In 1965, a frail old man in a wheelchair appeared in the no-budget western, The Bounty Killer. For those of us who love movies, especially westerns, this is a bittersweet moment. Because the man who invented the western movie hero makes his last appearance on the silver screen.
That man was Broncho Billy Anderson.
But Broncho Billy, the first cowboy hero of the motion pictures was a Jewish kid from Little Rock, Arkansas named Max Aaronson, (1880 – 1971).
Max’s father, Henry, was a dry goods salesman and his mother Esther, a mother and homemaker. The family moved to St. Louis Missouri in 1883 and here Max, a teenager, was an office clerk like his brothers Jerome, Edward, and Nathaniel. A year later, Max became a cotton-buyer, in partnership with his brother-in-law Louis Roth. But Max was restless, a dreamer—and he was stage struck.
After taking courses in a St. Louis acting school, Max headed for New York City, and with no professional experience headed straight for Broadway. He was a dismal failure, hauled off-stage and fired during his very first appearance.
Theatrical agents had such a low opinion of young Aaronson’s talents that one suggested he try the Pictures.
This was an insult.
Acting was considered an indecent profession by the general public, but even theater actors looked down on motion picture actors.
To protect his reputation and hide his Jewish roots, Max Aaronson, desperate for money and fame, adopted the stage name, Gilbert M. Anderson, and applied for work at the Edison film studio at 41 East 21st Street.
Anderson appeared in several early films, some lasting just a minute or two.
In October, 1903, Edwin S. Porter began casting a film at the Edison studios. Porter asked Anderson if he could ride a horse. Anderson said yes.
He was lying. Then and now, the first rule of the acting profession is get the role and then worry about the details.
The cast and crew arrived on location. Anderson started to mount up from the wrong side and the horse bucked. Anderson was thrown to the ground.
Porter forgave him and Anderson ended up playing three different roles in The Great Train Robbery: a train robber on foot, a man shot in the back during the robbery, and a tenderfoot in a saloon dancing to gun shots directed at his feet.
The Great Train Robbery opened at Huber’s Museum, a grimy vaudeville house on 14th street in New York. After the vaudeville show, when the film was announced to the theater’s usual patrons—thieves, prostitutes and drug addicts—the crowd started to drift towards the exit. But then the movie began and the audience was riveted.
Anderson was there:
“I’ve seen some receptions to plays, but I’ve never seen such a reception to a picture in my life. They got up and shouted and yelled, and then when it was all over they yelled ‘Run it again! Run it again!’ You couldn’t get them out. They sat there two or three times, and finally they put on the lights to chase them out… And I said to myself: that’s it; it’s going to be the picture business for me.”
The very first film with Gilbert M. Anderson as Broncho Billy was called Broncho Billy’s Redemption, 1910.
Here’s the synopsis from David Kiehn’s Broncho Billy and the Essany Film Company:
Redemption comes to Broncho Billy, a cattle rustler, when he discovers a young woman and her father unconscious from illness out in the prairie. He decides to take them into town for medical attention, knowing he’ll be arrested by the sheriff as an outlaw.
Anderson’s insistence on plausible Western geography eventually brought Anderson and his crew west to Niles California, a sleepy town near San Francisco. There Anderson built a working studio with full production facilities.
Broncho Billy was the mythic westerner—often an an outlaw—with a strong sense of right and wrong.
Millions thrilled to Broncho Billy’s adventures, and though Anderson was not handsome or physically imposing, his powerful personality, his insistence on authentic locations, the eternally conflicted hero—moral and physical—plus hair-raising stunts and good triumphing over evil made Broncho Billy the first western movie star.
Anderson starred and directed dozens of his Broncho Billy films from 1910 until 1916. Anderson yearned to expand into feature films, but his partner was wary of this new form, and Essany missed the boat on the public’s appetite for feature films.
Anderson had a keen eye for talent and insisted on signing the young English comedian Charlie Chaplin to a contract for the unheard sum of $1,250 per week and a $10,000 bonus. Anderson’s partner, George K. Spoor hesitated. He didn’t believe any talent was worth that much money, but Anderson persisted and the deal was finalized.
Chaplin’s films for Essany went on to become blockbusters—especially “The Tramp,” 1915, the film that ends with the iconic shot of the lonely tramp–back to the camera—sadly shuffling down the road, and then straightening his spine and bravely heading forward to his next adventure.
At Niles, Anderson and Chaplin appeared together in Chaplin’s “The Champion,” released in 1915, the only film in which the two stars appeared together.
Chaplin left Essanay after only one year for The Mutual Film Company where he was offered more money and more creative control. This caused a serious rift between Anderson and Spoor. Anderson wanted to hold onto Chaplin, pay his escalating price, but Spoor was unwilling to enter the bidding war.
After ten years, and over 1,200 films, Essany closed the Niles studio.
Like so many early film pioneers who could not keep pace with the rapidly changing industry, Anderson drifted from one bad business venture to the next, and was all but forgotten by the business he helped invent. In 1958 Anderson was awarded a special Academy Award as “one of a small group of pioneers whose belief in a new medium, and whose contributions to its development, blazed the trail along which the motion picture has progressed, in their lifetime, from obscurity to world-wide acclaim.” Unfortunately Anderson was too ill to attend the ceremony.
Max Aaronson AKA Broncho Billy, passed away at the Academy’s Brierwood Convalescent Hospital in 1970. He was 90 years old. He was survived by his wife, Mollie Louise (Schabbleman) Anderson, their daughter, Maxine, and his sister Leona Anderson (1884–1973).
Aaronson, the grandson of a rabbi, never discussed his Jewish roots publicly. And contrary to halacha, Jewish law, he was cremated after death.
The only book about Anderson is David Kiehn’s Broncho Billy and the Essany Film Company, to which I am greatly indebted. This is a fine but rather dry book about a narrow period of Anderson’s career. There is no biography of Anderson, and that is a shame.