From Stuntman to King of the Cowboys – Tom Mix

By Pete Bennett (c)2001

      Tom Mix was born January 6, 1880, at Mix Run Cameron County, PA and became a film and radio star of the early 1900’s. His parents Edwin and Elizabeth Mix named him Thomas Hezekiah Mix, but when he enlisted in the Army in April 1898, he listed his name as Thomas E. Mix.
      Known as Hollywood’s first “King of the Cowboys,” he was the first American celebrity to have his own traveling circus. A hero to children across America, Mix not only became known through his appearance on film, but on cereal boxes as well. Tom Mix items were among the first to be offered as box-top premiums by Ralston-Purina.
      Like most boys of his era, he did not finish grade school and in 1898 ran away from home, joined the Army and served in a heavy artillery unit during the Spanish-American War. Tom later re-enlisted in the Army in April 1901, and although he eventually made sergeant, he never saw combat nor left the U.S.
      He married his first wife, Grace Allen, on July 18, 1902.  Army life did not seem to suit his new wife and Tom failed to return to duty following a furlough in October, 1902. Tom never received a court martial for that offence or a discharge for his second enlistment.  The Veterans’ Administration later stated, Tom left without saying goodbye to Uncle Sam.
      Tom moved to Guthrie, Oklahoma Territory where he worked at odd jobs. His marriage to Grace was annulled in 1903. At various times Tom worked as a bartender, a ranch hand at Zack Mulhall’s 101 Ranch and for a short time in 1911, served as a   U. S. Marshal in Dewey, Oklahoma.
      While working for the 101 Ranch, Tom met film Producer Selig and began his movie career.  He married five times and had two children, Ruth born July 13, 1912 to Olive Stokes and Thomasina born February 12, 1922 to Victoria Forde.
      Tom Mix died October 12, 1940, in a car accident on a highway between Tucson and Florence, Arizona.
      During his lifetime Tom earned over six million dollars, but at the time of his death left a modest estate. He spent very lavishly, dressing and acting as he felt the public expected of a top Hollywood star.
      Tom Mix’s movie career spanned 26 years from 1909 through 1915. At various times he was under contract with Selig, Fox, Film Booking Office, Universal and Mascot. In all, he made 336 feature films, produced 88, wrote 71 and directed 117. Tom made only 9 sound feature films and the 15 chapter serial ‘Miracle Rider.’
      Tom Mix’s movies were famous for quick action and dare-devil stunts. Tom and Tony, his horse, performed their own stunts. Tom was a superb athlete and kept himself in good physical condition. He pioneered many of the early movie stunts. No trick cameras or fake scenes were used because of the limited shooting budgets.
      Misinformation and lore seems to abound about Tom Mix. Some of the stories were created as publicity for the studios, others Tom himself spread and from there the stories multiplied until the truth is hard to find.
      Dr. Richard F. Seiverling, a fan of Tom Mix and a collector of Mix memorabilia for more than sixty years, exhibited his collection throughout the United States, representing Mix’s successful career as an American and an international star. In 1994, materials from his collection were on exhibit at the Hershey Museum of American Life as “Tom Mix: Larger Than Life Cowboy.” His silent movie, “The Great K & A Train Robbery”(1926) was also presented. Seiverling is the founder and chairman of the International Tom Mix Festival, which began in DuBois, Pa.
      The success of these annual festivals shows the continuing interest in Tom Mix among his loyal fans and the succeeding generations. Richard Seiverling is the author of Tom Mix: Portrait of a Superstar. In 1994, Seiverling donated a large portion of his collection to the State Museum and State Archives.
      Other big name serial heroes of mine as well as Tom Mix were Roy Rogers, Dale Evans, Lash Larue, Charles Starret as the Durango Kid, Tex Ritter, Jimmy Wakely, Guy Madison as Wild Bill Hickock, Guy Williams as Zorro, Johnny Mack Brown, Monte Hale, Hopalong Cassidy, Rex Allen, Hoot Gibson, Tim Holt, Ken Maynard and the list goes on and on… do you remember them?
      The original stuntmen of the silver screen were not professional actors. This is the way Tom Mix started out. They were real cowboys who put their bodies on the line every day, in every way. As the Old West and ranching jobs of that era came to a close, out-of-work cowboys reinvented themselves in Hollywood films. Hailing from ranches, circuses, and wild-west shows, they used their everyday skills to bring cliffhanging thrills and chills to the screen.
      Need someone to ride a horse at breakneck speed? Rope a cow? Rescue a runaway buckboard? Take a fall…off a cliff…while riding through a burning forest? How about manoeuvring a Roman chariot on one wheel with a team of nervous horses, or fight a convincing-looking mock battle set in the middle ages with hundreds of extras?!
      Real cowboys did all of those stunts and more in the beginning of moving pictures and for decades after that.
      These stuntmen worked very hard to execute feats for leading actors so that the audience could never sense the presence of a double or a stunt being faked. So all the credit would go to the star, who was probably smoking a cigarette while the stunt was being carried out in an identical outfit on the star’s horse. (Even the horses had their occasional stunt doubles!)
      The real cowboys who became stars often did all of their own stunt work, out of personal pride and necessity. Sharp young eyes at any Saturday matinee could spot a fake stunt. However, “wow” those same sharpies with a real cliff-hanger, and they couldn’t stop talking about it for weeks (or at least the next chapter)!
       As I said, Mix was stuntman first, then became a real cowboy movie star; a big one. He appeared in over 300 Westerns. He lived the life of a bon-vivant; by the early 1920s this former Texas Ranger was earning the princely sum of $10,000 a week.
      Tom Mix was all flash and dash. To his faithful public, he achieved the status of the most popular all-around Western star astride his famous companion, his horse Tony. Mix’s name was synonymous with the Western genre. Every stunt he did was executed with grace, style and most of all (at the height of his career), flashy outfits – not a fringe out of place! Putting the dare in daredevil, Mix did many hair-raising stunts, like transferring from a galloping horse, to a moving train just in time to catch a dangling ladder from a airplane. Somehow, he avoided getting his fancy duds dirty – a stunt in itself.
      Tom preferred appearing in ranch shows and circuses to appearing in films. Nothing evoked more response from him than having a living, breathing audience to play to. He would reach out and gather the audience into himself, and the spectators realized how much he loved people.
      More than once people in the audience were heard to declare that Tom seemed to be playing to them alone, that he seemed to single them out specifically to give them the greatest performance of his career. He had the unique quality of being able to make everyone feel important. And to Tom everyone was important.
      He didn’t forget the importance of other people when he was in his starring years, either. He was probably more universally adored by children than any other star, before or since. They flocked to see his movies and great mobs of them hung about stage doors when he made his personal appearance tours in the later years. They hung on his every gesture and word, and he never failed to respond to their idolization. At the height of his career he was emulated by millions of children all over the world; there were hundreds of “little Tom Mixes” in even the smallest towns, most of them cleaning out a nest of imaginary outlaws in their backyards in typical Tom Mix fashion. The popular dream of the day was to grow up to be like Tom Mix.
      Tom acquired Tony, the wonder horse that was to become identified with him for many years about 1913.
Although there have been various stories as to the way Tom acquired Tony, the truth is that an actor friend of Tom’s by the name of Pat Crisman one day spied a chicken wagon driving down one of the streets of Edendale. Alongside the horse drawing the vehicle was a black colt. The owner of the chicken wagon wanted to sell it. Pat Crisman purchased the colt, reared and trained him, and later sold him to Tom, who took an immediate liking to the black two year-old when he first seen him. Tom paid six hundred dollars for Tony.
      Tony was to become the most famous show horse in the world for many, many years. He appeared with Tom in all the films he made from 1914 to 1932, replacing Old Blue who, in his old age, was retired to royal pasturage after years of devoted service to his master. During the thirty-four years that Tony lived no person except Tom ever sat on his back. No person other than Tom ever taught him a trick.
      The two, Tom and Tony, were almost as inseparable in real life as they were on the screen. Literally millions of still photographs captioned TOM MIX AND TONY appeared all over the world during their long years of fame together. While at the height of his fame Tom received thousands of fan letters a week. So did Tony.
      Tony didn’t understand Tom’s words, but what he did understand was almost uncanny. When they were about to do a difficult scene, Tom would pat Tony on his nose and say, “Now, look, Tony, here’s the way we’re going to do this….” And that was the way they would do it.
      Someone once commented that Tony must certainly have understood what Tom said to him. That was wrong, of course. Tony didn’t understand Tom’s words, but he did understand Tom’s love, and that was enough. Tony was a beautiful horse, with the slender strong lines and glossy sorrel coat of a thoroughbred. He had “white sox” on his hind legs and a white line down his head. He did not have a gourmet’s palate: even during the years when he was the most famous animal in the world and traveled in his own private railroad car, the delicacies in his life were apples, carrots, and bananas, and he favored them in that order. Other than these horse delicacies, he subsisted contentedly on plain horse fare. He did not taste sugar even once in his entire life.
      Tony was constantly tuned for action. He came to know what was expected of him and he, like Tom, never failed to come through as expected, regardless of any danger involved. Everyone felt that Tony knew he was a star, that he would have bowed his head in shame rather than do anything unworthy of himself or Tom.
      Of course, in Tom’s films of the late twenties it was necessary to have a double for Tony in some of the very difficult scenes. A horse named Buster, who closely resembled Tony in line and color, doubled for him in some of the most dangerous tricks. The make-up people would paint a stripe on Buster’s face and whiten his feet so that he looked almost exactly like Tony.
      Tony was definitely jealous of Buster, and would snort with fury when Tom climbed on Buster’s back. But later, as Tony grew older, it seems he understood that Tom was trying to spare him in his old age.
      One terrifying incident involving Tom and Tony occurred when a picture was being shot at Santa Cruz, California. The script called for Tom to ride Tony along a narrow trail flanked by towering mountains, in order to escape the outlaws. The villains, meanwhile, knowing he would come this way, had planted dynamite in the trail. The instant he passed the dynamite, the script called for it to be blown up.
      The director pleaded with Tom not to risk himself and Tony on such a shot, but Tom would have none of that.
Atop one of the mountains, well out of camera range, the dynamiter stood with hands poised over the detonator.
Tom on Tony’s back waved at the dynamiter, a signal for him to get ready.
      When the director yelled, “Roll ’em,” Tom galloped for the trail entrance between the mountain sides. He came into the trail while the dynamiter took his reading. But the reading was without the aid of instruments; sighting in a simple fashion, he closed one eye and squinted at the target. He was an old duck hunter and he knew enough to lead anything he was shooting at.
      Now the “bird” was below, but he needed leading just the same. The dynamiter led him on- and on- and on- NOW!
The earth rose beneath Tom and Tony, carrying them up and over the side of the mountain which was coming down at them because of concussion. Earth and stone smothered horse and rider, for the dynamiter, while squinting into the sun above them, had let the detonator go at the exact instant Tom and Tony were over the hidden explosive.
      Tony lay perfectly still, careful not to move until his master was safe. There was a gaping hole in the horse’s side, but he waited for his master to be moved first. He only whinnied softly, although undoubtedly suffering great pain.
      They wanted to take Tom in an ambulance, but he wouldn’t leave until Tony had been administered to by a veterinarian. Tony, at 32 years old in 1944, was put to sleep to ease his way to greener pastures. He outlived Tom by four years.
      In 1910, “Ranch Life In The Great Southwest” was Tom Mix’s first film. The western legend, along with his horse Tony, would continue his prolific career until the “talkies” brought an end to it in the 30’s . Throughout all of the 20s this kid from Mix Run, PA who wanted to be a stuntman was known as the “King of the Cowboys”.
For more information about Tom Mix, visit the official Tom Mix Museum in OK. 
Eleanor KHe was really a nice looking cowboy. I also visited the T.M days held going into Driftwood, and also we had a number of T.M. days in DuBois back in the day. Everyone dressed in old fashioned clothing and had a fun time.

Richard S Sr. — My great Aunt Frankie Barr Caldwell was his first cousin

Myrna J W — My Dad , Rex Jordan was related to him too.
Penny C S  — We were in Arizona some years ago and driving to Tucson stopped to see the memorial dedicated to the spot where he was killed. At the time we lived in Benezette, had a restaurant there for 14 years. So we lived near where he was raised and saw where he passed away. Interesting man.

Michael Mc — My grandpa was Red Mix. From Sinnemahoning.Tom was his uncle.

Joseph S — My Mother’s grandmother played with him as a young girl in the mountains of Pennsylvania.

Judith T. — Heard about him and Mix Run as a child as my father was born in the Mix run area