Gilbert M. "Broncho Billy" Anderson
(March 21, 1880 – January 20, 1971)
was an American actor, writer, film director, and film producer,
who is best known as the first star of the Western film genre.
Anderson was born Maxwell Henry
Aronson in Little Rock, Arkansas, the sixth child of Henry and
Esther (Ash) Aronson, natives of New York. His family was Jewish.
He lived until age eight in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, then moved with
his family to St. Louis, Missouri.
At 18, he moved to New York City. He attempted a career in
vaudeville and the theatre and supplemented his income as a
photographer's model and a newspaper vendor. In 1903, he met Edwin
S. Porter, who gave him work as an actor and occasional script
In Porter's early motion picture The
Great Train Robbery (1903), Anderson played three roles. After
seeing the film for the first time at a vaudeville theater and
being overwhelmed by the audience's reaction, Anderson decided the
film industry was for him. Using the stage name Gilbert M.
Anderson, he began to write, direct, and act in his own westerns.
In 1907, he and George Kirke Spoor founded Essanay Studios ("S and
A" for Spoor and Anderson), one of the predominant early movie
studios. Anderson acted in over 300 short films for the studio.
Though he played a wide variety of characters, he gained enormous
popularity in a series of 148 silent western shorts, becoming the
first cowboy star of movies, "Broncho Billy." Spoor stayed in
Chicago running the company like a factory, while Anderson
traveled the western United States by train with a film crew
shooting movies. Many of these were shot in Niles, a small town in
Alameda County, California, southeast of San Francisco, where the
nearby Western Pacific Railroad route thru Niles Canyon proved to
be a very suitable location for the filming of Westerns.
Writing, acting, and directing most of these movies, Anderson also
found time to direct a series of "Alkali Ike" comedy westerns
starring Augustus Carney. In 1916, Anderson sold his ownership in
Essanay and retired from acting. He returned to New York, bought
the Longacre Theatre and produced plays, but without permanent
success. He then made a brief comeback as a producer with a series
of shorts with Stan Laurel, including his first work with Oliver
Hardy in A Lucky Dog (filmed in 1919, released in 1921). Conflicts
with the studio, Metro, led him to retire again after 1920.
Anderson sued Paramount Pictures for naming a character "Bronco
Billy" in Star Spangled Rhythm (1943) and for depicting the
character as a "washed-up and broken-down actor," which he felt
reflected badly on him. He asked for $900,000, but the outcome of
the suit is unknown.
Anderson resumed producing movies, as owner of Progressive
Pictures, into the 1950s, then retired again. In 1958, he received
an Honorary Academy Award as a "motion picture pioneer" for his
"contributions to the development of motion pictures as
At age 85, Anderson came out of retirement for a cameo role in The
Bounty Killer (1965). For the last several years of his life, he
lived at the Motion Picture & Television Country House and
Hospital in Woodland Hills, California.
Anderson died in 1971 at the age of 90,
at a sanitarium in South Pasadena, California. Anderson was
survived by his wife, the former Mollie Louise Schabbleman, and
their daughter, Maxine. He was cremated and his ashes placed in a
vault at the Chapel of the Pines Crematory Plot: Vaultage in Los
Anderson was honored posthumously in
1998 with his image on a U.S. postage stamp. In 2002, he was
inducted into the Western Performers Hall of Fame at the National
Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. For
the past nine years, Niles (now part of Fremont), California, site
of the western Essanay Studios, has held an annual "Broncho Billy
Silent Film Festival."
Anderson has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 1651 Vine
Street in Hollywood.