The First Western Movie Star

129 years ago today Maxwell Henry Aronson was born.  Max eventually changed his name to Gilbert M. Anderson, but you would probably know him better by the name of the character he played in over 300 films – Broncho Billy.

Anderson was a native of Pine Bluff, Arkansas.  He drifted into acting, working first as a photographer’s model and newspaper vendor before moving into work as a vaudeville performer.  In 1903 Anderson landed a role in The Great Train Robbery by claiming he could ride a horse like a Texas Ranger.  When it turned out he could hardly climb onto a saddle, he was demoted to ‘extra’ and ended up playing several minor parts in the film.  The resulting 10 minute movie found an enthusiastic reception from the general public, and Anderson was hooked.  He decided to make his career in the fledgling moving picture business.

Anderson formed a partnership with old friend George Spoor and together they created the Essanay Company (the name is a play on the first letter of each of their last names “S and A”).  This company was destined to become one of the early film industry’s predominant studios. 

At first Essanay made comedies, but Anderson couldn’t forget the success of The Great Train Robbery and soon he focused on Westerns.  But where Anderson really differentiated himself, is that he was one of the first to realize that the public needed a ‘star’ to latch on to, a central character they could really focus on.  But at that time (1909) the big names of the stage were reluctant to risk their careers on the new medium of film.  So Anderson decided to take on that star role himself, creating the character of Broncho Billy from ideas he collected for the most part from popular dime novels.  Anderson wrote and directed most of the movies himself and within five years he had filmed over 300 one or two reel movies featuring his new character.  Most of these films were distributed simultaneously in the U.S. and Great Britain.  And while Anderson was not especially dashing, audiences liked Broncho Billy for his bravery and virtue.  As a side note, Essanay studios also filmed many Charlie Chaplin shorts, including The Little Tramp.

In 1915 , Anderson’s final film in the Broncho Billy series, Broncho Billy’s Sentence, was released.  He turned to writing for a while and then later attempted a comeback.  But by then more dashing actors such as William S. Hart and Tom Mix had taken over the hearts of film viewers.  So he made comedies for a while before finally retiring from film.

Some of the milestones in his later years:

  • 1958 – Received an honorary Oscar as a “motion picture pioneer, for his contributions to the development of motion pictures as entertainment.”
  • 1965  – he made a cameo appearance at age 85  in a modern Hollywood Western called The Bounty Killer, his first talking picture.
  • 1998 – posthumously honored with his image on a U.S. postage stamp.
  • 2002 – posthumously inducted into the National Cowboy Hall Of Fame
  • Anderson also has a star on the Hollywood Walk Of Fame.

Gilbert Anderson died in his sleep in 1971 at the age of 90 at a sanitarium in South Pasadena, Ca.  He was cremated and his ashes were placed in a vault at the Chapel of the Pines Crematory in Los Angeles.

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Winnie Griggs is the author of Historical (and occasionally Contemporary) romances that focus on Small Towns, Big Hearts, Amazing Grace. She is also a list maker, a lover of dragonflies and holds an advanced degree in the art of procrastination.
Three of Winnie’s books have been nominated for the Romantic Times Reviewers Choice Award, and one of those nominations resulted in a win.
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9 thoughts on “The First Western Movie Star”

  1. Winnie, I love reading about ‘pioneers’ of all kinds.
    And I’ve heard of The Great Train Robbery but…it’s only TEN MINUTES LONG?

    Movies have sure changed. You know I’ve seen quite a few clips from The Great Train Robbery. Now I wonder if I’ve seen the whole movie and just didn’t realize that was all there was.

  2. Winnie, how interesting! I’ve never heard of this man but he sounds interesting. I remember Clint Eastwood starred in the Bronco Billy movie. I never dreamed that movie went back so far. I wonder if Clint Eastwood based his character on Gilbert Anderson. Where on earth do you find these interesting tidbits?

  3. Interesting post, Winnie! I just did my Thursday blog. It’s also on movies. What do you think Gilbert Anderson would say about “Cowboys and Aliens?” How the world has changed!!!!

  4. Elizabeth – yes, he most certainly led a very full and interesting life.

    Mary – LOL, yes, it seems strange to think that most of those very early films were so short. If you’ve seen ‘quite a few’ clips, you probably HAVE seen it all

  5. Tracy – Cool, what was your workshop topic?

    Linda – I’d forgotten all about that Clint Eastwood movie until I saw your post. It’s been many years since I’ve seen it though, so I don’t remember a whole lot about it.

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