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High Eagle The Many Lives Of Colonel Tim Mccoy
June 1977 | Volume 28, Issue 4
Who is Colonel Tim McCoy? He is the last surviving cowboy hero of the silent screen. His contemporaries—Tom Mix. Hoot Gibson, Buck Jones, Ken Maynard, Fred Thompson, Harry Carey, and lesser lights—are all gone, some of them for many years. Only McCoy remains, now as then solidly sure of the choices in life and decisively intolerant of injustice.
Timothy John Fitzgerald McCoy was born in Saginaw, Michigan, in 1891. At age eighteen he went west, while the West was still a proving ground for young men of grit. He learned the skills of a cowboy, homesteaded in Wyoming, and became a rancher of sorts. The Indians of the area, the A rapahoes and Shoshones, saw in h im a man of their own spirit. He learned their language, including the sign language, and was given by them the name “High Eagle.”
His career was a varied one. He served during World War I as a Cavalry officer and mustered out at the end of the war with the rank of lieutenant colonel. For a time he served as an aide to General Hugh L. Scott, an old Indian fighter, and when Scott was appointed head of the Board of Indian Commissioners, both he and the Arapahoes wanted McCoy to become an Indian agent. McCoy declined: “The bureaucratic restrictions would almost certainly have ruined our friendship.”
It was his expertise m the language and customs of American Indians that first brought him to Hollywood in 1923 as technical adviser for the filming of the epic The Covered Wagon, directedby James Cruze. In addition, he acted as liaison between the director and the hundreds of Indian extras. When the picture was released in Los Angeles, at Graumann’s Theater, McCoy and his Indians performed a live prologue on stage. The picture, and the prologue, proved so popular that both ran for some eight months before moving on to Europe. MGM, attracted by McCoy’s rugged good looks, military bearing, and no-nonsense style, signed him as their first cowboy hero star, at an age when most current stars are feeling the pangs of professional mortality.
The Western was the first (though temporary) casualty of the advent of sound pictures, and most silent-screen cowboys, including Tim McCoy, found themselves suddenly at the end of their bright careers, with no more to show for their stardom than the strength of character they tried to instill in their young admirers and discovered in themselves. McCoy went home to his ranch in Wyoming, content with his moment of glory. But soon he was called back again, first to make a talking serial at Universal, The Indians Are Coming , and later to do a series of sound Westerns at Columbia.
During the 1935 through 1938 seasons, the last golden age for American circuses, McCoy went on the roadwith Ringling BrothersBarnum and Bailey and gave the children of the country a chance to see one of their heroes in the flesh. The tours were enormously successful, so much so that he was persuaded to put together his own Wild West show and take to the road. It was a disaster. To recoup his losses, he went back to Hollywood to do a series of Westerns with Buck Jones and Raymond Hattonfor Monogram Pictures called The Rough Riders .
World War II took him away from films for the duration, andwhen he returned he became involved in early television as the host of his own show, for which he won an Emmy. Since then he has taken parts in occasional movies, the most memorable being that of a Cavalry colonel in Around the World in Eighty Days .
At the age of seventy-one McCoy joined the Tommy Scott Wild West Show, displaying his virtuosity with a gun and a bullwhip, and toured on the road into his eighties. Today he spends his time writing his autobiography (to be published in the late fall) with the help of his son Ronald in Nogales, Arizona, where the following interview took place during the last weekend m October, 1976.
Colonel, you’re eighty-five years old now and you qualify as a survivor in every aspect of that word. Do y ou feel any sense of victory?
No, I have no sense of victory, but there is a little bit of satisfaction in realizing that I am one of the few men that I know of who has done everything he ever wanted to in life. I have no unfulfilled ambitions. I have no frustrations. Any time an idea ever came to me, I made it come true.
Looking back, which one gives you the most satisfaction? Oh, how can I tell?
You see, it depends on whether one can get enthusiastic about anything or interested enough. And all of these things that I’ve done have been most interesting, from the days that I was a cowboy on the range. I wanted to be a cowboy, so I became a cowboy and it was great. I wanted to be an Army officer and I became an officer. I have two wars behind me and I am now a retired colonel of the Cavalry with over thirty years’ service. Motion pictures is a thing that just happened because of my Indians, and once I got into that I enjoyed it.
Let’s talk about all those things. Now,you came out West whenyou were no more than a boy. You were eighteen, wer en ‘tyou?
Yes, that’s about right.
What was your dream whenyou set out on that journey as an eighteenyear-old?