While most western fans today know Edmund “Hoot” Gibson (1892-1962) chiefly from his B movies of the ’30s and ’40s, his days of biggest stardom were in the silent era, when he was second only to Tom Mix in popularity as a western star. Gibson’s career as an actor in western films goes all the way back to 1910, nearly the beginning, making him one of the few stars from the earliest days to hang on to a career for as long as he did.
Nebraska-born Gibson had been riding horses since childhood. The nickname “Hoot Owl” (later shortened to merely “Hoot”) has been ascribed to different origins, from the story that he used to hunt owls as a boy, to the legend that he was once a messenger for the Owl Drug Company. As a teenager and young man he worked as a cowboy and bronc buster on working ranches in Colorado, Wyoming and Oklahoma, and rode in circuses, rodeos and wild west shows. He was only 18 when film work came into the mix. In the early years, he was a stunt man in addition to being an actor. Gibson was not blessed with movie star looks or physique, and his histrionic abilities left something to be desired. His horsemanship above all was what got him in the door with directors, producers and audiences.
In 1913 he married Rose August Wenger, billed as Helen Gibson, a female rodeo rider who became the first Hollywood stuntwoman and the star of cliffhanging serials like The Hazards of Helen (1914), in which Hoot also appeared. John Ford became a major early supporter of Hoot’s career, casting him in his 1917 films Cheyenne’s Pal, Straight Shooting, The Secret Man, and A Marked Man, and his starring vehicle Action (1921). By the twenties, Gibson was a fully fledged star in his own right. During this period (1922-29) he was onto his second marriage, to vaudeville performer Helen Johnson, who became the second “Helen Gibson”.
By the 1930s, Hoot had left major studios like Universal and was starring B movie westerns for Poverty Row outfits, but he remained popular and his films were profitable. From 1930 through 1933 he was married to minor movie star Sally Eilers. Gibson co-starred with Eilers in the films The Long Long Trail (1929), Trigger Tricks (1930), and Clearing the Range (1931). In 1933 he crashed the plane he was driving in an air race against fellow western star Ken Maynard. His period of convalescence seems to have slowed his career down some.
By the mid ’30s Gibson’s movie career was running on fumes. In The Painted Stallion (1937) he found himself second-billed to Crash Corrigan, and decided to drop out of movies. Starting in 1938 he began touring with circuses (Robbins Brothers, Wallace Brothers, and Russell Brothers) for a couple of years. He then left show business for a time, working in real estate to make his living.
In 1942 Gibson married radio singer and actress Dorothy Dunstan. From 1943 through 1946 he returned to films when Monogram Pictures hired him to appear in the Trailblazers series with Ken Maynard, and he also starred in westerns with Bob Steele and others. Following this brief comeback, he returned to working in real estate, while Dorothy appeared in her only film role, in Red Sky at Morning (1948). While essentially retired from show business, Gibson had several occasions to re-emerge into the public eye. In 1953, he co-starred in The Marshall’s Daughter, a vanity project produced by Ken Murray to showcase Laurie Anders, a beaudacious regular on his TV show. In 1955 he had a cameo on I Married Joan. He had small roles in John Ford’s The Horse Soldiers (1959) and in the Rat Pack’s Ocean’s 11 (1960). It is said that in his last years, in order to pay off his large debts, he made supplementary income he worked in carnivals, and as a greeter in Las Vegas casinos. When Hoot Gibson passed away in 1962, he was nearly penniless.