March 21

This Day in History

Old West

Mar 21, 1882:

"Broncho Billy" Anderson born

Gilbert M. Anderson, the first western movie star, is born in Little Rock, Arkansas.

Better known as "Broncho Billy," the name of the western hero he played in over 300 short films, Anderson was the first western movie star. Furthermore, he played several small parts in one of the first movies ever made, The Great Train Robbery. In 1903, Anderson won a role as a bandit in the film after telling the director he could ride like a Texas Ranger. When it became clear that Anderson could hardly get onto a horse, he was made an "extra" and played several minor parts. Later that year, the 10-minute movie received an enthusiastic reception from the public, and Anderson decided to make a career in the promising new business of telling stories in moving pictures.

Anderson moved to Chicago, which was becoming a minor moviemaking center. After a few years directing and occasionally starring in movies produced by others, Anderson decided to create his own production company. Forming a partnership with old friend George K. Spoor, in 1907 Anderson created the Essanay Company, which would later be credited as one of the best of the early movie studios.

At first, Anderson made comedies, but remembering the brilliant success of The Great Train Robbery, he eventually turned to Westerns. Anderson was one of the first movie producers to realize that the public needed a central character in the movies, a "star" on which they could focus their attention. In 1909, though, there were no movie stars and stage actors were reluctant to risk films. Anderson decided to make himself the star, creating the character "Broncho Billy" out of ideas about the West culled from popular dime novels.

In 1909, Anderson released his first western, Broncho Billy and the Baby. It was an enormous success and convinced Anderson that he should stick with Westerns starring the Broncho Billy character. Over the next five years, Anderson made over 300 short one- or two-reel movies featuring Broncho Billy. Physically, Anderson was not especially handsome or dashing, but audiences liked Broncho Billy for his courageous virtue and bravery.

In 1915, Anderson released his last film in the series, Broncho Billy's Sentence, and thereafter turned to writing. A few years later he attempted a comeback, but by then the western field was dominated by more dashing actors like Tom Mix and William S. Hart. He made comedies for several years before retiring. Later recognized and honored for his pivotal role in the development of the Western, in 1965 he made a cameo appearance in a modern Hollywood Western called The Bounty Killer, his first talking picture.

Anderson died in his sleep on January 20, 1971, at the age of 88.

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