Cowboy Heroes

by Jim Olson

“Rodeo Cowboys Turned Movie Cowboys”

Since rodeo began, many men and women have made a career out of it. For some, rodeo is a way of life. A good way of life. You may not know it, but some of our most famous movie cowboys and cowgirls started in rodeo, then moved on. Rodeo was a stepping stone to this group. I’d like to think that their having cowboy roots is one of the factors which made them convincing when they became cowboys of the silver screen.

Many know that Ben Johnson (1918 -1996) was a “real” cowboy long before becoming a “reel” cowboy. Raised on a ranch in Osage County, Oklahoma, his dad was also a rodeo hand. Young Ben rodeoed and worked as a cowboy until one day, in 1939, he was hired to take a string of horses from Oklahoma to Hollywood for a movie. He stayed on as a wrangler, then later became a stunt man. Soon he got bit parts in “B” Westerns and eventually moved on to starring roles in major films and became a legend. Always one who had a yearning for rodeo, in 1953 he took most of the year off from filming and returned to the rodeo trail—become the World Champion Team Roper that year. His status as a World Champion caused his rodeo roots to stand out publicly. Johnson was but one of many “reel cowboys” who had rodeo roots however.

None other than Will Rogers (1879 – 1935), another Oklahoman, got his start in show business as a trick roper and rider. After working as a cowboy on several ranches in different countries, Rogers landed a job with “Texas Jack’s Wild West Circus” in 1902. He traveled the world performing as “The Cherokee Kid.” Within a few years, Rogers took his act to Vaudeville. His career soon exploded and he became known as one of the most beloved cowboys, humorist, actors, writers and American Icons of the twentieth century.

“Hoot” Gibson (1892 – 1962), born in Nebraska, was another great rodeo cowboy turned actor. Moving to California at a young age, Hoot became interested in rodeo, and competed at both ends of the arena. For many years, he rodeoed and worked in the film industry simultaneously. During the early 1900s, he won prestigious championships, including the All Around title at the Pendleton Roundup and the steer roping championship at Calgary. After going away to WWI, Hoot returned to Hollywood where he became one of the most popular movie cowboys of the 1920s and early 30s. His fame was only second to that of Tom Mix during this time period.

Tom Mix (1880 – 1940), although born in Pennsylvania to a merchant father, also had a career in rodeo before moving to the film industry. As a young man, Mix relocated to Oklahoma where he soon landed a job with the Miller Brothers 101 Ranch Wild West Show. He stood out as a trick rider and expert shot. He later went to Hollywood, where he got small parts, then bigger parts, and eventually became “King of the Cowboys,” long before Roy came along. Throughout his career, Mix must have retained an affection for rodeo. It has been said that whenever contract negotiations came up with the studios, he always threatened to go back working in a Wild West Show if a satisfactory deal was not made. Later in life, he even opened his own circus, which was more of a Wild West Show.

On the heels of Rogers, Gibson and Mix were men like Rex Allen (1920 – 1999). Raised on a ranch near Willcox, Arizona, Allen began riding the rodeo circuit at a young age. Always handy with his guitar and pen, he also preformed as entertainment after many shows. While traveling the East Coast, he auditioned and landed a gig on Vaudeville as a singer/songwriter. From there he became a popular cowboy singer and eventually a sought-after actor in Hollywood Westerns. He became known as “The Arizona Cowboy” and enjoyed a long career.

About this same time, Louis Burton Lindley, Jr. (1919 – 1983) was making a name for himself in the Western film industry as well. He was known to the world as “Slim Pickens.” Born and raised in California, Slim was an expert rider at an early age. After high school, he left home to work the rodeo circuit. He was told it would be “slim pickens” (not much money) in this line of work, and he then adopted it as his nickname. Slim worked primarily as a rodeo clown and enjoyed a long cowboy career before trying his hand at the movies. His timing was great. Westerns were enjoying their “golden age” at the time and a true “hand” with a great personality such as his had no problems finding work. Although never really a superstar, one cannot think of Western actors without including Slim in the mix.

Discovered while singing in Oklahoma, by none other than Will Rogers, Gene Autry (1907 – 1998), was not a rodeo hand growing up, but was raised a real cowboy. After becoming famous (and wealthy), he purchased the World Championship Rodeo Company in about 1942 and got involved in rodeo in a big way. Autry’s company was one of the major stock contractors in rodeo until he sold in 1968. We could not even began to mention all Autry accomplished as a cowboy here, but everyone knows he was one of the most well-known and popular cowboys from the 1900s.

There were dozens of other rodeo cowboys who went to work in Hollywood making the classic Westerns. Yakima Canutt, Montie Montana, Ken Maynard, Art Acord, Sunset Carson, Wild Bill Elliot, and Jack Hoxie to name a few. Perhaps this is why, when watching certain Western movies, you can look at some fellows and think, “The way he handles himself, I bet he was a real cowboy before making movies.”

A good many wranglers, stuntmen and background actors in the old Westerns (and modern ones as well) were real cowboys before finding work in the movies. For some, it was a natural transition from rodeo to playing a cowboy on-screen—and most said it paid better.