Tonto made his first appearance on the twelfth episode of the radio show (which aired on station WXYZ on February 25 1933). Though he became as well-known as his friend, Tonto was originally created just so the Lone Ranger would have someone to talk to. Throughout the radio run (which spanned twenty-one years), with only a few exceptions, Tonto was played by English actor John Todd.
The character was portrayed on television (arguably the most well-remembered version today) by Jay Silverheels. This was by far the highest-rated television program on the ABC network in the early 1950s and its first true "hit".
Johnny Depp will play the character in a film adaption of The Lone Ranger.
Two conflicting origin stories have been given for the character, and how he came to work with the Lone Ranger. Unlike Zorro's servant Bernardo (Tote Du Crow and Gene Sheldon), Tonto speaks but does not use sign language.
As originally presented, in the December 7 1938 radio broadcast, Reid had already been well-established as the Lone Ranger when he met Tonto. In that episode, "Cactus Pete", a friend of the Lone Ranger tells the story of how the masked man and Tonto first met. According to that tale, Tonto had been caught in the explosion when two men dynamited a gold mine they were working. One of the men wanted to kill the wounded Tonto, but the Lone Ranger arrived on the scene, and made him administer first aid. The man subsequently decided to keep Tonto around, intending to make him the fall guy when he would later murder his partner. The Lone Ranger foiled both the attempted murder and the attempted framing of Tonto. No reason was given in the episode as to why Tonto chose to travel with the Lone Ranger, rather than continue about his business. A reasonable assumption would be that he felt a sense of gratitude to the man.
A different version was given, with very few differences, in both later episodes of the radio drama and at the beginning of the Lone Ranger television series. Tonto rescues a man named Reid, the sole surviving Texas Ranger of a party who was tricked into an ambush by the outlaw Butch Cavendish (although later reference works referred to the future Lone Ranger as "John" Reid, no first name was ever given to the Lone Ranger in either the radio or TV series). Tonto recognizes the ranger as someone who had saved him when they were both boys. He refers to him by the title "Kemo Sabe" , explaining that the phrase means "faithful friend" in the language of his tribe. Tonto helps Reid give a decent burial to the other rangers.
This Native American was portrayed as an intelligent character, almost an equal partner to the Ranger in his work. Together, they seem to be capable of righting almost any wrong within the half-hour time frame.
The radio series identified Tonto as a chief's son in the Potawatomi nation. His name translates as wild one in his own language. For the most part, the Potawatomi did not live in the Southwestern states, and their cultural costume is different from that worn by Tonto. The choice to make Tonto a Potawatomi seems to come from station owner George Trendle's youth in Michigan. This is the traditional territory of the Potawatomi, and many local institutions use Potawatomi names. The phrase kemo sabe, however, was coined not by Trendle but by James Jewell, co-creator and director of the radio series; according to Jewell, his father-in-law ran a camp named Ke-Moh-Sah-Bee in Michigan, and he understood the word to mean "trusty scout". Cecil Adams of The Straight Dope confirmed with linguists that "kemosabe" could plausibly be an Ojibwe word (giimoozaabi) for "scout"
Later, the portrayal of Tonto was seen by some Native Americans as degrading, including noted Native American author and poet Sherman Alexie. Tonto spoke in a pidgin, saying things like, "That right, Kemo Sabe," or "Him say man ride over ridge on horse." Further, in Portuguese, Italian and Spanish, the word "Tonto" means "fool" or "idiot" (although this appears to have been a coincidence, as the character is depicted as intelligent), so the name was changed in the dubbed versions. In some Spanish speaking countries, he was named "Toro", which means "bull". Television actor Silverheels was not above making a little fun of the character himself, as in a classic Tonight Show sketch with Johnny Carson.
Tonto has appeared in the various films, comic strips, and comic books based on The Lone Ranger. Later depictions beginning in the 1980s have taken efforts to show Tonto as an articulate and proud warrior whom the Ranger treats as an equal partner.
Tonto appeared in Inspector Gadget, during the Minions Anonymous meeting.