from the series "Reel Cowboys
of Western Cinema:
A Century of Silver Screen Heroes on Horseback"
Gary Eugene Brown
from the series "Reel Cowboys
of Western Cinema:
A Century of Silver Screen Heroes on Horseback"
Gary Eugene Brown
Our cowboy hero was one of the most interesting of all those who preceded or followed him. His background included being a rancher, cowboy poet, US Army General, authority on Indian lore, cinema technical advisor, circus performer, Emmy Award Winner, the fastest draw of the cowboy matinee idols, married a foreign beauty who was investigated by the FBI, and became one of the big five B Western film stars (Mix, Jones, Maynard, Gibson and McCoy). Contrary to most reel cowboys, he didn’t want to give a horse co-star billing…..they were only a beast of burden. Film historian William K. Everson said he “brought to the screen a sophisticated, suave personality: and an approach to Westerns that was unique. His military bearing was a constant part of him, even showing through on the screen regardless of the role he was playing.” “He was a credit to Westerns. Not only was he a good actor and a great showman, he was also a gentleman.” His name:
Timothy John Fitzgerald McCoy came into this world in Saginaw, Michigan on April 10, 1891. His parents both migrated from Ireland to “Amerikay.” Like many Irish emigrants, his father became a police officer and rose to the rank of Chief of Police of Saginaw. Due to his father’s position, he was able to introduce Tim to the legendary William F Cody, after a performance of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. Later he was also able to see the Miller Brothers 101 Ranch Wild West Show. Tim would hang around the stockyards and watch cowboys break wild horses. The boss wrangler, noticing the dreamy eyed youngster watching them, gave Tim a lesson on throwing a catch twine (rope).
Tim McCoy in his interesting autobiography, Tim McCoy Remembers the West recalled: “My experience inside that corral made me acquire a certain respect for the cowboys who daily stood in the midst of rearing, galloping, and half-wild horses. And while it was clear to me that a cowboy’s life was fraught with danger, I still thought it would be a most exciting profession.” The die was cast. Tim at age 18 (1909), left St. Ignatius Prep School, Chicago, IL, without his parents’ knowledge and headed West on a train bound for Omaha to learn to be a cowboy. As an aside, award winning western singer/songwriter RW Hampton wrote a moving, autobiographical song “Born to be a Cowboy.” Like Tim McCoy, they were not born and raised on a ranch; however they were born to be a cowboy and cowboys they would become.
Why he picked Omaha as a destination, Tim wasn’t sure, other that it was West of Chicago. Aboard the train, he met a rancher from Lander, Wyoming, Jim Aminette who, after learning that Tim wanted to be a cowboy, encouraged the young man to meet him in Grand Island, Nebraska at the largest horse and mule sale. After three days in Grand Island, Tim boarded a train to accompany the horses bought by Aminette, to Lander. In Lander, Tim obtained a job as a horse wrangler with the Double Diamond. The position required him to purchase his own gear. Tim bought a pair of Hyer boots for $9.50, Levis for a dollar a pair, a J B Stetson sombrero and a distressed saddle for $5. He finally looked the part….the only thing missing was a horse.
At the Double Diamond, foreman Matt Brown found him a string of six horses, one being a “beautiful, blue eyed Appaloosie” compared to the others who “looked like Don Quixote’s rejects.” Brown didn’t inform the new waddie, that cowhands often had a bias against Appys and paints. He told Tim that the Appy was known to break lose in two and if he starts bucking, he’ll keep it up all day, so mount, do it gentle, do it quick and pick his head up firmly. Brown gave Tim a pat on the back and said “Good luck cowboy!” Tim eventually learned the ways of a cowboy riding his Appaloosa. The horse was an inspiration for a poem that young T.J. McCoy included in a self-published pamphlet of cowboy poems. Sample verses of “Appalosie” read:
If I loosen up a minute fer to ease my tired joints
Then you grab your tail and pitch to beat the deuce
And the cause of this sun fishin'
Is your ingrown disposition
Oh! you wall-eyed streak o' meanness, Appaloose!
But fer all your darn fool actions, you're the top horse of my string
And I like your grit, you paint-splashed little scamp.
Why, you'll jolt me till I'm purple
On the long end of a circle
Then fer cussedness come pitchin' into camp.
(Find the complete poem here at CowboyPoetry.com.)
After working for the Double Diamond, T.J. McCoy went to Thermopolis, Wyoming, in the spring of 1910 to talk to Irish Tom Walsh about a job. T.J. signed up for an upcoming roundup. The hired men on horseback began collecting cattle that were spread over a big country. Each day the herd would get larger and the cowhands had to take turns riding night guard. T.J. had a “better than average tenor voice in those days” so the other waddies would lay awake and listen to him sing to quiet the herd. One evening, someone asked who had the next watch. The reply was “Oh, Ted Price and the Canary.” T.J. said “Wait a minute, I’m on guard with Ted Price.” Another cowhand replied, “Hain’t ya heerd yer name yet, young feller? You’re Irish Tom’s Canary.” T.J had picked up a nick name, like it or not!
Tim learned a lot about the ways of a cowboy; however he was fascinated with Indian lore. The kindness he showed the local tribesmen and his genuine interest in them would help springboard his film career in a few years. T.J. was befriended by an Arapaho named Goes in Lodge. T.J. was considered by Goes in Lodge as his brother and so he gave him the name High Feather. Their friendship would remain close throughout their lives. High Feather not only learned their culture, he mastered their sign language so he could communicate with them.
In WWI, T.J. McCoy enlisted in the US Army Calvary and was sent to Officers Candidate School at Ft. Riley, Kansas. He rose to the rank of Lt. Colonel by the end of the war. By then, Tim had married Agnes Miller, a member of a theatrical family. They and their three children returned to Wyoming where he had bought a small ranch. With Tim’s military background, the Governor of Wyoming made him the Adjutant General over the State’s National Guard with the rank of Brigadier General (one star), at the ripe old age of 28. Due to his knowledge of Indian culture, and ability to use sign, he accompanied General Hugh Scott to survey the Custer Battlefield and pow wow with Indians who fought at Custer’s Last Stand in order to try to determine what had actually happened. Their expedition received national attention.
General McCoy in his third year as Adjutant General received a visitor with a strange question: “How would I go about acquiring 500 Indians?” Tim asked him “Why?” The accountant looking fellow asked: “Have you ever heard of Famous Players-Lasky?” “Nope” Tim said. His visitor shared that film producer Jesse Lasky had read the popular novel, The Covered Wagon, by Emerson Hough, about pioneers on the Oregon Trail, and wanted to make an epic western, the first of its kind, of the story. Famous Players provided capital for the film and wanted it be authentic in every way, including using real Indians. Being naïve about the film business, Tim asked if he rounded up 500 Indians, which was not an easy task, how much they would be paid. The accountant replied “General, on the basis of a seven day week…..we are prepared to pay $5 a day for each adult Indian, 50 cents for each child, $1 per day for each horse…..and $1 dollar for each tipi….an adult man and woman with one child, one horse and a tipi will receive $87 dollars and 50 cents per week (plus food and travel).” Tim realized one week’s work would provide them more money than they would receive in a year. The accountant also wanted to hire Tim to supervise the Indians. He asked “And how much do I get paid?” The answer was $50 a week plus expenses. Tim replied “we’ve got ourselves a deal.”
Tim McCoy resigned his commission the next day and began worrying how he was going convince 500 Indians to become motion picture actors. However, with Goes in Lodge’s help, he was able to persuade 200 Arapahos to join him; however he was still 300 Indians shy. They needed to proceed immediately to the film location (James Cruze directing) at Milford, Utah. Tim obtained the balance from Shoshoni and Bannock tribes and loaded them on trains along with 400 horses and tipis. The bizarre expedition headed southwestward.
THE COVERED WAGON (1923) was truly an epic photoplay. Lois Wilson, the leading lady, reflecting on the picture years later, recalled the Indians never missed their cues and didn’t require a retake. The elder Indians appeared quite natural while attacking the pioneers, as many had actually done so when they were young bucks. Tim was so good at what he did that he soon became the film’s Technical Advisor. Famous Players-Lasky, due to their significant investment, at completion of the film, asked Tim to moderate a prologue program when it played at the new Grumman’s theater in Hollywood. He agreed and added 35 Arapaho warriors, women and children, along with their tipis, and set up a simulated encampment on the stage. Tim, before the film, would share his knowledge of the travails of the pioneers and the Indians would talk about their experience with the paleface. Tim secured the Indians a salary of $8 dollars each per day, per diem, travel and lodging. When asked what salary he expected, Tim on the advice of a veteran actor in the film, threw out an extravagant figure of $1000 per week plus expenses. They agreed and Tim said “I swallowed my gum and signed the contract.” The engagement ran for four months. It was so successful, that Famous Players-Lasky signed Tim to perform the same opening during their European showings. It was not easy trying to convince the Arapahos to cross the big pond in an oversized canoe; however they finally agreed.
The next year, Tim hosted a similar prologue for John Ford’s grandiose THE IRON HORSE (1924) and served as Technical Advisor on Jack Holt’s THE THUNDERING HERD (1925). However, Tim felt he was repeating himself, so he returned to his ranch on Owl Creek, assuming he’d be a rancher for the rest of his days. After all, he had acquired 2500 acres by now and a sizeable herd of cattle. However, Hollywood came calling again. This time MGM wanted Tim to do a screen test to become a leading man in a western series. The boy genius Irving Thalberg had seen Tim at the prologue for THE COVERED WAGON and felt he was star material. After the film test, Thalberg invited Tim to watch the rushes together. Afterwards, the film executive asked Tim “What do you think?” “To tell you the truth” Tim replied, “I wouldn’t walk across the street, let alone pay a dime, to see that fellow.” Thalberg disagreed. In 1926, Tim became MGM’s only western film star. He was an equal with the likes of John Gilbert, Lillian Gish, Ramon Navarro, Lon Chaney and Buster Keaton.
Tim McCoy made 16 films for MGM from 1926 to 1929. The first was WAR PAINT (1926) which was written by the director W.S. Van Dyke with help from Tim. The new MGM star described Woody Van Dyke as being arrogant, opinionated, sure of himself and “utterly ruthless”, yet he was a “truly great director.” The film enabled Tim to utilize his Indian friends who had worked with him on THE COVERED WAGON. Tim recalled a scene where an old Shoshoni rode up and shot him point blank with a .45-.70 rifle. However, the powder being old and caked into hard balls of powder, literally knocked Tim off his horse. The blast burned Tim’s face, he was bleeding from a head wound and his shirt was completely destroyed. The Indians truly concerned about their friend and benefactor, encircled the prone hero who was barely conscious. Van Dyke came up and said “Goddammit!” “You’re not supposed to fall off the horse. You stupid bastard, you’ve ruined a beautiful shot.”
MGM produced several qualities Tim McCoy silent westerns, many with a historical bent. Their budgets were considerably higher than the run of the mill B westerns. Some of the photoplays were CALIFORNIA (1927); WYOMING (1928); and the last SIOUX BLOOD (1929). Getting the runaround from Louie B Mayer regarding a salary increase, Tim left MGM at the end of his contract. During this period, Tim’s marriage was unraveling. His wife and children were living in London and Paris. After six months of self-exile in Europe assessing his marriage, Tim returned home alone to Wyoming….Goodbye Hollywood, Hello Owl Creek. However, in the spring of 1930, Tim received a telegram asking him to return to Hollywood to star in an “all talkie”, 12 chapter serial THE INDIANS ARE COMING for Universal. Tim was concerned that making a cliffhanger would hurt his reputation. His agent, Eddie Small replied: “Tim, nothing ever hurts you in this business except being out of work.”
Bobl Allen on left
THE INDIANS ARE COMING was a financial success, grossing over one million. Tim made a second serial for Universal, a nonwestern, but declined to do a third. However, his renewed popularity resulted in his signing with Columbia. The first of 16 western films for Columbia was THE ONE WAY TRAIL (1931). The most significant movie in the series was END OF THE TRAIL (1932) which portrayed Indians in a fair manner. Others included THE RIDING TORONADO (1932) and the TEXAS CYCLONE (1932). In 1935, Columbia added a potential leading man to the Tim McCoy westerns, Bob Allen, who was billed as a costar in THE RANGE RIDER (1935). Bob “Tex” Allen would go on to star in six westerns for Columbia (1936-37). Tim made a total of 36 films for the studio. His last was SQUARE SHOOTER (1935). It was during his stint at Columbia that Tim, not wanting to look like every other cowboy star, went from wearing the traditional white hat to a black hat with an all-black outfit. He also became the fastest quick draw of all the B western heroes. There were 24 movie frames per second. Tim would reach for his revolver and fire it in only six frames!
In 1935, Tim signed with an independent studio, Puritan, where he made 11 photoplays beginning with BULLDOG COURAGE. The Puritan films were above average quality and Tim continued to receive his $4000 per picture salary. Other notable Puritan McCoy films were ACES AND EIGHTS (1936) and LIGHTNIN’ BILL
CARSON (1936). In between films, Tim was featured in the Sells Floto Circus (1936) and then with the Ringling Brothers & Barnum & Bailey Circus (1936-37). The latter gave him top billing of a complete Wild West show as a companion piece to their circus. It was a tremendous success. This led Tim to form his own company: Tim McCoy’s Real Wild West Show and Rough Riders. The troupe premiered in Springfield, MO on April 14, 1938. However, just because you’re a successful screen star, does not assure that you’ll be a successful businessman. Tim invested $100,000 of his own money. The show closed on May 4, 1938.
Tim then signed with producer Sam Katzman at Victory Pictures for 1938-39. He made 8 movies for Victory and 4 for Monogram during this period; however the Victory pictures were not of the same quality of his earlier films. However, Tim was allowed to play all different types of characters including Mexicans, Chinese, Gypsies and Englishmen. The first film for Victory was a sequel to an earlier Puritan release - LIGHTNING BILL CARSON RIDES AGAIN (1938).
James Horwitz, in his 1976 book, They Went That Away, reflected on his favorite western star….Colonel Tim McCoy: “A Cowboy-Hero with his own unique personality and image. Not to be mistaken for anybody else. If William S. Hart was the ‘good badman’. And Tom Mix was the Rhinestone-and-Neon Cowboy. If Ken Maynard was the Daredevil. And Hoot Gibson the Ragtime Clown. Then Colonel Tim McCoy’s image would be the ‘Man of Destiny’. He wasn’t every Front Row Kid’s idea of a Cowboy-Hero. Only the smart ones’. Tim McCoy, with his cavalry officer’s bearing and a twinkle in his eye was a Cowboy with……class.” Boyhood worship personified!
PRC (Producers Releasing Corporation) hired Tim to make 7 westerns in 1940-41. Upon wrapping up the PRC films, Monogram signed Tim to costar in a western trio series ROUGH RIDERS, costarring Buck Jones and Raymond Hatton. In 1942, Tim also ran unsuccessfully on the Republican ticket for US Senator from Wyoming. The PRC films were usually quality westerns; however Tim left after the 8th film to reenlist in the US Army, as WWII was underway. He was commissioned as a Lt. Colonel and later promoted to Colonel. Col. McCoy’s primary responsibility was to provide logistical support for the US and allied forces in Europe. In his biography, Tim recalled that upon US troops exiting a town in Germany, they commandeered hundreds of cases of Liebfraumilch. The wine master promptly presented the Colonel with an “astronomical bill.” In response, Col. McCoy stiffed him and signed the bill - J.E.B. Stuart, 4th Mountain Artillery. Tim’s only regret was he didn’t pay him off in Confederate dollars.
After the war, Col. Tim McCoy retired from the US Army (age 55). Tim sold his Wyoming ranch and started making personal appearances. He remained close to his Hollywood buddies who included Richard Barthelmess, William Powell, Laurence Olivier, David Niven, Sir Aubrey Smith, Warner Baxter, Jack Holt, and Sir Cedric Hardwicke. However, his best friend was Academy Award winner Ronald Colman. Tim described “Ronnie” as being “the gentlest man I have ever known and until his death in 1958, the best white man friend I ever had.” Tim served as Best Man at Coleman’s wedding and was godfather to his daughter.
In 1946, Tim at a dinner party in Hollywood met a Danish woman who was a Fashion Director for Harper’s Bazaar. Tim recalled that Inga Arvad, "took his breath away.” Inga was “the most beautiful woman” he had ever seen. Besides speaking Danish, Inga was fluent in German, French and English. In 1936, Inga, a journalist for a Danish newspaper, met Adolph Hitler at Field Marshall Hermann Goring’s wedding. In turn, Inga secured a rare interview with the Fuhrer. This led to Hitler inviting her to attend the Berlin 1936 Olympics as his date. Hitler described Inga as “the perfect Nordic beauty.” The Nazis later solicited Inga to become a spy for the Third Reich; however she promptly left the country. In 1940, upon relocating to the USA, she began an affair with a young US Navy officer John F. Kennedy. The FBI opened an investigation to determine if Inga was a spy for the Germans or the Russians. Tim, age 55 and Inga 33 were married after a whirlwind romance. They had two sons, one named Ronald after Ronald Colman.
In 1950, he was offered a LA television program on KTLA TV, Channel 5. It would be similar to the prologue he produced for THE COVERED WAGON. Iron Eyes Cody and Tim’s Indian friends were cast members. Tim and his guests would talk about Indian lore and the pioneers’ migration. Two years later, Tim moved across town to KNXT CBS, Channel 2. In 1952, Tim was notified that he was up for an EMMY for the Best Children’s Show. When advised his competition was The Webster Webfoot Show (ventriloquist’s Jimmy Weldon’s feathered dummy), Tim refused to attend the ceremonies. Tim’s reply: “I’ll be damned if I’m going to set there and get beaten by a talking duck!” Tim won in absentia.
After the TV program ended, Tim returned to the sawdust trail with the Kelly, Miller Brothers Circus for one season and then with the Carson and Barnes Circus for six more. In 1956, producer Michael Todd personally invited Tim to perform a cameo role as a US Cavalry Colonel in an all-star cast of AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS. Eventually, Tim would have his own Wild West Show, with producer Tommy Scott, however on a much smaller scale. He’d perform trick shooting and crack a bullwhip. This show toured for 13 years. Earlier in 1962, Tim moved his family to Nogales, Arizona, where they built a home. It was a happy family, however Inga died in 1973. Part of Tim died with her. He was no longer motivated to keep working. His son Ronald encouraged him to write his autobiography and even assisted his father in doing so. At the conclusion of his memoirs, Tim McCoy said he was going to back to the Wind River area of Wyoming one last time and try to find the grave of his old friend Goes in Lodge. He said he’d “decorate it with offerings of sweet grass, the grave of that old buffalo hunter, my friend, and brother to whom I owe so much.” On January 29, 1978, Col. Tim McCoy, suffering from congestive heart failure, died at the military hospital at Fort Huachuca, Arizona. He is interred alongside Inga and his Irish immigrant parents in the Mount Olivet Cemetery, in Saginaw, Michigan.
George N. Fenin and William Everson, in their book The Western: From the Silents to Seventies, described him as: “McCoy’s somber appearance in black made him seem like Nemesis in person, for outlaws in any case. He would walk slowly into a saloon, letting the swing doors flap behind him, and would stand there silently surveying the scene, glowering grimly at any obvious renegade, and flashing his eyes from side to side in a manner that became almost his trademark. Whether the outlaws accepted him as friend or foe, from that moment on, they knew they had met their master.
My first Police Chief assignment (1972) was for the small agrarian community of Chowchilla in California’s San Joaquin Valley. There were flyers posted that Tim McCoy’s Wild West Show was coming to our fairgrounds. Here was an opportunity to meet one of my boyhood heroes. However, I chose not to go. I wanted to remember Col. Tim McCoy as he was when he was one of the major cowboy screen stars. He was now in his 80s, still trying to make a living, going town to town. To this date, it has been one of my biggest regrets. The moral of the story: if someone has been a source of entertainment to you, regardless of their age, you should greet them enthusiastically, thank them and tell them how much they’ve meant to you.
© 2013, Gary Eugene Brown; all rights reserved.
Illustrations for this article were provided by Gary Brown.
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