By Paul Underwood
Long before a guy named Clint Eastwood played The Man Who Had No Name, or John Wayne became The Duke (even John Wayne), there was Tom Mix.
Mix was the biggest Western star of the early 20th Century and “the most radiant of movie cowboys,” one critic wrote in 1983. Today, he is too often overlooked, but this January on his 143rd birthday, we wanted to celebrate his legacy. Mix created the movie cowboy archetype, bridging the eras of Buffalo Bill and John Ford, thanks in part to his tremendous personal style. He often wore an off-white “ten-gallon” felt hat crafted by Stetson, with double-breasted suits and traditional Western attire. That hat is now in the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C.
Straight shooters always win, lawbreakers always lose.
Much like John B. Stetson prided himself on not just being a businessman and innovator but as someone who treated his workers well and gave back to his community, Mix, too, cared about his image beyond fame and fortune. He insisted his characters demonstrate strong values to his many young admirers—he didn’t smoke, drink, or curse on screen—and formed the Tom Mix Club, a fan group in which kids abided by the motto “straight shooters always win, lawbreakers always lose.” He (or his press agent) might have exaggerated some details of his bio—he claimed to have been born in Texas, to have served alongside Teddy Roosevelt in Cuba, to have been a Texas Ranger and a U.S. Marshall, none of which was true—but he was hardly the first to make it in Hollywood after reinventing himself. Besides, what would the Old West be without a few tall tales?
But rather than focus on what Mix wasn’t, let’s remember what he was. He possessed unbridled charisma. He forged a strong friendship with Wyatt Earp. Uniquely for his time, he performed his own stunts. And not just roping and riding—he was a competitive rodeo star and once jumped a canyon with his trusty horse, Tony. Okay, okay…the true story of the stunt is debated, but Mix was undoubtedly an accomplished rider. There are few leading men these days who could claim the same. He started out in one-reel films, which lasted about 15 minutes, then moved to feature films, whose popularity helped him become the highest-paid movie star of his day, earning roughly $17,000 per picture (and he made more than 300 of them). He kept up his work in traveling rodeos, too, even performing before royalty in Europe.
This skill set carried him after his film career ended (and after he lost most of his money in the 1929 stock market crash) when he focused on circuses and rodeos. Unfortunately, this next chapter proved to be his last. Mix was killed in a car accident in Arizona in 1940. He was 60.
But his legacy continues, and many of his films remain viewable on Turner Classic Movies and elsewhere. His spirit is perhaps best captured in a short video biography, released after his death, cataloging his accomplishments—both true and…some…well, debatable. In it, he’s praised for his values of courage, honesty, and fair play over clips that exemplify his rugged good looks and outsized charm. It ends with him putting his handprints and Tony’s hoofprints in wet cement for the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Next to his hands and his signature is a simple sketch of his beloved Stetson.