Tonto is the Native-American partner of the Lone Ranger. He is from the Potawatomi tribe (an Apache in the 2003 television film, but a Comanche in the 2013 film). His name means "Crazy One" or "The Fool" in Spanish.
In most versions of the Lone Ranger story, Tonto is the last surviving member of a wandering band of Potawatomi Native Americans. His tribe, in some versions including a sister, is massacred when he is young boy. A white boy named John Reid finds Tonto still alive and cares for him until he heals. Before they part company, Tonto gives Reid a ring, and calls him "Kemosabe," which means "faithful friend" or "trusty
Years later, Tonto is hunting when he comes upon the scene of the ambush in Bryant's Gap, finding five dead Texas Rangers and one barely alive. He recognizes the living Ranger as the boy who helped him long ago, and now cares for him. He buries the other five Rangers, but digs six graves, to make the outlaws believe all six men were killed. When Reid decides to put on a mask and become the Lone Ranger, Tonto vows his loyalty to his friend and joins him in his pursuit of law and order.
Actor John Todd played Tonto almost exclusively on the radio series from 1933 to 1954. He even carried the majority of the action during the transition between Rangers Earle Graser and Brace Beemer, when the Lone Ranger character was injured and could not speak above a whisper.
For the entire run of the television series, 1949-1957, Tonto was portrayed by Jay Silverheels. Silverheels appeared in every one of the 221 episodes alongside both Clayton Moore and John Hart. This version was essentially the same as he was presented in the radio series. Though Tonto still spoke in pidgen English, this is the first time he was played by a Native American actor (Silverheels was a Mohawk from Canada) and was the first time a television show featured a Native American actor in a major role. Tonto in this depiction was a Potowatomi tribesman.
For the WB network's ill-received 2003 TV movie, Nathaniel Arcand assumed the role of Tonto. His performance was said to be one of the few highlights of the project. His Tonto was much more articulate, and much more of his own character than the previous interpretations of the character.
Unlike earlier versions, Arcand's Tonto is an Apache rather than a Potawatomi. His tribe was not massacred and his sister, Alope is introduced as a possible romantic interest for the Lone Ranger. Tonto is also a master of a form of Native American martial arts, which resemble kung fu, and enable a fighter to leap superhuman distances.
Michael Horse assumed the role for 1981's "The Legend of the Lone Ranger." In this version Tonto's pidgin english was gone and we saw Tonto teach the Ranger most of his skills. Tonto even introduced the silver bullets claiming silver is more accurate than lead.
Johnny Depp plays Tonto in the 2013 Lone Ranger film. In this version, Tonto is a Comanche who accidentally caused his tribe's massacre as a boy. The tragedy changes Tonto and he adopts distinctive face-paint and a headdress with a dead crow on it as a sort of penance. Eventually he becomes the Lone Ranger's mentor and partner. The film is ambguous about whether Tonto has magical insghts and powers or is just insane, though it leans strongly to the former. Johnny Depp's makeup and costuming was inspired by Kirby Sattler's painting I am Crow.
In Dynamite Entertainment's 2006 comic book series Tonto is a much larger man than we are used to seeing. The childhood friendship between Tonto and the Ranger has been eliminated and the two have a fairly uneasy alliance, although Tonto seems to see something special in the Ranger that compells him to stick with him.