The Creation of Colonel Tim McCoy

Cowboy star Tim McCoy (1891-1978) was born this day. Folks who only know this man casually as a B movie western star may be surprised and gratified to know that he is far more interesting than countless of his contemporaries — and for many reasons.

First, and this may sound contradictory but it’s true, is that McCoy’s persona was at once more fabricated and more authentic than those of most of his peers. (Long time readers know that I’ll never disparage a fabricated show business persona. Self-creation is the highest of all art forms). Timothy John Fitzgerald McCoy was the son of an Irish cop from a big city: his father was the police chief in Saginaw. Given this background, we are not surprised to know that he attended St. Ignatius (now Loyola) in Chicago, not unusual for a Catholic kid from the midwest, but plenty unusual for a cowboy.

It was while he was a student there that McCoy saw his first wild west show, and got bitten by the bug. He moved to a ranch in Wyoming, and became an expert horseman, lariat artist, and sharpshooter. He was already competing in rodeos prior to WWI. He also steeped himself in local Native American culture and mastered sign language. This is what we mean when was say “more authentic” — unlike many, McCoy possessed many genuine western skills. He walked the walk.

When the First World War arrived McCoy served as an army officer, rising to the rank of lieutenant colonel, although he did not see combat. After the war he became Wyoming’s adjutant general. He was a brigadier general when he was only 28 years old. He held this post until 1921.

The following year, Famous Players-Lasky sought McCoy out as a technical adviser for their great western epic The Covered Wagon (1923). He was specifically approached to recruit and supervise Native American extras for the film, which was shot in Utah. He also worked the picture as a buffalo wrangler and in other advisory capacities. When the picture wrapped, he organized a smaller group of Native Americans to perform authentic ceremonies and dances prior to each screening of The Covered Wagon in Hollywood. This ran for eight months, and then went on to tour to Europe.

Law of the Range poster starring Tim McCoy and Joan Crawford

In 1925 McCoy played his first role, a supporting part in The Thundering Herd. This led to a contract at MGM, where he starred in a series of silent western features starting with War Paint (1926) and ending with The Desert Rider (mid 1929). The Law of the Range (1928) is notable for co-starring an early career Joan Crawford.

Two Fisted Law poster
Note the Duke on the left. This is 7 years before “Stagecoach”

McCoy’s first sound picture was the Universal serial The Indians are Coming (1930). From 1932 through 1942 he starred in scores and scores of B movie westerns. One of the first Two Fisted Law (1932) co-starred then up-and-comers John Wayne and Walter Brennan.

From 1936 to 1938 he took time off from Hollywood to tour with Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus (much as Tom Mix had earlier toured with Sells-Floto). He then formed his own traveling wild west show in the tradition of Buffalo Bill. This financial gamble in the middle of the Great Depression proved a misjudgment. McCoy lost a lot of his own money, and was obliged to return to the movie biz for a time.

“Rough Riders”? “Below the Border”? I’ll leave you to fill in the double entendres.

In the early ’40s, McCoy co-starred in several “Rough Riders” pictures with Buck Jones. The pairing ended abruptly when the latter was killed in a tragic fire at the Cocoanut Grove nightclub.

In 1942, McCoy ran for the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate and lost. He then enlisted in the army, serving as a liason for the U.S. army air corps at the rank of full colonel throughout World War Two. After the war, he sold his Wyoming ranch and moved to Bucks County, Pennsylvania.

The Tim McCoy Show TV title

In 1952 he had his own local tv show in Los Angeles, where he showed his old movies and taught kids lessons about the old west. His co-host was Iron Eyes Cody. This may be the least authentic thing he ever did!

In later years McCoy returned to the big screen for a few select film performances. His appearance as a U.S. cavalry colonel in Around the World in 80 Days (1956) is one of the more magical moments in that film. The following year he was in the classic Run of the Arrow. His last film was Requiem for a Gunfighter (1965) which also featured old timers Johnny Mack Brown and Bob Steele. He spent his last years on a ranch in Arizona.

Both of McCoy’s wives were notable. Agnes Miller, his first, was the daughter of Broadway couple Henry Miller and Bijou Heron. His second, the Danish journalist Inga Arvad is most famous for her Nazi associations and her affair with the young JFK.