A pioneering cowboy star of silent and early talking Westerns, Hoot Gibson was one of the 1920s' most popular children's matinée heroes. In his real life, however, he had a rather painful rags-to-riches-and-back-to-rags career, a problem that seemed to plague a number of big stars who fell victim to their high profile and wound up living too high on the hog.
An unfortunate byproduct of stardom is, of course, the misinformation that is often fed to the public over the years by either overzealous publicity agents or the actor himself. The many variations of just how Gibson earned the name tag "Hoot" is one of them: (1) As a youth, he loved to hunt owls; (2) while a teenager working on a rodeo ranch, other ranch hands called him "Hoot Owl" and that the name was shortened to just "Hoot"; (3) he picked up the nickname while a messenger with the Owl Drug Company; and (4) while touring briefly in vaudeville, he would hoot when the audience cheered and, thus, the nickname.
What facts are known about Hoot is that he was born Edmund Richard Gibson on August 6, 1892, in Tekamah, Nebraska. As a child he grew up among horses and received his first pony at the age of 2-1/2. His family moved to California when he was 7. At age 13 the adventurous youth ran away from home and joined a circus for a time. Later work included punching cows in both Wyoming and Colorado (at the time, a territory and not a state). While working on the Miller 101 Ranch at Fort Bliss, Oklahoma, as a horse wrangler, Hoot developed a strong, active interest in the rodeo scene--in particular, bronco busting. In 1907 he signed a four-year contract with the Dick Stanley-Bud Atkinson Wild West Show, which toured throughout the US and (later) Australia.
By 1910 Hoot had found an "in" to the movie business as one of the industry's first stuntmen (for which he was paid $2.50 for performing stunts or training horses). Director Francis Boggs was looking for experienced cowboys and stunt doubles to appear in his western short Pride of the Range (1910) starring Tom Mix; both Hoot and another future cowboy star, Art Acord, were hired. Hoot lost a solid Hollywood contact in Boggs, however, when the director and his working partner, producer William Nicholas Selig, were both shot in October, 1911, by a mentally disturbed employee (Selig was injured, but Boggs was killed). Gibson managed to find other stunt work in director D.W. Griffith's western short The Two Brothers (1910) and several others for the next few years.
Acting, at this point, was not his bread-and-butter income. Hoot still continued to forge a name for himself on the rodeo circuit with his pal Acord. In 1912, at age 20, he won the title "All-Around Champion Cowboy" at the famed annual Pendleton (Oregon) Round-Up. He also won the steer-roping World Championship at the Calgary Stampede. While on the circuit, he met fellow rodeo rider Rose August ("Helen") Wenger. They eventually married (there is still some question about whether they legally exchanged vows) and she took on the marquee name of Helen Gibson. She even found film stunt work herself and eventually was chosen to replace Helen Holmes as star of the popular movie serial The Hazards of Helen (1914) during mid-filming. Hoot himself had a minor role in the Universal cliffhanger.
Hoot picked up a couple of more strong connections in the film industry with western star Harry Carey and director John Ford. Gibson gained some momentum as a secondary player in a few of their films, including Cheyenne's Pal (1917), Straight Shooting (1917), The Secret Man (1917) and A Marked Man (1917). With the outbreak of World War I, however, Gibson's film career was put on hold. He joined the US Army, eventually attaining the the rank of sergeant while serving with the Tank Corps, and was honorably discharged in 1919. He returned immediately to Universal and was able to restart his career, quickly working his way up to co-star status in a series of short westerns, most of which were directed by his now close friend Ford. The two-reelers usually co-starred either Pete Morrison or Hoor's wife Helen, or sometimes both. Films such as The Fighting Brothers (1919), The Black Horse Bandit (1919), Rustlers (1919), Gun Law (1919), The Gun Packer (1919) and By Indian Post (1919) eventually led to his solo starring success.
During this prolific period, he was frequently directed by George Holt (The Trail of the Holdup Man (1919)), Phil Rosen (The Sheriff's Oath (1920)) and Lee Kohlmar (The Wild Wild West (1921)). It was at this time that he and wife Helen separated and divorced. In the early 1920s, Hoot went on to marry another Helen--Helen Johnson. They had one child, Lois Charlotte Gibson, born in 1923. The couple divorced in 1927.
Superstardom came with the John Ford (I)full-length feature western Action (1921), which was taken from "The Three Godfathers" story. It starred Hoot, Francis Ford and J. Farrell MacDonald as a trio of outlaws on the lam who find a baby. From that point on, both Hoot and Tom Mix began to "rule the west". Gibson's light, comedic, tongue-in-cheek manner only added to his sagebrush appeal, especially to children and women. His vehicles were non-violent for the most part, and he rarely was spotted carrying a gun while riding his palomino horse Goldie. Not a particularly handsome man, his boyish appeal and non-threatening demeanor were his aces in the hole--a major distinction that separated him from the more ascetic cowboy stars of the past.
By 1925 Hoot was making approximately $14,500 a week and spending it about as fast as he was making it. He successfully made the transition to talkies and, in 1930, married popular Jazz-era actress Sally Eilers, a third party to his previous divorce. The couple made three features together: The Long, Long Trail (1929), Trigger Tricks (1930) and Clearing the Range (1931). When she found celluloid success on her own with Bad Girl (1931), Sally decided to split from Hoot professionally and personally. They divorced in 1933.
Hoot lost his Universal contract in 1930, which signified the start of his decline. While he secured contracts with lesser studios during the early 1930s, such as Allied Pictures and First Division Pictures, the quality of his films suffered. By this time Hoot had already begun to feature race cars and airplanes in his pictures. such as The Flyin' Cowboy (1928) and The Winged Horseman (1929). Airplanes in particular became a large, expensive passion of his. In 1933 he crashed his biplane during a National Air Race in Los Angeles, which had pitted him against another cowboy star, Ken Maynard. Fortunately, he survived his injuries.
With the advent of talking films, singing cowboys such as Gene Autry and Roy Rogers were becoming the new rage, and both Hoot and Tom Mix felt the kick. Yet he managed a couple of "comebacks" by pairing up with others stars. He joined old silent film teammate Harry Carey and 'Guinn Big Boy Williams' in the "Three Mesquiteers" western Powdersmoke Range (1935), and was billed second to Ray Corrigan in the Republic serial The Painted Stallion (1937).
Hoot left films and toured with the Robbins Brothers and Russell Brothers circuses during 1938 and 1939 before retiring from show business altogether. His multiple divorces and reckless spending habits had taken their toll on his finances. For a time he found work in real estate before Monogram Pictures offered the stocky-framed actor a chance to return in 1943. Hoot teamed up with cowboy star Ken Maynard in the popular "Trail Blazers" series, and the duo were later joined by Bob Steele. Chief Thundercloud replaced a difficult Maynard on a couple of the films, but by the end of the series Gibson and Steele were riding alone together. The nearly dozen films in the series began with Wild Horse Stampede (1943) and ended with Trigger Law (1944), the latter being his last hurrah in films.
Hoot then returned to real estate. By the time he appeared as a surprise guest on the popular sitcom I Married Joan (1952) starring Joan Davis, his Western features of the 1930s and 1940s, as well as those of Maynard, Steele and others were a large staple of films seen by a TV audience that couldn't get enough Western fare. He did a favor for old friend John Ford by appearing in a cameo role in the director's 1959 film The Horse Soldiers (1959). His last movie spotting was a guest cameo in the "Rat Pack" film Ocean's Eleven (1960).
Hoot married a fourth and final time on July 3, 1942, to one-time radio singer and actress Dorothea Dunstan. This marriage took hold and lasted for 20 years until his death. By the 1960s Gibson was on the verge of financial collapse after a series of bad investments. Diagnosed with cancer in 1960, rising medical costs forced him to find any and all work available. He was relegated at one point to becoming a greeter at a Las Vegas casino and, for a period, worked at carnivals.
It was an unhappy end for a cowboy who brought so much excitement and entertainment to children and adults alike. Gibson died of cancer at the Motion Picture Country Home in Woodland Hills, California, just a couple of weeks after his 70th birthday. He was interred in the Inglewood Park Cemetery in Inglewood, California. In remembrance, he received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and, in 1979, was inducted into the Western Performers Hall of Fame at the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City.