Cody was born as Espera Oscar de Corti in Kaplan, Louisiana, a son of Antonio de Corti and his wife, Francesca Salpietra, immigrants from Sicily, Italy. They had a local grocery store in Gueydan, Louisiana, where he was raised. In some of his earliest acting credits, Cody was listed as Tony de Corti. Cody was drawn to the Indian people finding comfort/similarities for himself in their struggle. He later changed his name to Tony Cody, and from then on lived his life as if he were of indigenous descent, both on and off the screen. Cody married Bertha "Birdie" Parker, a woman of indigenous descent.
Cody began his acting career at twelve and worked until the time of his death. He appeared in more than 200 films, including The Big Trail (1930), with John Wayne; Sitting Bull (1954), as Crazy Horse; Nevada Smith (1966), with Steve McQueen; A Man Called Horse (1970), with Richard Harris; and Ernest Goes to Camp (1987), with Jim Varney. In 1953, he appeared twice as Chief Big Cloud in Duncan Renaldo's television series, The Cisco Kid.
He was most famous for his "crying Indian" role in the "Keep America Beautiful" Public Service Announcement (PSA) in the early 1970s. It was an environmental commercial in which an Indian (Cody) sheds a tear after some trash is thrown from a speeding car and lands at his feet. The announcer, William Conrad, of Bullwinkle and Cannon fame, memorably declares: "People start pollution; people can stop it."
The Joni Mitchell song "Lakota," from the 1988 album, Chalk Mark in a Rainstorm, features Cody's chanting. He made a cameo appearance in the 1990 film Spirit of '76.
In the episode of The Sopranos titled "Christopher" (2002), Ralph Cifaretto (Joseph Pantoliano) threatens to expose Cody's apparently still-unknown Sicilian ancestry as leverage against anti-Columbus protests by an Indian group; the gambit fails, with a response that James Caan is not Italian.
In 1995, the Hollywood American Indian community honored Cody for his contributions to Indian life. In 1996, the New Orleans Times-Picayune reported his Sicilian heritage, but Cody denied it. He lived all his adult life claiming he was American Indian and supported related causes. Cody and his wife Bertha, who was, in fact, an American Indian, adopted several children, all of Indian descent.
Cody died in 1999, aged 94 and was interred in the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. He was survived by his adopted son, American Indian flautist Robert "Tree" Cody.
1.^ 1970s PSA
2.^ Chris J. Walker, "Larry Klein Is Doing It All", June 1, 2002
3.^ "Was Iron Eyes Cody an American Indian?"