You love John Wayne. You emulated Clint Eastwood as a kid playing out movies. You've chuckled at Will Rogers' folksy wisdom. But one of the most famous western actors of all time may not be someone you've heard of. Of course, that's probably because we live in the 21st Century and he was born in the 19th Century and because he was someone most of our grandparents grew up watching. Tom Mix (born Thomas Hezikiah Mix) was Hollywood's biggest western star...until his death in 1940. He was also the first cowboy star in Hollywood before we even had "talking pictures."
The First Western Movie Star
Thomas E. Mix, who was born in Mix Run, Pennsylvania in 1880, was a movie star primarily during the Silent Film era. Tom Mix was a star so long ago that he actually served in the Army during the Spanish-American War before beginning his film career. Once Mix became famous, publicists tried to lie and say he served in Teddy Roosevelt's Rough Riders. In truth, Mix's unit never left the United States.
Mix was the real deal. In 1911, before beginning his career in the movies, he was briefly the night marshal of Dewey, Oklahoma. He also lived the ranch life, working on the Miller Brothers 101 Ranch. With his skills and showmanship with shooting, horse riding and roping, Mix won national riding and roping contests in Prescott, Arizona in 1909 and Canon City, Colorado in 1910. He even earned a spot in the ranch's touring Wild West Show.
It was Mix's participation in the Wild West Show that started his motion picture career and made him a cowboy star. He had a supporting role in his first film with the Selig Polyscope Company, The Cowboy Millionaire, a silent film released on October 21, 1909.
Mix appeared in several films with co-star Victoria Forde. In 1917, he divorced his third wife to marry Forde.
After Selig went under, both Mix and Forde moved over to the Fox Film Corporation. It was there that his stardom exploded. Mix starred in 160 cowboy silent movies in the 1920s with Fox Studios. He was one of the biggest stars in the country, especially to children of the era, who grew up on his work. Mix was known for doing his own stunts and endured many injuries over the years.
During his time as a western show and silent movie star, Mix became friends with actual wild west legend, Wyatt Earp, who acted as a consultant on early silent film era westerns. The two were so close that, in 1929, Mix was actually a pallbearer at Earp's funeral.
Mix's films, like Riders of the Purple Sage, The Miracle Rider and Destry Rides Again, were cultural touchstones of the era. The film actor also began to successfully transition to "talkies" with Universal Pictures in the 1930s, though he only starred in 9 of their films.
Mix's star was far from fading in the '30s, however. In 1935 the Governor of Texas made Mix an honorary Texas Ranger. Mix's name was also used to lend legitimacy to and help promote radio shows and comic books. The Tom Mix Ralston Straight Shooters radio show was popular from the 1930s until over a decade after the actor's death.
On October 12, 1940, Mix died in a car wreck in Arizona. He was 60 years old.
The Tom Mix Museum is located in Dewey, Okla., where Mix lived before getting famous.
Tom Mix will forever be remembered as the man who popularized cowboy westerns and helped jumpstart the genre in film and television.
Enjoy Country Music?
Sign up for daily stories delivered straight to your inbox.