Iron Eyes Cody

The name might not ring a bell, but if you watched TV in the 70s, you certainly learned a lesson about pollution from his tear-stricken face. As such, Iron Eyes Cody became one of most recognizable faces in pop-culture history. But all is not what it seemed; wait until you hear the real story behind this fascinating man.

Iron Eyes Cody was an actor who appeared in dozens of western films, always portraying Native Americans. In 1971, he was asked to appear in a series of commercials for the nonprofit “Keep America Beautiful” environmental group. His life would never be the same.

In the commercials, he would travel along a litter infested river in his canoe and walk among the garbage that washed on shore. The camera would pan to his face, which displayed a solitary tear rolling down his cheek. The accompanying voiceover by actor William Conrad contained the scolding words, “People start pollution, people can stop it.”

The ads ran throughout the entire decade and beyond, making Iron Eyes Cody more of a celebrity than any western film. And that might be the end of the story if it wasn’t for one little fact that many are still unaware of to this day. Iron Eyes Cody wasn’t an Indian. In fact, he was Italian.

He was born Espera Oscar de Corti, the orphaned son of an Italian immigrant who deserted his family. Yearning to star in movies, and realizing that there were plenty of roles available for people who looked Native American, he donned the tradition garb of an American Indian and set out for Hollywood.

Numerous film roles followed and de Corti stayed in character whether he was working or not. He dressed the part every day, married a Native American woman and adopted two Indian children. He also devoted his life to the cause, raising awareness and money. In fact, he met with every President from Roosevelt to Clinton to discuss the plight of the American Indian.

During his lifetime, he never once admitted to his deception, defiantly proclaiming “you can’t prove anything!” It mattered little among those he had worked so tirelessly for over the years. They considered him an Indian regardless of what his actual heritage might have been, and rightfully so. He was their hero.

If you have memories of the of long-running commercials that Iron Eyes Cody appeared in, I’d love to hear any thoughts you might have in thecomments section below.

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9 Responses

  1. Brian J Weimer says:

    Just saw the American Pickers show talking about Him, and the Lady whose Uncle was His manager. She had a big canvas TeePee with Iron Eyes Cody painted on it, and a photo album, and a little sign with Iron Eyes Cody painted on it, A Really Neat Show!!!

  2. Terry Leatherwood says:

    I have a pipe tomahawk and a few other items from his museum. It was once said of Grey Eagle, an English born man who lived as a Native American, It’s not always the path you are born to, but the path you choose that defines you. Iron Eyes Cody chose his path well.

  3. T. O'Connor says:

    I no longer live on Long Island, but decades ago, I believe in the early- to mid-1980s, an article in Newsday reported that Iron Eyes Cody had lived for a time in Centerport.

    I’ve just Googled it and can find no connection, but my memory is excellent and this was certainly once stated in Newsday, even if the reporter was wrong.

  4. Anonymous says:

    I remember this we’ll I was 10 …the commercial had and has a deeper meaning than pollution… And more about white America. What it stole, took, and degrade… That was what that tear drop meant to me.

  5. Donna Strome says:

    Why didn’t they use a real Indian (Native American)?

  6. Anonymous says:

    because a fake one was good enough

  7. Michael Rector says:

    I remember him when I was a kid. It used to make me tear up when they showed the pollution and him with the tear.

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