Cowboys of the Silver Screen: TOM MIX

Margaret Brownleymargaretbrownley-150x150



Tom Mix: Real Life Hero or…?

”I was born a cowboy, have lived as a cowboy and will die a cowboy,” Tom Mix liked to say and he was as good as his word–or was he?  I’ll let you be the judge.  Born in Texas, Tom grew up on a ranch near El Paso.  In his teens, he ran away and joined the circus and later fought in the Mexican Revolution, joining Pacho Villa’s army.  He was saved within an inch of his life from being shot by a firing squad.  Undaunted, he fought in Cuba, China and both sides of the Boer War—and had the medals to prove it.  As a sheriff and Texas Ranger he was shot by horse thieves and Indians, and single-handedly captured…

Hold Your Horses This is beginning to read like fiction—which of course, it was. Some was made up by his publicists, some by Tom, himself. The stories of his life are so convoluted that even his biographers have trouble separating fact from fiction. The ironic part is that his real life was even more interesting that his made-up life, but this was Hollywood and, back in the early days, they wanted their cowboys to be real and their heroes to be, well, heroes.

Will the Real Tom Mix Please Stand up?                                               


Thomas Hezikiah Mix was born in Pennsylvania in 1880, the son of a lumberman. He reportedly never liked his middle name and always signed his name Tom E. Mix, E for Edwin.  When Tom was nine, his family moved to Dubois, where his father worked as handyman and stable man.  Tom loved hanging around the stables and, after seeing Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, decided he wanted to be a cowboy.  

Mix small

At 18 he joined the army to fight in the Spanish American war but saw no action.  He reenlisted but went AWOL  after marrying his first wife and was listed as a deserter, though the Army never pursued him or, for that matter, discharged him.

As far as anyone knew, he was never more than an honorary Texas Ranger. Richard D. Jensen  writes in The Amazing Tom Mix: The Most Famous Cowboy of the Movies that Tom worked as a night marshal in Oklahoma territory rounding up bootleggers. This appears to be the extent of his lawman days except on screen.

He eventually joined the Miller Brothers 101 Wild West Show.  His big break came when he landed a job as a bronc buster in the movie Ranch Life in the Great Southwest. His action based sequence started him on the road to box office success. 


What About All those Gun Wounds?

Though he was never shot by Indians or desperados except on screen, he was in actuality shot twice—once when he was 12 and once by his fourth wife. The first time occurred while he and a friend were playing with a pistol. Since his family couldn’t afford a surgeon the bullet remained in his leg for years before it was removed.  This episode may have had something to do with his dropping out of school and having only a fourth grade education.   

mix-rough small

As for being shot by his fourth wife: According to a 1933 Berkeley Daily newspaper, his wife shot him through the shoulder, claiming self-defense.  Tom Mix testified that he was shot after “I came home and threw a gigolo out of our place.” Apparently Tom didn’t learn his lesson as went on to marry a fifth time.

 King of Cowboys      

The first to be called King of Cowboys, Tom Mix made an estimated 300 movies including nine talkies and eventually wrote and directed his own films.  He was the highest paid western actor of the times, making in excess of $17,000 a week.  Known for his fancy high hats, he reportedly owned over 600 pairs of custom-made boots.  Tom’s horse Tony was almost as famous as his owner. Tony died following a hip injury and was replaced by Tony II.

Though Tom’s heroic real life claims were mostly fabricated, on screen he was the real McCoy His movies were full of action and no one could match his daredevil stunts, which he did himself. Not only did he jump off horses, fall off trains and face real bullets, he suffered as many as 80 injuries during his career, including knife wounds, broken ribs, and a near fatal brush with dynamite.    

Tom’s death in 1940 was almost as strange as his life.  During an Arizona traffic accident a metal suitcase in his car hit him on the head causing fatal injuries. He was 60 years old.  His popularity continued for most of the ‘40s through his radio show and comic books.

Two years to the date of his death, his faithful horse Tony II died.  We can only imagine what kind of tall tale Tom would have spun from that.


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28 thoughts on “Cowboys of the Silver Screen: TOM MIX”

  1. I’m doing William S. Hart tomorrow and Tom Mix came up a lot in my research of the silent film cowboy because Mix came in and Hart’s day was done.

    Hart was grittier and Mix was more action and fast pace. Even then Hollywood went for the action.

  2. One often wonders why the PR people (or the individuals themselves) felt it necessary to create such far fetched stories about their lives. The truth usually does come out and then you look pretty foolish, if not worse. I can see where he would want to claim being a cowboy from early on, but the rest of it is pretty far fetched. Of course his real life wasn’t too much better.

    Thanks for an interesting post.

  3. Interesting stuff, Margaret. I gotta say, though, I thought women were bad when it came to shoes…600 pairs of boots?!! He’d have to have a barnraising just to make a closet big enough to hold them all.

  4. Great post Margaret, this is some interesting info here! I still can’t believe he had 600 pairs of boots!

  5. Margaret, this is so fascinating. I’d always heard of Tom Mix but didn’t know anything about him other than he was a western actor. How funny that his fourth wife shot him! Oh my Lord! She must’ve been a firebrand. And he sure liked his boots I’ll have to say. From the way he lived his life, it’s fitting that he died in such a bizarre way. His life reads like fiction for sure. Few authors could make up stuff like this. LOL

    Thank you for spearheading this Stamp-ede week! Gives us an opportunity to learn more about our cowboy heroes.

  6. hi Margaret, congrats again on the RITA nom.! You rock!

    I loved this blog. I never knew of a “real” person who ran away to the circus! I remember Tom Mix being mentioned at the end of the movie, Tombstone. Wht a larger-than-life character! oxoxoxxo

  7. I used to watch an old TV show hosted by Ernie Kouvac where he showed old silent films. I loved Tom Mix. Talk about action!
    Anybody remember that TV show’s name?

  8. Enjoyed reading the comments about Tom Mix. Living here in Arizona, I have passed by the roadside monument where he was killed. It suprises me of the location because it is south of a small town, Florence, and a 2 lane road. It doesn’t connect with any substantial sized towns except if you go further south you can reach Tucson. In those days, it would have been a back road to Tucson.

  9. very interesting and what a un-heroic way to die 🙁

    poor tony I and II
    i always feel sad when the horses go

    tom however has less of my sympathy since he went through 5 wives, lol

  10. Great post. I particularly liked fighting on both sides of the Boer War. At least he had a great imagination.

  11. I’ve never seen a full silent movie. Singing in the Rain is just about one of my favorite movies of all time and I love the view of some of the challenges for actors and actresses in switching from silents to talkies. I wonder how many actors/actresses sucessfully made this switch?


  12. Julia,

    It was quite a challenge for some actors. I just read a history of talkies. Not only were these a challenge for actors but the audience, as well. People could no longer talk and express opinions during a movie. They had to listen.

  13. We had an old 8mm movie projector as a kid and would watch home movies and we had an Abbott & Costello silent movie. We loved to watch it and then Dad would always run it backwards and we would laugh like crazy!

  14. Michelle,
    I remember the 8mm movie projector. Such simple pleasures. I remember the first time I saw my self on film. I was appalled at how jerky I looked. I didn’t know it was the camera, I thought it was me. For weeks afterwards I walked around the house with a book on my head trying to walk more gracefully.

  15. I have seen a silent movie before and it was hilarious! I can’t remember who was in it but I was surprised how much I enjoyed it.

  16. Hi Mary,

    I enjoy reading your blogs. I am usually rolf! Yes, I have seen some silent movies. In fact I have a few of Alfred Hitchcock on DVD. I think they are great to watch.
    Please enter me in your drawing.


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