He wasn’t from the West and he couldn’t ride a horse, but this didn’t stop Gilbert “Broncho Billy” Anderson from becoming cinema’s first western cowboy hero.
Anderson, born Max Aronson, entered the world on this date in 1880. He was born to a Jewish family in Arkansas and had he been a more successful cotton broker, would most likely have remained there. Instead, he migrated to New York where he became a contract player for Vitagraph Studios.
In 1903, Edwin S. Porter cast Anderson in his landmark 11-minute western, The Great Train Robbery. He was originally meant to play one of the robbers, having lied his way into a tryout by claiming that he was “born in the saddle.” But after falling off his horse he was given other duties, playing three non-riding roles in the film. One of these parts was as a passenger who gets shot in the back, making Anderson one of the very first cinematic murder victims.
The phenomenal success of The Great Train Robbery spurred Anderson to learn to ride and to create his own western films. (The film would launch other cinematic careers as well: the Warner brothers started their empire by exhibiting the The Great Train Robbery throughout mining camps in Ohio and Pennsylvania.)
He partnered with moneyman George Spoor to create Essanay Studios, which was named from the “S and A” initials of Spoor and Anderson. Essanay set up shop in Chicago, but Anderson took a production team to California to shoot westerns based around a character named Broncho Billy that he had read about in a magazine. Anderson would star in over 375 Broncho Billy films between 1908 and 1915, making him the first cowboy western star.
In 1912, Anderson set up his own branch of Essanay in the East Bay town of Niles, California (today a district of Fremont). Essanay cranked out hundreds of westerns and Snakeville comedies there over the next few years.
Anderson was able to pull off a coup in 1914 when he hired Charlie Chaplin away from Keystone Studios to make films for Essanay in Chicago and Niles. The arrangement only lasted a year, and was an unpleasant one for all the parties concerned, especially Spoor, who bristled at Chaplin’s eye-bulging salary of $1250 per week.
In spite of this, Chaplin was able to make his first true classic in Niles called The Tramp, wherein his already established little tramp character was seen as more sympathetic and less frenetic than from his earlier Keystone films.
When Chaplin left Essanay for greener pastures, he took the fortunes of the studio with him. Soon afterwards, the Niles studio was boarded up, and Anderson sold his remaining interest in the company as well as his Broncho Billy character to Spoor.
Anderson produced films for the next 40 years and was awarded a special Academy Award in 1957 honoring his work as a motion picture pioneer.
Broncho Billy Anderson, the cowboy hero who began his career without knowing how to ride a horse, died in 1971.
(In case you’re wondering, Clint Eastwood’s Bronco Billy (1980) wasn’t based on Anderson, although Burt Reynolds’s character in Nickelodeon (1976) does share some similarities with Broncho Billy.)