Once the biggest film star in the world, Tom Mix may be the most forgotten megastar in Hollywood history.
70 years ago today, the former nickelodeon cowboy hero died when the car he was driving plunged into a washed-out gulley south of Florence, Arizona, and his sturdy aluminum suitcase struck him on the head, crushing his skull.
Mix had an exciting biography, which seemed to get even more colorful with each telling. He claimed to be a child of the West, with one-quarter Cherokee ancestry, and to have been one of Teddy Roosevelt’s “Rough Riders” in the Spanish-American War. He also reported that he had once been a Texas Ranger and U.S. Marshal before becoming a film star.
In truth, Mix was born in 1880 in Pennsylvania, and though he did enlist in the army in 1898, he remained stateside and never saw combat. He did serve as a lawman, but never in Texas, and instead of pinning on a marshal’s badge, he found employment as a local constable in Oklahoma and Kansas.
But to Mix’s credit, and unlike most Western film stars, he was a cowboy, earning his spurs for a time on the largest ranch in America, where he became an expert rider and shooter.
Fame came quickly to Mix after his first film in 1910. By the 20s, he was making $7,500 per week in films, and had overseen the construction several Western film sets called “Mixvilles” around Southern California, including one in downtown Newhall.
Part of the reason Mix’s fame dimmed over the years was because so few of his films exist. It is estimated that only 10 % of the 330 Westerns he made during his silent career still survive. Most of the rest were lost to the combustible nitrate film-stock they were printed on.
Mix’s film career ended with the coming of the talkie revolution, after which he moved into the circus business. His fame continued in radio where he was portrayed for two decades on the Ralston-Purina sponsored Tom Mix Ralston Straight Shooters program, although he never actually appeared on the series.
It is estimated that Mix made over $6 million during his film career (which translates to roughly $400 million today!), but he spent most of it on high-living and costly divorces (he was married five times).
He wasn’t quite penniless at the time of his crash, but it may have been better for him if he had been, because the suitcase that killed him was filled with money, traveler’s checks, and jewels.