By definition, ACTING means pretending to be someone or something you really aren’t. Acting is certainly an admirable skill and I appreciate how a good actor can portray a character. For example, Jane Seymour (Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman) is British and in real life, she has a distinctive accent. Yet she can play Dr. Quinn on a TV series for 6-7 years and speak perfect American English without a glitch. How can she do that, I often wonder? She is a true actor. Once in a while an actor gets the reputation of being the same off screen as on screen which in my opinion takes less acting skill. I always heard John Wayne was that way and that Roy Rogers was the same nice person in real life as he was on screen. Taking this concept to the B-Western level, I’ve always wondered “Is that cowboy star a real cowboy/horseperson or is he/she just acting the part?” In the next few blogs, I will discuss what I’ve learned about our silver screen heroes and their riding abilities. In part I, we will discuss the actors who were real cowboys or who were excellent horsemen when they started acting. In part 2, we’ll address stars who became quite good riders after they started their cowboy careers. In part 3, we’ll see who really was acting and pretending to be good horsemen but could care less about horses. Quotes and information in this blog are taken from Bobby Copeland’s Silent Hoofbeats.
Part I: The Real Cowboys/Horsemen
Rex Allen was one of the real deals. He comments: I rode bulls and bucking horses for about two years when I first got out of high school, but I got tired of picking myself up off the arena floor. I found that a guitar never kicked me, never hurt me a bit, so I decided to stick with that.
Johnny Mack Brown: Nell O’Day appeared in 12 features with Brown. She comments, He was a superb horseman, and sure of his riding. We made many running inserts together and sometimes performed other stunts. He had been a member of a Hollywood polo team, and gave up that interesting sport because his wife thought it was too dangerous, which it was. But he certainly was a good horseman. During the filming of one of our features, our regular doubles had been engaged by another company, and we had two persons who had never before worked together. The man was smaller than Johnny was, and the woman was larger than me. The scene being shot was a riding transfer involving me from my horse, Shorty, to Johnny’s horse, Reno. The stunt was not going well for our doubles. Something awkward happened each shot. We were all taking a rest between scenes when Ray Taylor, the director, strolled over by the oak tree under which Johnny and I were sitting. ‘Now look,’ Ray said in his funny, laconic way, ‘You two can do this scene better than those people. Do you want to try it?’ Johnny Mack and I both said ‘yes’ almost at the same time. So we worked out exactly what we were going to do. The cameras started rolling; we mounted or horses, got going at a nice gallop, and then did the transfer. I must say it was neat.
Sunset Carson: Riding horses is nothing new to me. I’ve ridden them all my life. Now some of the movie cowboys had never ridden horses when they started in the pictures. Some of them became pretty good but some never did learn to ride worth a dime. I grew up on a small ranch about 20 miles outside Plainview, Texas, and I rode a horse to school, and carried my own lunch—biscuits, and bacon or ham, and a bottle of milk. In the wintertime, the milk would freeze—you practically have ice cream. In my pictures, I rode most of the time with only one hand. That was a habit I picked up from riding in rodeos.
Buck Jones started out in the rodeo. I put resin on my chaps to help hold me in the saddle, and drove horseshoe nails into the heel of my boots to keep my spurs on. I then went and asked for a tryout. The nag they gave me to ride couldn’t have thrown a wet blanket. Actress Marion Shilling said, In my first film with Buck Jones, I was trying to ride a horse, and didn’t know how. The horse was soon prancing around and not doing anything I wanted it to. Suddenly, I heard someone. I turned around, and it was Buck. He smiled and said, ‘I do believe that’s the best example I’ve seen of a horse riding a girl.’ Buck was a wonderful man, and one great horseman.
Hoot Gibson: Now he was a real cowboy. Gibson won the all-around championship at the prestigious Pendleton Rodeo in 1912. He also won the title of World championship fancy roper at the Calgary Stampede that year. One director offered him an additional five dollars if he would allow a running horse to drag him. A broke Gibson, ever the jokester, replied, ‘Make it ten dollars, and I’ll let him kick me to death!’
Tim Holt, and his dad, Jack, were excellent horsemen. In an article in The Quarter Horse Journal, Jim Campbell said of Tim: Tim Holt, the action hero for RKO Studios, began his career by riding an American Saddlebred (Duke) in his early pictures. But he switched to the quarter horse after World War II, and became so enamored that he set up a successful breeding program of his own. Holt then featured many of his Palomino quarter horses in his films. Each was named Lightning.
Bobby Copeland noted that Holt graduated from Culver Military Academy where he was awarded the “Gold Spurs”, the highest award for horsemanship.
Ken Maynard was probably considered the best of the riders. James Horwitz in They Went Thataway, said: He could take jumps and hurdles on that horse of his that you wouldn’t want to take in a biplane. There was no angle in the saddle he couldn’t maintain long after any good rider would have passed out or fallen off and broken all his bones. He could hang upside down while going flat out or lean way back in the saddle and snatch an object (or even a man) off the ground. Any kind of flying mount or dismount was merely exercise for Ken Maynard.” Unfortunately, Ken was also known for his drinking, ill temper and mistreating of horses. Director Bill Whitney once said: The worst abuse I ever witnessed was done by cowboy star Ken Maynard. He was known to have fits of temper. One day, he got upset at one of his horses, and he ran it straight towards a tree, while at the same time digging his spurs into the horse’s flesh. When the horse tried to shy away from the tree, Maynard jumped off the horse, jerking the reins with him, and caused the poor animal to charge directly into the tree with such force that the horse was knocked to the ground. It was sickening!” So, I rate Ken Maynard as a good rider but a terrible horseman!
Bob Baker worked as a cowboy as a youth and won a rodeo championship at 16 years of age. Horse and Rider Magazine article by Lewis Smith summed him up this way: Baker was a superb horseman, one of the best Hollywood ever turned out, and his specialty was the croup mount. You’ve seen it a hundred times—it is where the hero runs up behind the horse, puts his hands on the animal’s rump, and vaults into the saddle. It looks easy, but it takes a special kind of horse to stand patiently still while someone runs up behind it, slaps it on the rump, and proceeds to climb all over it. Apache obviously enjoyed this particular stunt, and when the time came for Baker to make his vault, the horse would obligingly lower his rear to make the stunt better.
Stay tuned for Part II next month: The stars who became quite good riders.
Bob C said:
Good writing, Jerry – can’t wait for part II.
Wow ! great stuff. Love that quote from Hoot.
Joan S. said:
You forgot a real cowboy/ clown on the professional circuit: Louis Lindley (aka: Slim Pickens).
Dr. Robert LeRay said:
Excellent article, very entertaining and a wealth of little known information about some memorable actors.
Ben Johnson might have been the best of the lot and later won Johnson the 1971 Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor and the BAFTA Award for Best Supporting Actor for the movie The Last Picture Show,