Movie Stuntmen / We Wouldn’t Have the Old Western Films Without Them

Over the years of movie making, the old western movie genre came and went and then came again. The fact is that when the movie industry first began during the very early years of the 20th century, the western was king. Everyone wanted to make western movies and many did.

The Early Western Movies

The earliest well known old western movie produced was The Great Train Robbery. The Great Train Robbery was filmed in 1903. It was also filmed in Milltown New Jersey. This was the time that the east coast was the headquarters for the growing movie making industry.

the great train robbery movie

The Great Train Robbery

Actors included Broncho Billy Anderson, Justus D. Barnes and Alfred C. Abadie. As the industry of western movies began originating out of Hollywood California, the plots and sets grew. Location shooting was the order of the day. Old western towns were hastily put up on location. Thankfully for the producers of old westerns, the Los Angeles area in the early and mid 1900’s proved to be advantageous for shooting western films. At the beginning, most settings were very near to Los Angeles. Perhaps a few hours drive. This was before the population exploded and land values went up with them.

Where to Find All Those Extras?

It just so happened that at the time the old western movie craze took off, the ranching industry was in general decline. The open spaces were being fenced in at a fast rate and the population growth was moving westward. Unfortunately, for the real live cowboy who had spent his days working the range, he now might have found himself out of a job. There were not a great many occupations that you could segue into, aside from the rodeo, with the talents of knowing how to ride a fast horse, knowing how to rope a steer or even how to handle firearms. What some people might term progress was not a good omen for the professional cowboy.

As western movie production became more elaborate and with some scenes requiring the presence of many horsemen, the old cowboy found another calling. Think back to those westerns featuring a galloping cavalry, a band of Indians on horseback or a fast riding sheriff’s posse. All of those scenes required people with horsemanship skills. This time represented the birth of the western movie stuntman.

western star buck jones

Buck Jones

All of those scenes needed people who not only looked like genuine cowboys, but actually were. The western movie producers turned to a ready supply of talented riders, actual cowboys looking for work in Hollywood.

The Local Los Angeles Watering Hole

With a good many cowboys finding themselves out of a job, the lure of Hollywood didn’t sound so bad. It wasn’t the same thing as being a real cowboy, but taking part in movies and being paid for it wasn’t such a bad thing either. It was about as close as a real cowboy could get to being a cowboy. Making a job out of it appealed to many. The timing was good. Being a paid movie stuntman sounded pretty good.

The way it worked in Hollywood went like this. According to the book , Wild West Show, edited by Thomas W. Knowles and Joe R. Lansdale, the ex-cowboys would congregate at a Los Angeles speakeasy that was called the Waterhole. The cowboys would gather there and wait to hear from the movie studios. In that era, one never knew when a director would send an assistant over to the Waterhole for extras. These jobs were referred to as “riding extras“. Maybe the director needed riders for a cavalry shoot or for a band of Indians on horseback. If this was the case, then there was work. While it was work, nobody claimed to have become rich doing it. The pay was generally $10 per day plus a box lunch. The cowboys who were hired, and this was usually on a day to day basis, would show up the next morning bright and early at the studio wearing their cowboy clothes. For this pay, the riding extras would ride all over movie sets spread around Los Angeles, many to the north in the vicinity of the San Fernando Valley. Many locations where the old westerns were filmed are now covered by subdivisions.

cowboy actor tom mix

Tom Mix

Some cowboy riding extras and movie stuntmen had their own horses which were usually kept at a Los Angeles corral called the Sunset Corral. The next time you have a chance to watch one of these very early westerns, you’ll know where that large cavalry regiment came from… the Waterhole.

These western cowboy riding extras also knew how to fall off a horse if need be without killing themselves. This type of individual was in great demand. The old cowboys also knew how to rope. These were things that generally weren’t the strong suit of leading men actors. The most noted exception was Tom Mix who knew how to wrangle cattle. Mix knew how to rope and ride. Tom Mix made some 160 cowboy matinee movies during the 1920’s alone and is thought of by many as being the first matinee cowboy idol. Mix had previously worked in Oklahoma at the very large Miller Brothers 101 Ranch. He knew how to ride a fast horse, rope as good as anyone and was said to be pretty good with a six-shooter. Mix won the 1909 National Riding and Rodeo Championship. Not bad skills for a Hollywood actor during the days of the western.

Who Were the Cowboy Stuntmen?

There were obviously many cowboys who worked as western movie riding extras. Some names however stand out. Some became more than just movie extras. These include Hank Bell, Jack Montgomery, Bill Gillis and Jack Padjeon, just to name a few.

Padjeon was in many old western films during the 1920’s and 30’s. He turns up as early as 1923 as a stunt rider in the western film, Covered Wagon. Padjeon also played Wild Bill Hickok in The Iron Horse, directed by John Ford in 1924.

Hank Bell appeared in well over 300 films, mostly westerns, between 1920 and 1952. Some of Bell’s movies included The White Horseman in 1921, The Oregon Trail in 1923 and Tall in the Saddle in 1944.

Jack Montgomery got into the old western movie business when some of his ranch cowboys told him they were leaving and heading for Hollywood. It appears that Jack Montgomery decided to also. He worked for a time as a stand in and stuntman for Tom Mix. Actually, Mix preferred to do his own stunts but the director would urge him to use a stuntman because if he was injured it could hold up production for an indefinite time. Mix didn’t quite see it that way but finally agreed to the directors wishes. Regardless, Tom Mix made it a point not to publicize the fact that he used doubles. Maybe he thought it was bad for the rough and tumble cowboy image. Mix wanted to protect his image and the studio wanted to protect it’s investment. Some of Jack Montgomery’s films aside for doubling in Tom Mix movies included Courage of the West produced in 1937, The Dark Command made in 1940 and starred Walter Pidgeon and The Renegade in 1943 which featured Buster Crabbe.

universal studios western set

Western movie set at Universal Studios

Bill Gillis enjoyed a good career playing mostly villains in old westerns of the 1920s. Other Gillis films included a role as a cowhand in Sunset Range made in 1935 and starring Hoot Gibson. He worked in the 1940 Gary Cooper movie The Westerner. He also had a minor acting role in Winchester ’73 produced in 1950.

There of course were many more rider extras and stuntmen than are listed here, and who in some cases received acting credit during the heyday of the western motion picture. These early Hollywood cowboys highlighted above were part of what was known as The Gower Gulch Gang. They took this name simply because many of the small studios cranking out the westerns were located on Gower Avenue in Los Angeles. The Gower Gulch Gang in many cases helped make their living by playing roles in movies which often times portrayed exactly who they had been all along. It was a great way to earn money while the work lasted. If it wasn’t for the Gower Gulch Gang, we might not have been able to enjoy those dramatic scenes of cavalry and Indian fighters racing on horseback across the plains and desert.

old tucson studios

Main Street of Old Tucson Studios, Photo courtesy of James G. Howes

Two additional articles you’ll find interesting are Cattle Drives and Cowboys / What it Was Really Like and our story about Pawnee Bill and his Wild West Show.

Today, a terrific old western movie studio that receives many thousands of visitors annually is the Old Tucson Studios just a few miles west of Tucson Arizona. The Old Tucson Studios is both a theme park and movie location which is still being used today for both Hollywood and television productions.

(Old Tucson Studios photo courtesy of James G. Howes. All other photos are in the public domain)

History of Old Hollywood

The Hollywood Cowboys

There are two interesting stories about two old Hollywood cowboys who enjoyed a good measure of success but had unexpected endings. This covered the era of both the silents and what were referred to as the talkies.

The two names in this story are Buck Jones and Tom Mix. Interestingly enough, both of these future cowboy celebrities had quite a lot in common. For one thing, both had served in the army and both at one time worked with the Miller Brothers 101 Ranch Western Show which was based in Oklahoma. The 101 was a type of takeoff from Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West. The 101 Ranch ranch site in Oklahoma is today a National Historic Landmark.

Buck Jones

Buck Jones was loved by kids all over America because of his thrilling adventures. Jones was born in Indiana in 1891. His birth name was Charles Frederick Gebhard. The talents Buck had as a natural cowboy no doubt were learned in Oklahoma after his father moved there and purchased a 3,000 acre ranch. Actually, Buck Jones was thinking of making the U.S. Army a career. He served along the Mexican border in 1907 and then was sent out to the Philippines. A lot changed in the Philippines for Jones. It was there where a gunshot from a group of insurgents caught him in the thigh.

Tom Mix

After much back and forth with the army, Buck found himself as a mechanic with the 1st Aviation Squadron. This literally was the very first military air squadron. It was during this stint of duty that Buck Jones learned to fly airplanes. At the same time he learned how to be pretty good with a rifle. Eventually Buck Jones would join the 101 Wild West as a trick rider and roper. This wasn’t all new since he actually worked for the 101 a bit as a youth. All in all, Buck Jones worked with the famous 101 Ranch Wild West Show, the Ringling Brothers Circus and the Golmer Brothers Wild West Show. Not too bad of a resume for an aspiring Hollywood cowboy.

The adventure loving Buck Jones also put in some time as a test driver for Indianapolis style racing cars. Needing to earn more money, Buck heard from friends that there was money to be made in Hollywood. Moving to Los Angeles and hanging around the movie studios did indeed turn into employment. Buck Jones found a good amount of work as a stuntman in many film scenes where a good deal physical action was required. Jones also worked as a double for the box office star William S. Hart. It’s interesting how many cowboy actors actually got their start working as doubles and stuntmen. Jone’s wife Odelle was also doing some studio work in L.A. as a movie double but being pregnant she had to give it up because of the strain.

Tom Mix

Tom Mix was born in Pennsylvania in 1880. As a young man he learned just about everything you needed to know about horses and riding. Attending a Wild West performance was about all it took to set him on a career path as a cowboy. In the meanwhile Mix served some time in the army but never had a desire to make it a career like Buck Jones once did. Tom Mix’s army stint is a bit controversial in as much as it wasn’t quite what the studio brass in their publicity releases made it out to be. What is true is that Mix did serve in the Spanish American War.

Rough Riders film starring Buck Jones

His publicity bio had him charging up San Juan Hill in Cuba and leaving the army as a hero. In reality, Mix saw no combat and deserted from the army in 1902 to marry the first of his five wives.That certainly wouldn’t have been Hollywood image building fodder.

Like Jones, Tom Mix worked for the Miller Brothers 101 Ranch Wild West Show beginning in 1905. Mix was so good at riding and roping and in anything physical, he was known to do all of his own stunts while in Hollywood. He actually did do all of his stunts until the studio persuaded him to use a double in a few of the rougher scenes so as to protect their investment if something went wrong. Tom Mix left Hollywood for the first time at about the time the talkies hit the screens in 1929. Mix joined John Ringling’s circus for a reportedly $20,000 per week. He was the circus’ star attraction for two years. At that 1929 salary he would,need to be the star. By 1931 however, Mix was lured back to Hollywood with all types of promises from the studios. From 1931 to 1935, Tom Mix turned out seven westerns and all were box office hits. In 1935 and at the age of 55, Tom Mix went back to the less taxing circus business. He started his own circus but it flopped after a few years.

Two Careers Intersect

It was around the time of 1919-1920 that Buck Jones officially took his stage name. For obvious reasons it worked better on the Hollywood screen than Charles Frederick Gebhard. Easier to spell and didn’t take up as much space on the list of credits. Jones actually starred in his first movie in 1920 titled “The last Straw“. Curiously enough, it wasn’t a western.

At about this same time an opportunity of sorts occurred. William Fox of the Fox Studios was going around in circles with his western star, Tom Mix, over Mix’s salary. Reportedly, Mix was at the time trying to get a contract for $10,000 per week. An absolutely incredible amount of money in the 1920’s. While all of this was going on, Fox was looking at Buck Jones as a replacement for Tom Mix. Fox figured that he could get Jones for perhaps $150 per week. Even though it was doubtful that Jones would have contracted in at $150 per week after whatever Mix was currently earning, Fox apparently was able to use the threat of Buck Jones to get Mix’s number down.

Buck Jones

It apparently worked. This was the incident that would cause a rift between these two Hollywood cowboy stars that would last a lifetime. After that episode there were never any good feelings between the two on the movie lot.

As it turned out, both Hollywood cowboy stars earned huge amounts of money. By the year 1929, Buck Jones was a very wealthy man. Buck Jones, being eleven years younger than Tom Mix was able to put out films a few years longer into the late 1930’s and early 1940’s. Both Buck Jones and Tom Mix had an extraordinary number of film credits to their name. Buck Jones had 106 film credits and Tom Mix had a total of 307.

Sudden Endings

Tom Mix had spent a lot of time in Arizona where he maintained a ranch. The old action star also had a habit, and liking, for living a bit on the edge. On October 12, 1940, Tom Mix found himself reportedly speeding down a road near Florence Arizona in his custom made Cord roadster. Apparently due to the speed, he wasn’t able to negotiate a curve and was killed in the subsequent crash. Today, as a memorial to one of Hollywood’s most successful old cowboys, there is a marker at the spot in Arizona where the crash occurred. Tom Mix was 60 years old when he was killed.

The end for Buck Jones also came rather sudden and unexpected. Buck Jones was dining with a group of friends in Boston Massachusetts on November 28, 1942. The problem was, Jones was dining at the old Cocoanut Grove night club when the famous venue rapidly went up in flames and resulted in the deaths of 492 people. Hundreds more were injured. The Cocoanut Grove disaster was the second worst building fire in America behind Chicago’s Iroquois Theater fire of 1903 that killed more than 600 people. The Cocoanut Grove tragedy would usher in another new round of fire codes. The story is that Jones did initially flee the fire safely but went back inside to find a lost friend. As it turned out, the friend wasn’t lost and did escape the fire but Buck Jones was badly burned when he reentered the club. He passed away two days later on November 30th at the age of fifty one.

Two excellent books for further research are Wild West Show!, edited by Thomas W. Knowles and Joe R. Lansdale and Fire in the Grove by author John C. Esposito.

One of the very best places in the U.S. to learn about the cowboy is in Oklahoma City, OK. The National Cowboy and Western Heritage center is one of the best places to learn about real cowboys, the celebrity cowboy and life in the frontier west. One of the most interesting sites where many a western film was shot is just outside Tucson Arizona. Old Tucson Studios was and is still used for both motion picture and television productions. The Old Tucson Studios is located about 16 miles west of downtown Tucson and is a big tourist attraction for the area.

(Photos are from the public domain)