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The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture

Will Sampson
(2012.201.B1144.0606, Oklahoma Publishing Company Photography Collection, OHS).

SAMPSON, WILLIAM (1933–1987).

An actor, William "Will" Sampson was born in Okmulgee, Oklahoma, on September 27, 1933, to Wylie and Mabel Lewis Sampson, who were full-blood Muscogee (Creek) Indians. A multi-talented child, Will Sampson was interested in nearly everything around him. Self-taught, he began painting at an early age and ultimately became a successful painter of Western art. Fascinated by the rodeo world, he made many friends among the cowboys while he worked at becoming a capable, competitive bull rider. During service in the U.S. Navy he had an opportunity to learn to fly a plane, but he was never officially a Navy pilot. He also tried oil field and construction work, but it was Sampson's art that was to drastically change his life. At a height of six feet, four inches, he presented an imposing figure that was difficult to ignore. He was noticed at an art show and offered the role of Chief Bromden in the 1975 Academy Award–winning film One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (a role reprised on stage in 2001 by his son, Tim). His performance earned recognition and acclaim, and the respect of the film-making community.

Sampson's career lasted only twelve years, but during that short period he played in several major motion pictures, including Firewalker (1986), Poltergeist II (1986), Orca (1977), and The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976). He also acted in a number of television series such as Vegas (1978, starring Robert Urich), in which he played the recurring role of a character named Two Leaf. He received a nomination for a prestigious Genie award from Canada's Academy of Cinema for his portrayal of old Fish Hawk in the film Fish Hawk (1979). During his too-brief career, Sampson helped to open many show business doors for American Indian media professionals. He was among those responsible for establishing the American Indian Film Institute in 1979. In 1983 he founded and served on the board of directors of the American Indian Registry for the Performing Arts. Will Sampson died on June 3, 1987, in Houston, from scleroderma, a condition he developed after a successful heart-lung surgery.

Judith Michener


Larry O'Dell, comp., Oklahoma @ the Movies (Oklahoma City: Oklahoma Historical Society, 2012).

Okmulgee Historical Society, History of Okmulgee County, Oklahoma (Tulsa, Okla.: Historical Enterprises, Inc., 1985).

"Will Sampson," Vertical File, Research Division, Oklahoma Historical Society, Oklahoma City.


The following (as per The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition) is the preferred citation for articles:
Judith Michener, “Sampson, William,” The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, https://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry?entry=SA012.

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