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Opinion

Johnny Depp's Tonto aside, sidekicks deserve praise

Johnny Depp’s exaggerated performance as sidekick Tonto in the 'The Lone Ranger' serves as a useful reminder that being a good No. 2 is harder than it looks, and that humble second bananas often perform a useful role in entertainment, literature, and politics.

By Danny HeitmanOp-ed contributor / August 23, 2013

Johnny Depp, left, as Tonto, walks alongside Armie Hammer as The Lone Ranger, in a scene from the film 'The Lone Ranger.' Op-ed contributor Danny Heitman writes: 'One has to wonder if the essential virtues of the junior partner – deference, modesty, the muting of self – are lapsing into extinction.'

Peter Mountain/Disney/Jerry Bruckheimer, Inc./AP/file

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Baton Rouge, La.

The latest “Lone Ranger” flopped at the box office this summer, and one likely reason for the film’s poor reception was the intentional over-the-top performance of Johnny Depp as Tonto, an ostensible sidekick to the title character who ended up stealing the show. The movie seemed curiously off balance, as if Don Quixote’s squire, Sancho Panza, had headlined “The Man of La Mancha.”

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Mr. Depp’s travails serve as a useful reminder that being a good sidekick is harder than it looks, and that second bananas often perform a useful role in entertainment, literature, and politics. There’s an art to being No. 2, but in a culture committed to the primacy of the individual, few people seem willing to pursue such a self-effacing vocation.

Nobody dreams of being the understudy when he grows up. That certainly wasn’t the goal of James Boswell, the Scottish man of letters who arrived in London in 1762 with dreams of joining the Royal Foot Guards. Boswell’s lively journal secured him a place on the B-list of literary celebrity, but his real claim to fame is as Samuel Johnson’s biographer, an accidental employment that required him to work in his subject’s shadow. Boswell’s gift for sublimation helped create the art of modern biography, a miracle that wouldn’t have happened if he had insisted on the spotlight instead.

One gathers from Boswell’s example that British culture, with its embrace of hierarchy and class structure, is more resigned to the idea that destiny casts some of us as heroes, and others in supporting roles. British literature offers many useful examples of indispensable assistants, from Robinson Crusoe’s Friday to Sherlock Holmes’s Dr. Watson.

The first American film adaptations of the Sherlock Holmes stories often distorted Watson into an amiable dolt, an apparent gesture of contempt toward someone who would content himself with being a loyal lieutenant in an adventure rather than the captain. But recent takes on Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous detective, including the new “Holmes” TV series in the United States and England, give Watson more respect – a healthy acknowledgment that humbly helping a hero can be a form of quiet heroism in itself.

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