Guest column: Our American West

Tom Mix & Tim McCoy - Silent Screen Heroes

Tom Mix was born in 1880 in Mix Run, Pennsylvania the son of a poor logging family. As a boy he was determined to join a circus and was caught practicing knife throwing against a wall using his younger sister as his "assistant." He learned to rope and ride at an early age and became Hollywood's quintessential cowboy hero and town tamer making 336 western films between 1910 and 1935. He wore a big white Stetson that was named after him by the Stetson company and he was show-biz from his high-peaked crown to the bottom of his high-heeled boots. He was handsome and dashing and he just looked like a guy who was having a good time up on the big screen.

Audiences loved him. He traveled to Europe with his famous horse, Tony, and gave his autographed hat to adoring royalty. Tom Mix was also...well, a pretty good tall-story teller. He claimed that he was born in a log cabin near El Paso, Texas, and that his great-great-grandfather was a Cherokee Indian who translated the Bible into the Osage language. He said his father was a cavalry officer and that he learned to rope and ride almost before walking.

Tom Mix claimed to speak so many Indian dialects that he sometimes got them mixed up. He said he had fought in a Cuban revolution and served gallantly with the 9th Infantry in China during the Boxer Rebellion where he was wounded leading the troops. But that was before, or was it afterward he was wounded in the Boer War? The thing of it was, Tom Mix looked as if he had done all those things and he was so much fun to write about that few Hollywood columnists cared to puncture the myths that he so blithely created for his legions of fans. But the truth of the matter is that his real background was far more ordinary.

Tom Mix wasn't a real cowboy but he did star in a Wild West show and he worked hard to develop the riding, fighting, roping and shooting skills that were the stock in trade of any aspiring cowboy movie star. His good looks and brash appeal won him a role in a bronc-busting scene being shot near Dewey, Okla.

Tom began making movies in 1910 and by 1920 was the biggest cowboy star in Hollywood. It was the end of World War I and people preferred glitter and Tom Mix glittered very brightly. He was a gentleman-but some said a hopeless romantic who went through a succession of beautiful wives. By 1922 his salary was a mind-boggling $17,500 a week and he owned a palatial mansion in Beverly Hills with a giant swimming pool, gardens and rooms big enough inside to break wild horses.

Tom Mix was not the shy, modest Gary Cooper or James Stewart type. Despite his lavish and showy style, he did not wind up dissipated and disillusioned like so many other movie stars of his time. He was a paragon of virtue and tried to pattern his life offstage as morally upright as he portrayed himself on screen.

He once said, "I never claimed to be an actor. But some newspaper writer claimed I was the best showman on earth, even better than Buffalo Bill Cody.... From the start when I made my first starring picture for Fox, I made it a rule to never smoke a cigarette, take a drink or gamble in any picture I ever made. A lot of youngsters made up a big part of the audience and I aimed to set a good example for them. Instead of using a six-shooter and doing a lot of shooting, I used my fists or a ketch rope, and I kept my pictures clean."

Tom Mix was the undisputed King of the Hollywood Cowboys for more than a decade. He was assisted by "real cowboys" and Indians such as his friend Iron Eyes Cody. His last movie was made in 1935 and when he died in 1940, it was at 80 mph in his sports car near Florence, Ariz. - fast, the way he had lived.

Silent movies ended in the late 1920s with the advent of the "talkies" and a new era of cowboys took their place on the western screen - men like Buck Jones, Ken Maynard, Bob Steel, Hoot Gibson and Colonel Tim McCoy.

Tim McCoy was born the son of an Irish Union Civil War soldier in 1891 in Saginaw, Mich., and grew up in the wilds of that area fishing and hunting. He also took an early interest in the American Indian and became a first-rate cowboy. After a particularly long and grueling trail drive, McCoy joined the United

States Cavalry. He was such an excellent soldier that he quickly was promoted and became a full colonel with the Army Air Corps. He also served the State of Wyoming as its Adjutant General between World War I and World War II. At 28, he was reputed to be the youngest Brigadier General in the history of the United States. McCoy became recognized as an Indian expert. He was assigned to the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming and had much to do with keeping an uneasy peace between the Shoshone and the Arapahoe Indians who were sharing that land and he carried the lofty title of Regimental Adjutant for the State of Wyoming. McCoy was one of the few men in the Army who could both speak and make sign language with the Indian and he was greatly respected. His Araphoe name was High Eagle and his reputation landed him a temporary job as a technical adviser in the filming of "The Covered Wagon," an epic movie. MGM was quick to see that the tall, handsome Army colonel would make a splendid new cowboy movie star and they lured him out of the Army and cast him in a fine old western called "War Paint."

The film was hugely successful and included many Indians in its stirring battles. Not only did the colonel prove himself to be a first rate actor, rider and showman, but he served as a liaison with the Indians and made the movie shooting go without the usual hitches. McCoy insisted that the Indians be portrayed fairly, something which was almost unheard of, and the Indians responded by cooperating with the filming, something equally novel.

When he began to star in "talkies," McCoy started to wear a black outfit and white scarf that was extremely impressive to audiences. McCoy lasted until the days of the singing cowboys and then he faded gracefully from the screen to television where he produced a very popular and long-running talk show on what he knew and loved best, the American Indian and his culture. Tim McCoy was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and in 1974 he was inducted into the Cowboy Hall of Fame. He died at the Post Hospital at Fort Huachuca, Ariz. and his ashes were eventually brought to rest at his birthplace in Saginaw, Mich.

The 1930s, '40s and '50s ushered in a different kind of cowboy movie star the likes of Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, Hopalong Cassidy, Cisco Kid and Pancho and many others whose faces I remember from my boyhood. But the old silent stars were gone and I guess most of them are long forgotten. Hollywood is still making a few good western movies, and I suspect that they always will.

Gary McCarthy is a national award-winning western and historical novelist who welcomes comments about this column and can be reached through his website:


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