studi is also unique among the recipients of this award, in that his career -- which has included acclaimed performances in such films as "Dances with Wolves," "Last of the Mohicans," "Geronimo," "Avatar" and fellow Oklahoma native Terrence Malick's "The New World" -- is due to his participation in the kind of community theatre the TATE Awards honors.

Studi will be in Tulsa to receive the Distinguished Artist Award at the TATE Awards ceremony, Sunday at the Cascia Hall Performing Arts Center.

He will take part in what is billed as "A Conversation with Wes Studi" prior to the awards presentation.

The Tulsa Awards for the Theatre Excellence, funded by the George Kaiser Family Foundation, were created to recognize and reward the city's nonprofit, non-equity theatre companies.

Fourteen shows by eight companies are competing for $20,000 in cash prizes, with the winner of the Outstanding Production earning $10,000.

"I'm really excited about this award, because from what I hear, the (George Kaiser Family Foundation) is doing all sorts of good things for the arts in Tulsa," Studi said.

Studi will be presented the award by Julie Little Thunder and Bob Hicks.

"Bob lives in Okmulgee now, but we've worked together on a lot of things in the past," Studi said. "And Julie sort of got me started in this whole business."

Studi was born in Nofire Hollow in northeastern Oklahoma; his first language was Cherokee, which he still speaks.

Studi served in the Army for six years, including a tour of duty in Vietnam, then became involved in the American Indian Movement, taking part in various protest events during the early 1970s, including the occupation of Wounded Knee.

"After that," Studi said, "I knew I needed to turn my life around -- find other things to do, other people to meet, that would move me in a more positive direction, but would still give me a way to contribute to my people."

Studi worked for the Cherokee Nation in Tahlequah, teaching the Cherokee language. He later became a professional horse trainer and owned his own ranch.

"Then a friend of mine, who was on the board of the American Indian Theatre Company, said I should check out the acting workshops they had," Studi said. "I decided to enroll, right about the time they were workshopping a new play called 'The Raven's Work.'

"We put together a cast and started taking around to any place that would give some space to do it -- old folk's homes, you name it," he said. "By the time we had ran that into the earth, I had been bitten by the acting bug."

In 1984, AITCO mounted its most ambitious production, "Black Elk Speaks," with film and TV stars David Carradine and Will Sampson headlining a cast of local actors. Studi was a member of that cast, playing three different parts.

In 1999, Studi returned to Tulsa in a production of "Black Elk Speaks," this time playing the leading role.

"Amazingly enough, being in that (1984) show led to everything else," Studi said. "A number of people came to Oklahoma to cast roles in other productions. I got a job with Nebraska's educational TV network, which led to getting a part in 'The Legend of Standing Bear.' Then it was a matter of going to Los Angeles and finding what I could do there."

What Studi could do was land a major role in the film "Powwow Highway," which led to his being cast in "Dances with Wolves."

Since then, Studi has rarely been absent from movie and television screens, whether in feature films or TV movies such as the trio of mysteries based on Oklahoma native Tony Hillerman's novels about Joe Leaphorn.

His work earned him a place in the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum's Hall of Great Western Performers -- only the second American Indian actor so honored, after Jay Silverheels.

"Unfortunately, live theater has become something I do less and less -- but not because I don't enjoy it," he said. "I love doing stage work, but it's a matter of economics. Sometimes it's simply more economically feasible to take a role in the movie or TV show because of the time involved."

His most recent stage work was as part of a staged reading production of the play "8," about the court battle over California's Proposition 8 and marriage equality.

And he's getting close to wrapping up work on his next film -- Seth MacFarlane's "A Million Ways to Die in the West."

"I can't really talk that much about it, other than to say it's a comedy in the vein of 'Blazing Saddles,'" Studi said. "I think they're still working out exactly how my character's name is going to be spelled."


When: Sunday. 6 p.m. reception. 7 p.m. Conversation with Wes Studi. 7:40 p.m. awards ceremony.

Where: Cascia Hall PAC, 2520 S. Yorktown Ave.

Tickets: $10. 918-596-7111, Cash only at the door.

James D. Watts Jr 918-581-8478


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