Broncho Billy Anderson (March 21, 1880 – January 20, 1971) was an American actor, writer, director, and producer, who is best known as the first star of the Western film genre.
He was born Max Aronson in Little Rock, Arkansas, the sixth child of Henry and Esther Aronson, natives of New York. His younger sister Leona Anderson would achieve a degree of success in the 1950s as a novelty singer who specialized in singing off-key songs for comedic value.
Anderson, who was Jewish, is also claimed by Pine Bluff, where he was raised until age eight.
Learn more about the first Western-themed movie, The Great Train Robbery, and find links to watch it, too, at wildwestweb.net.
He then lived in St. Louis until he was 18, when he moved to New York City. He was a photographer's model and newspaper vendor before appearing on the stage. He performed in vaudeville, later working with Edwin S. Porter as an actor and occasional script collaborator.
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 audiences 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. He became the first cowboy star of movies through a large collection of silent shorts in which he was known as "Broncho Billy".
In 1907, he and George K. 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 Western shorts in which he played the first real movie cowboy hero, "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.
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.
He 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 entertainment."
In his seventies, Anderson came out of retirement for a cameo role in The Bounty Killer (1965).
He died in 1971 at the Motion Picture & Television Country House and Hospital in Woodland Hills, California. He was cremated and his ashes are kept in a vault at the Chapel of the Pines Crematory in Los Angeles.
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."
He has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 1651 Vine Street in Hollywood.