Born: July 25, 1936; Died: August 15, 2013.

August Schellenberg, who has died of lung cancer aged 77, was not a household name, but he had become one of the most familiar Native American faces in films and television over the past few decades.

On screen he played such famous historical figures as Cochise and Sitting Bull (several times), but was best known as Randolph Johnson, the keeper of Willy the orca in the highly successful Free Willy films of the 1990s. The casting of a Native American in the role signified a spiritual bond between the man and the captive whale.

He was part of a small group of actors on whom producers called whenever there was a significant Native American part to be cast. His other major roles include Chief Powhatan (Pocahontas's father) in Terrence Malick's The New World (2005), with Christian Bale and Colin Farrell.

But Schellenberg was also a major theatre actor in his native Canada and got to play a much wider range of characters on stage, from Prince Charming to Joseph Stalin and even John Knox. He was King Lear in a production in Ottawa last year in which the action was relocated to Canada in 1608 and the cast were all Native American.

August Werner Schellenberg was born in Montreal in 1936. His father was Swiss, but he was Mohawk and English on his mother's side. An athletic figure, he showed promise as a boxer and diver in his youth, studied acting at the National Theatre School of Canada and appeared in touring and regional theatre productions.

In the 1970s he began picking up film and television roles. He portrayed Sitting Bull for the first time in 1973 in a history series called Witness To Yesterday and in 1977 he featured in one of the New Avengers stories after Patrick Macnee, Gareth Hunt and Joanna Lumley decamped to Canada, because of a new co-production deal, rather than plot demands.

Schellenberg was the visionary Algonquin chief Chomina in Bruce Beresford's underrated 1991 film Black Robe, about the 17th-century meeting of European Jesuit priests and Canadian Indians. He won the Best Supporting Actor award at the Genie Awards, Canada's equivalent of the Oscars.

But it was the Free Willy films with which he scored his biggest hits. He first played Randolph Johnson in the original 1993 film. A Haida Indian, Randolph is Willy's keeper at an Oregon amusement park. He befriends Jesse, a boy who is working at the park after getting into trouble with the authorities for vandalism and stealing.

Jesse and Willy hit it off, they perfect a series of tricks together and the park's owner plans to exploit them and make a fortune. But when Willy proves uncooperative a second plan is hatched to kill him off and claim the insurance.

Jesse and Randolph return Willy to the sea and in an iconic climax Willy escapes his pursuers with a prodigious leap over the breakwater. The film was a major international hit and Schellenberg reprised his role in sequels in 1995 and 1997.

He played the Apache leader Cochise in Geronimo (1993) and Sitting Bull again in the TV movie Crazy Horse (1996) and Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee (2007), the acclaimed television adaptation of Dee Brown's bestseller about the plight of the Native American peoples. Other credits include the Disney films Iron Will (1994) and Eight Below (2006) and guest appearances on numerous television series, including Grey's Anatomy (2008) and SGU Stargate Universe (2011).

Latterly Schellenberg lived in Dallas. He is survived by his wife Joan Karasevich, who is an actress, and three daughters.