Hall of Fame cowboy Ben Johnson (1918–1996) got his start in Hollywood by driving a boxcar full of horses to California for billionaire film director Howard Hughes. An Oscar win and directing gigs eventually followed, but it all began because Johnson was a cowboy. He was a roping champion, knew how to handle livestock, and looked the part. In a land of fantasy, he was the real deal. And Dean Smith, 82, went from being an Olympic gold-medal-winning runner in 1952 to ultimately working as a stuntman in 10 movies, starting with John Wayne’s The Alamo (1959). Authenticity is irreplaceable.
From the Golden Age of the Hollywood Western to today, one thing remains a constant: Actors act and cowboys ride. Those who possess roping and riding skills can find steady work in the film business—and with some luck, speaking roles, too.
Kyle Thomson, a saddle-bronc rider from Black Diamond, Alberta, who rode bucking horses in Tom Selleck’s Monty Walsh (2003), says: “People pay money to believe what they’re seeing is real. They didn’t hire me to do a sword fight scene, because I couldn’t make it look real. That’s not what I do. That’s the biggest reason they hire guys like us is for Westerns.” When Thomson and his twin brother, Cody, got word that a movie was holding a casting call for bronc riders, the brothers simply showed up, rode horses, and got hired. Ranch work was second nature to them having grown up on the prairies of Alberta.
ProRodeo Hall of Fame roper Clay O’Brien Cooper, who also grew up on a ranch, filled the role of Hardy Fimps in The Cowboys (1972) starring John Wayne. Then 10 years old, Cooper parlayed his screen debut into a string of other acting appearances, including One Little Indian and Cahill, U.S. Marshall, before moving on to win seven PRCA world championships in heeling with header Jake Barnes.
Longtime stuntman R.L. Tolbert, 70, got his start in 1965 as a horse-riding extra. Tolbert had answered an audition call following early-season rodeos in Arizona and found the going a bit easier after earning his Screen Actors Guild (SAG) card in 1975. He could drive 6-up and 8-up horse wagons and was cast as a stagecoach driver, most notably in the HBO miniseries Deadwood. He went on to earn credits in 13 movies but found stunt work in 60 titles.
“It’s always hard to get into the movie business, because everybody wants in,” he says. “If there’s something you can do, and you can get along with people, you’ll be able to find work.”
And like many professions, the familiar adage applies: It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.
“I got started through a legendary guy named Dave Cass Sr.,” says trick rider and veteran stuntman Austin Anderson about his mentor, a one-time extra and stuntman who became one of the industry’s top stunt coordinators. “I also met Clay Lilley, who was a wrangler. Working with them, that’s how I got my [SAG] card.”
Show ‘em what you got, take your knocks, and perhaps a big break awaits you. Mastering those eight seconds could lead to your 15 minutes...
There isn’t a better time to be a talented rider or stuntman to provide services in movies, because unlike the old days, you don’t have to live near Hollywood to be part of the action. Film companies (from the biggest corporations to unknown independents) are producing movies from coast to coast—many of which require the talents of all-around cowboys. The movie industry, however, is union-dominated, so it’s not a slam dunk to break into those tight-knit inner circles. Show the right stuff and take your knocks, and you just might get noticed. And attend one of these schools to show that you’re serious:
Stunts Unlimited, 818-501-1970, www.stuntsunlimited.com
Stuntman’s Association, 818-766-4334, www.stuntmen.com
United Stuntman’s Association, 206-349-8339, www.stuntschool.com
Screen Actors Stunt Association, 201-666-7100, www.sasastunts.com
Ghost Riders Stunt Company, www.ghostriders.org
This article is from American Cowboy: Legends of Western Cinema Collector's Edition which can be purchased at HorseBooksEtc.com.