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And it's Hi-Ho, Johnny, Away

He's played a swashbuckling pirate, a zany chocolate tycoon, a scissor-handed man-child, the Mad Hatter of Wonderland and drug-fried journo Hunter S Thompson.

Johnny Depp has long proved himself to be one of the most versatile actors in Hollywood, able to make the wackiest and most dysfunctional character sympathetic to a mainstream audience while never losing his cachet as the coolest cat in Tinseltown.

But has Depp finally bitten off more than he can chew? This week it was announced that the chameleonic actor is to take on the role of the Lone Ranger's sidekick, Tonto, in a Hollywood remake of the classic TV series.

The show is too important a jewel of small-screen nostalgia to tinker with, came the howls of protest.

Others have suggested that the role itself, which presents 'Kemo Sabe' as a saintly, pliant sidekick, a noble savage, has survived the onset of racial political correctness about as well an Enid Blyton novel.

And yet this very change in society is probably what has attracted a leading man like Depp to playing the Lone Ranger's Native American wingman -- an underdog, carrying the added burden of race, is exactly the kind of quirky yet meaty part that Deep tends to take between box office behemoths.

In Obama-era America, the preferred racial narrative in everything from movies to advertising is the minority calmly showing the majority the way and indeed the film's director, Gore Verbinski, confirmed this week that he would be taking inspiration for the central relationship not from the black and white reels of the TV show, but from literary classic, Don Quixote.

In the updated version, the Lone Ranger turns out to be a misguided fool and Tonto will be the wise voice of sanity, akin to Quixote's companion, Sancho Panza.

"The only version of The Lone Ranger I'm interested in doing is Don Quixote told from Sancho Panza's point of view," Verbinski said. "We're not going to do it (straight); everyone knows that story," the director said.

And lest the unpleasant whiff of 'blackface' still hang in the air, he added that Depp was, in fact, one-quarter Cherokee Indian. So that settles the racism charge, then.

A much-loved constellation of American popular culture, The Lone Ranger began as a radio series in the 1930s and then evolved into a TV programme in 1949, running through to 1957.

The hero's famous cry of "Hi-ho, Silver! Away!" and the distinctive William Tell Overture theme music entered into the popular imagination of millions but most of them are far older than the teenagers and young adults that Disney, which is producing the film, wants to lure into cinemas.

It's a testament to Depp's enormous box office clout that not only is he being trusted to sell this old idea to young people but that George Clooney's casting in the title role was mentioned merely as an afterthought, a few days later.

Depp's attraction to less obvious roles, like Tonto, can probably be traced back to his beginnings as a teenage heartthrob.

After toiling in the horror film trenches -- he had a role in 1984's A Nightmare on Elm Street -- the Kentucky-born son of a waitress and a civil engineer first burst on to Irish screens in the early 1990s.

Sky One had become available for free as a terrestrial channel in Dublin. The network began broadcasting a new American show, 21 Jump Street, starring Johnny Depp as one of a number of youthful-looking undercover police officers who infiltrated schools and colleges, solving crimes along the way.

The show was hugely popular and, along with 1990's Cry Baby, established the dewy-eyed actor as a teen icon. His high-profile romances with Kate Moss and Winona Ryder only added to his allure.

Realising that puberty doesn't last forever (and neither would his fan base), Depp quickly tried to wiggle free of this persona and spent the next two decades assiduously railing against his pretty boy image.

It was this determination that lead in large part to his long and fruitful collaboration with Tim Burton. In the director's highly stylised movies, Depp was able to play a series of otherworldly, almost asexual, roles each of which was a step further from the pages of teen magazines and toward being taken seriously as an actor.

In Edward Scissorhands, he channelled Charlie Chaplin by way of E.T. in a gothic fairy tale that had critics raving and gained Depp his first major acting nomination -- at the Golden Globes.

Burton seemed to have recognised Depp's out-of-time gift for whimsy and they collaborated over the course of a dozen films, including Ed Wood, Sleepy Hollow, Charlie & the Chocolate Factory, Alice In Wonderland and Sweeney Todd: the Demon Barber of Fleet Street.

Despite being one of the most lusted-after actors in Hollywood, Depp settled down into a long-term relationship with French chanteuse and actress, Vanessa Paradis. He moved to Paris to be with her and the couple now live in the south of France with their two children, an 11-year-old girl, Lily Rose, and a 9-year-old boy, Jack.

When Depp and Paradis want to get away from the prying paparazzi, they have the perfect getaway: their own Caribbean island -- and it's even free of pirates.

"The island might sound extravagant but I need somewhere I can breathe easily or just sit around and chat without someone taking my picture," he said.

Depp, now 47, says that having kids with Paradis (38) transformed his life for the better. "You can't plan the kind of deep love that results in children. Fatherhood was not a conscious decision. It was part of the wonderful ride I was on. It was destiny."

Making The Lone Ranger reunites Depp with the team who made Pirates of the Caribbean -- director Gore Verbinski and producer Jerry Bruckheimer.

Pirates, in which Depp camped it up as Captain Jack Sparrow alongside his friend Keith Richards, recouped such gargantuan megabucks that even relative disappointments like last year's The Tourist were soon forgotten.

And if anyone can reinvent Tonto for the 21st Century, it's Depp -- and yes, he has a horse outside.

Indo Review