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?
Well, I wanted to be a cowboy. I’d been interested in the West. I’d seen the cowboys who had come east with wild horses and broke them out, and I’d get right down in the middle of them when I was just a kid. I was able to rope and ride. Of course, every kid rode because they used to ship these wild horses back from the Western country and break them to sell to guys on drays, carts, and what not. Every kid would be down there among the cowboys. Well, just to see them wasn’t enough for me, and it wasn’t long before I had my hand on a rope, working along with them. Because of those cowboys I turned west. I wanted to be like them.
You jus t came out and started working as a ranch hand?
I came out there and went to work as a ranch hand, that’s right.
And just learned the skills?
Don’t you see, that’s the thing. Now, most people think that a cowboy, you just start right off and you’re a top cowboy. Well, you’ve got to serve your apprenticeship; you know, you’ve got to pay your dues first. You start at the bottom. I’ll never forget Ross Santee, the Western artist. I was back East visiting with Frazier Hunt, the author, and we got to talking about the West, so I happened to say to Ross, “Well there was this particular time I was wrangling horses on the roundup … ,” and Ross said, “What did you say?” I said, “I was wrangling horses.” And he got up and he said, “May I shake you by the hand? You’re the first son-of-a-bitch who ever came out of the West that wasn’t a top hand all his life.”
Can you describe the nature of the American cowboy during the early years of this century? What was he like?
Well, he was just another fellow who made his living riding a horse. That’s about the only way to describe him. He worked livestock and rode the range.
It was an unusual way of life. It was a hard way of life, wasn ‘t it?
But it was so exciting. There was always something to do. You didn’t know whether you were going to get your neck broke in the next minute or what was going to happen to you. But when you’re young nothing is tough or hard for you. You roll out your bedroll on the ground—it might rain on you, it might snow on you, but young fellas can take it, you see. When I think of it now, I think it’s appalling. The idea of putting in at roundup time about sixteen or eighteen hours a day in the saddle. Who wants to ride down three horses?
In those days, there was still a West to come to. When did the West cease to be a magnet for adventurous young men?
Well, it was fading when I first came to it.
What were the signs of the fading?
So many small ranches being taken up. Homesteaders cut up the big open range a lot, and when a fellow took up a homestead he had to make certain improvements on it, so one of the first and easiest things to do was put a barbedwire fence around it. Well, that interfered with your cattle running for so many miles. When I first came out, in certain parts of the country that I worked in out there, heavens, we could trail our beef cattle for a hundred miles to the railroad at shipping time in the fall. Toward the end, though, it go so it was a little difficult to find a way to follow the creeks down and get to the railroad without having to run over all these little old ranchers that had their barbed wire up around you. So I would say that that was the beginning of the breaking up of the Old West.
Nowadays men seem wracked by a sense of alienation. Did the cowboys have any of this in your day? I mean, what did you worry about as ayoung cowboy?
I’m trying to comprehend what you mean by alienation. You were never quite alone. You rode very seldom alone. You were generally in pairs, or on roundups there would be twelve, fifteen, twenty of you. But even so, you had the whole country … you had the mountains, streams … there was always enough to occupy you. I’ll say this when you ask that question. There was one thing that a cowboy never heard about and that was a psychiatrist.
He had no need for a psychiatrist?
He was not disturbed mentally at all. Of course, most of them didn’t have any mentality, I guess, or they wouldn’t have been cowboys. I can remember riding along all by myself. You have a chance to let your imagination run wild with you and your imagination takes you right out of the saddle—talk about the knight in shining armor, you’re that fellow. It might be as you’re riding a great distance that you could sort of imagine that the next bend around the next spur of the mountain over there you’re going to run into some gal who is just out visiting from the East, visiting on some ranch, and you’re going to run into her and she’s going to be charming and isn’t that going to be fun!
And you just kept on riding—right into World War I, then Hollywood, and then the Wild West show. You know, Colonel, the old. Wild West shows and circuses abounded with colonels and majors, and captains, but in your case the title is authentic. You earned it in World War I?
World War I and, of course, I went to World War II. I was a lieutenant colonel at the end of World War I. And I became a brigadier general when I was adjutant general of Wyoming, but my real permanent rank was full colonel—Cavalry. That’s what I’m retired as.
Did you see a lot of action in World War I?
Well, you always see a certain amount. You know the odd thing about wars? The only things you ever talk about or think about or remember are the funny things that happened.
What are some of the funny things?
Well, once I was coming back to Washington on a job during World War I and we landed in the Azores early in the morning. We went in to get shaved and cleaned up and have breakfast while they were servicing our plane. I came out and as I was coming over toward our plane, this sergeant in charge of the ground crew came up and clicked and saluted, and he said, “Pardon me, sir, but isn’t this Colonel McCoy?”
And I said, “Yes.”
“Well,” he said, “I’ve helped you a lot.”
“Where did you ever serve under me?” I asked him.
“Oh,” he said, “I never served under you, but the small town that I lived in back in Indiana … there’s a small picture house there and it had a little balcony, and every Saturday I sat right in the front row of that balcony up there and I had a slingshot and a pocketful of iron staples, and every time the villains got anywhere near you, I shot the hell out of them.”
Are you able to appreciate from your vantage point the enormous influence you had on children?
Do you know that I get more darn fan mail now? I don’t know why. I wish I had gotten that much twenty years ago. Well, they send me posters of the theater to autograph. I’ve got one over here on my desk. They put the damn things out as postcards. You see … this one’s a honey. Look at that one, in big letters, “Starring Tim McCoy.” Now look at these tiny little letters, the supporting cast … “John Wayne.” I get a kick out ofthat. They’re selling them all over the country. People are sending these things to me to be autographed. I’ve got some that I haven’t even opened because I can see what they are.
What did you do during World War II?
Well, World War II … you see I came back on duty for World War II and, heavens, I was fifty years old.
Wich you thought was old at that time?
Well, everybody thought it was old. And, so, well, they asked me what I wanted to do. I said, hell, I wanted to command troops. That’s all I ever knew. They said, “Not at your age.”
I said, “What do you mean, my age?” I told the adjutant general of the Army in Washington, “Do you realize I’ve been competing with fellows twenty-five years old for the last twenty-four years?”
“Yes,” he said, “but did you ever hear of a thing called War Department policy? You will not command troops after you’re forty-five years of age unless you are a general officer.”
I said, “Well, how close can I get to the troops?” So they gave me the funniest job in the world. Here I am a cavalryman and they sent me over to the Air Force. But it was a great job. My job was to coordinate the air support for the ground troops, so I could whip back and forth from the Air Force. I lived with the Air Force and they lived all right.
Let me ask you, how didyou become so involved with Indians?
Well, you see, I was associated with the Indians out in Wyoming for so long, I could talk to them and they would listen to me and they would ask my advice on things.
As a cowboy you were associated with them?
As a cowboy, because when we were riding cattle the big outfits would arrange to get leases of those vacant Indian lands, big reservations, and run their cattle over them and pay the Indians so much. Those things always had to be handled through the Indian Department, had to be O.K.’d by the agent of that particular reservation, and so the Indians would be asking my advice all the time as to what they should do. I could sit down and counsel and talk to them, you see, and I had to give them my opinion. So the fact was that they wanted my opinion on so many things that finally I had more influence over those Indians than anybody else, so that’s about the angle of it. Of course, when I was adjutant general of Wyoming after World War I, well, that gave me a lot of latitude and I could get out among them and do about as I pleased.
You became adjutant general having served as an aide to General Hugh L. Scott, isn’t that right?
He was chief of staff of the Army and he was about the last of the old-time Indian fighters who were still on active service. And he was chief of staff up until World War I. He was just about to hit the retirement age then, so when his tour of duty was up he became a commissioner of Indian Affairs, and of course I was a protégé of his.
What was it about the American Indian that appealed to you?
There was great sympatico . I think I could sum it up best by what old Chief Goes In Lodge said one time. He was an Arapaho. He said, “Long time ago, you must have been an Injun.” I guess that’s the answer.
In another life?
Maybe in another life. That’s what he meant. I could talk to them, understood them, felt as they felt, knew what they were thinking. For that reason, I suppose, that’s how I got along with them so well.
Is it true you helped set the record straight on Custer’s Last Stand by interviewing Indians who had fought at the Little Bighorn?
Yes. General Scott and I went out and we took with us the last two living scouts who had guided Custer into the Little Bighorn. We followed Custer’s march, where he camped, everything he did, got the whole story from those scouts, right up to the beginning of the fight. Of course, they turned and went back; they didn’t want to have any part in what was going to take place, because they could see it. They tried to warn Custer, but you couldn’t tell him anything.
Then, I was the first one to dig out the fact that there were five Arapahoes in that fight. I dug that out one night sitting in a powwow with a bunch of Arapaho Indians down along the Little Wind River. They started telling me that Old Water Man was in that fight. I sort of scoffed at it because every Indian and his brother was in that fight. Practically all of them killed Custer. When they described Custer and described the fight, you could tell they didn’t know what they were talking about. So I was a little bit dubious about it, but they said Water Man and Left Hand, who were still alive, were both in that fight. So I took a stick of sagebrush and cleared a space on the ground and I drew the Bighorn River and the Little Horn and I started asking questions of Water Man. Where was the village? Where did Custer come from? And so on and so on … and by God he knew. So I arranged then to get him in to get his story rather than having to tell it myself. I arranged to have him come into the town of Riverton, Wyoming, and one night I got a hold of Left Hand. I didn’t get them together, you see. I brought Water Man in one night and Left Hand another night, and in order that no one would have to take my word for it, I got an interpreter and court stenographer and I did one of these question/answer things that we’re doing here and I got a transcript of this whole blasted thing. So I got it from Water Man one night and Left Hand the next night. And I could tell they knew what they were talking about.
In a recent book, the point is made that many of Custer’s men committed suicide out of a pathological fear of being captured by the Indians, and apparently the Indians watched on bewildered as Custer‘s troops killed each other and themselves. What do y ou th ink of that?
I don’t buy that at all. Those fellows were too damn busy even to try to kill themselves.
Too busy fighting?
Ha! Too busy trying to make their damn rifles work.
What do you mean?
Toward the end of the Civil War we had gotten a new rifle, the first of the repeating rifles for the Army. It was called the Spencer and it had atubularmagazine that you pushed into the butt. It fired seven shots and that was the first repeating rifle or carbine. The Cavalry was armed with it first. The Indians used to say about it: “That gun, you load it on Saturday, it shoots all week.” You see, it held seven shots. It was used very successfully by Custer’s division. They were armed with it at Appomattox, for instance, so that the fire power for that one outfit was as much as Lee had in his whole army. But after the war, when somebody wanted to adopt that carbine for the Cavalry, these old fuddy-duddies in Washington, the old-timers in the War Department, said: No, no, these fellows don’t know how to handle arms well enough and they’d shoot away too much ammunition. So they went back to the old trap-door Springfield rifle and carbine. It was single shot. You had to throw open the trap door and it was supposed to eject the shell. Well, the shells that they used in those Civil War guns, both the rifle and the carbine, were copper, and copper is fairly soft. It would expand in the chamber of the gun, and when the shell was ejected the ejector would tear the rim offthe cartridge, and the fellows at the Custer fight, as the Indians told me, had their knives out trying to pry these shells out of their guns.
So that they could reload?
Right. Old Left Hand told me that he came up the hill and this soldier was wounded and he handed him his gun, wanted to surrender to him. They didn’t understand. You don’t surrender to an Indian. And Left Hand said he took the gun, but he couldn’t use it because the shell jammed in the chamber.
What do you mean, you don’t surrender to an Indian?
Well, because they don’t understand surrender. You either fight or you die.
They didn‘t take prisoners?
No, they weren’t taking any prisoners there.
The Arapahoes were the Indians you knew best. What is their condition today?
They’re in a bad way. They have nothing. They got the poorest end of a reservation they were not even supposed to be on. In about 1876 they were rounded up and were to be taken to a reservation in Nebraska, near the Sioux. Winter was coming on, so instead of being taken to Nebraska they were dropped with the Shoshones in Wyoming. They asked the chief to take them for the winter, because their moccasins were broken, they were destitute, they had gone on the warpath and had the hell shot out of them. The chief allowed them to stay. The Shoshones had no love for the Arapahoes and the Arapahoes had no love for the Shoshones, but they were taken in, because after all they were Indians and winter was coming. So they were to stay there until spring when their reservation would be ready.
And they were forgotten?
They were forgotten. And the Shoshones had to fight like hell—it was only recently that the government finally paid the Shoshones and bought that corner of the reservation where the Arapahoes were. But they got the worst piece of land and were left there to starve to death, which is what they’re doing. And drinking themselves to death, because they have no future, nothing to look forward to.
How do you feel about the way the Indians have been portrayed in films?
I remember my advent into pictures and when I tried to tell a director you don’t do it that way … this is not the way the Indians fought, for example, the answer was, who will know the difference? And there’s your whole answer. That was their attitude.
I remember oh The Covered Wagon they wanted a bunch of teepees spread in a circle so this council could take place in the center. They wanted all the doorways facing into the center. And I said, “Just a minute, we can’t do that.” And they said, “Why?”
I said, “The doorways do not all face the center.” Sure they do, they said. Look here, see what that means. These Indians, we can have them coming out of all the teepees and they come right out of those doors right into this council. But, I said, “You don’t understand. Indians do not pitch their teepees that way. They always pitch their teepees with the door facing the east and you can’t get them to do otherwise, because when an Indian steps out of his teepee he has to greet his Father, the Sun, in the morning. You will not get them to do it.”
“Well, this is the way we want them,” they said.
I said, “I tell you what you do. I’ll bring that interpreter over here, you tell him. I’m not going to tell him. They know that I know better. But you tell him exactly how you want the teepees pitched and he’ll tell the Indians.”
So they spent some time with this interpreter, who listened and said, “Okay, I’ll tell them.”
They said, “You understand?”
“Yeah, I understand, I’ll tell them.”
We came out there to look. All those teepees were pitched with the doorways facing the east and these fellows went nuts. What was the idea? And I said, “Don’t you understand? You cannot go against an Indian custom. You say who will know the difference? The Indians will know the difference.”
How do you feel about the Indian Movement presently, the surge toward Indians Rights?
Oh, the Indians’ Rights. Now you really would get me into something if you got on that because this white man and his treatment of the Indian has been something that … well, I can’t even begin to express myself because I go completely overboard when I think about it. But you see, we’re always talking about our honor and our American way of doing things and we have never kept a single promise or a single treaty we ever made with the Indian. We make him a treaty and say, this land is yours now as long as the grass shall grow and the waters shall flow. Then a white man comes in and says, look, that whole country over there, in that Wallowa Valley, that’s too good to let those damn Indians have. Our whole treatment of the Indian has been one of the greatest scandals that’s ever been known. We established the first concentration camp when we put them on reservations.
Wasn‘t Roosevelt the last President who actually spoke with Indian leaders, Indian chiefs?
Theodore Roosevelt. You see, Roosevelt thought like a Western man because he’d been West when he was young. He was really a Westerner, you might say, and he was an understanding man and he tried, but even though he tried, the machine was too big for any one man. You couldn’t go against it. When they made up their minds that they were going to do certain things to the Indians they did them, and that was that and you couldn’t do anything about it. That’s my opinion of it. Politics, politics. If you could take Washington, D.C., and build a great big barbed-wire fence around it and never let one of those bastards get out of there, why, the country would be better off.
Your first introduction to Hollywood was as a technical adviser for The Covered Wagon. Andthenyou did a live prologue?
Yes, I had the live prologue. This was at Graumann’s Theater. Not the Chinese one. This was before the Chinese was opened. This was the Egyptian. Sid Graumann had just built it. And the first picture that went in there was Douglas Fairbanks in Robin Hood. The Covered Wagon followed Doug in there, and Jesse Lasky asked me if I could come down and bring some Indians and come onto the stage and talk to the audience, tell them about making the picture.
I brought fifty Indians down and we camped them—teepees and all—right in Cahuenga Pass where the freeway goes through now. There was nothing but a dirt road and a streetcar line that ran over to Universal City and a kind of a park, a hollow up there in the timbers. We had all the Indians camped there. Sid threw a whole fence around that thing and made it look like a Washington fort and it was a great gimmick. So, I stayed there at Hollywood for eight or nine months, and then Lasky sent for me. He said, we’re going to open The Covered Wagon in London, and we don’t know how it will go there, how the British will take it, but if you’ll go over there with the Indians I think it would be a great sales point and we might be able to put the picture over. Fine. So I rounded up a fresh bunch of Indians and headed for London. We stayed over there for almost a year. By the time I came back I had a world of publicity, of course, and that’s when Metro-Goldwyn signed me up as their only Western star.
What were the working conditions then in Hollywood?
Well, you can understand Garbo saying, “I thank I go home now.” Five o’clock, my eye. You worked. We’d probably work out at Chatsworth during the day and come in and work until midnight in the studio. There was no such thing as eight hours. You just worked until they shot everything they could shoot for that day. Oh, they could give you more damned arguments, and here you were dying on your feet, but you’d go in there and work, work, work. It was nothing to work until two o’clock in the morning and then they’d give you a call for eight.
That was six days a week, fifty-two weeks ay ear, wasn ‘t it?
Fifty-two weeks a year. Six days a week. Sometimes you’d get a breather between pictures.
Most cowboy heroes ofthat day developed a particular character and played that character in each picture. What was yours like and how did it evolve?
Well, where everybody else was chewing up all the scenery, I played it down. Someone said that I was the master of the offstage entrance, and that was done with a gimmick that I thought of. A fellow was picking on someone in a saloon and you could just hear my voice coming over—they kid me so much about it today—“I wouldn’t do that if I were you.” And the camera pans over, and there I am in my black outfit standing looking over with that steely look that they talk about. When I think of that “steely look” I have to laugh, because when I first came to MGM they didn’t know what to do with me because of these blue eyes. For a closeup they used to hold up black velvet in front of me so that the darkness would reflect in my eyes. IfI looked sideways they said I showed too much of the white of the eye. Well, it became my trademark without knowing it. I said, “Heavens, let me play this. Don’t bother me. You fellows get in my way with all this stuff. Let me do the scene and then you can see how it looks on the screen.” And then I would suddenly turn and look at someone like that and they called it that steely eye.
You mentioned your costume. There has been a lot written about the Western costume and the significance of each costume. Yours was completely black, wasn’t it?
Yeah, I never went in for all the flamboyant clothes. I finally went to a beige Stetson, the type of hat that I wore in Wyoming. One of the reasons they wanted me to go to the light hat was they were shooting night scenes and thought they wouldn’t see me so well with a black hat on. But I thought the black hat was more effective. Eventually, it was picked up by Hopalong Cassidy. But I originated that black stuff.
Also, the cowboy heroes used to be closely associated with their horses. I don’t remember your horse.
I had a palomino horse that the publicity department used to use. Called him Pal. But I never went for that idea of the horse coming and untying the knots that bound me up, and that sort of thing. I tried to play pretty legitimately. Let’s put it this way. I used to have a funny feeling and I mentioned it often to the people on the set. I said, “Remember, I got to go back to Wyoming when I finish this picture. I got a ranch up there and I don’t want any of that phony business ‘cause they’re gonna laugh at me when I go home.”
Well, what was the real cowboy ‘s relationship to his horse?
That was the thing you got on and rode.
You didn’t have to like him, in other words?
No, and the horse didn’t like you. I never knew a horse that did like anybody. Don’t dare tell it to horse lovers, but a horse isn’t too bright. I had the funniest thing happen in the circus. I had a great big palomino stud—he stood seventeen hands high—the dumbest animal I ever knew. He’d ride you right off the side of a roof if you put him over there. So my cowboy would bring him up to me when I was getting ready to go on, and this particular day for my entrance I wore my buckskin jacket. It was made for me by Arapaho squaws, and was smoke-tanned. He smelled that smoked tan and he put his nose right against my chest, and some woman said, “Oh, he knows his master, doesn’t he? He loves his master.”
I said, Oh, oh, don’t forget that one. So what I would do, whenever there were people standing around back there when they brought the horse up, all I’d do is stretch out my arms and he’d come right straight up and put his nose against my chest to smell that smoke. He knows his master! He didn’t give a damn about me.
Tell me a little bit about what happened when sound came to motion pictures.
I probably would still be at MGM except for sound. My contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer had an option coming up just at that time, and they said to me, “Look, we can’t take up your option because everything is going to be sound and we can’t go outdoors with sound.” Everything was done on a small boxed-in stage, and in the beginning they didn’t even have them soundproofed. They’d have to shoot at night when there was no traffic going by, and they would have to take this microphone and hide it under a vase of flowers or something of that sort and then you’d have to play your scenes in such a way that you had to be turned toward that thing when you read your lines.
My family was in Europe. The kids were all in school in Paris. So I just high-tailed it over and spent that winter in Europe with the family. When I came back I was a forgotten man.
So many of the big cowboy stars like Tom Mix and Hoot Gibson and others made millions and they wound up with little or nothing at the ends of their lives. That obviously won’t happen to you.
Well, you know, I used to sort of think to myself, with all my vicissitudes I hoped that when I got older I’d be able to come into Snug Harbor. A lot of those fellows made more money than I did. Mix, for instance, made more money than any of us. But there’s a way of pacing yourself and gearing yourself, and I’ve enjoyed life and I’ve certainly never been tight. I have no regrets, even with my circus. We dropped a bundle on the circus. I mean I didn’t go broke personally, but I lost a bundle and everybody else did who put it in there because it was the biggest Wild West show that had ever taken the road. You could have put Buffalo Bill’s show in half of it. And even though that was a financial failure, it was not a failure for me because it satisfied one of the ambitions that I had. I have a facility of when anything happens to me like that I just draw a curtain on it and never look back over my shoulder. All I can say is try to live the best way you can, do the things you want to do, if you have the gall and stupidity and nerve, whatever it happens to be.
You mentioned the failure of your Wild West show. That was after very successful tours with Ringling Brothers from 1935 to 1938, wasn ‘t it?
Yes, and Ringling wanted me to come back but I simply had to take out my own show.
That was the disastrous year for all circuses.
In 1938. Nearly every circus went broke.
What’s the explanation for that?
Simple. The people didn’t come.
But they did come whenyou were with Ringling Brothers? I imagine that you drew an awful lot oj children to those shows, didn’t you?
Oh, yes, those were three great years for me. They were three very prosperous years. We drew children to the show and we drew them to the after show the same way. Those were terrific years.
Did your role as a cowboy hero put upon you a moral responsibility, some sort of obligation to these kids?
I think all of this stuff of feeling that you had to hold yourself up to the kids, I think it’s playing scenes with yourself. I really think you’re dramatizing yourself a bit when you talk that way about it. I didn’t make all the tabloids and the scandal sheets because I didn’t live that way. But as far as my impact on the kids, that never occurred to me. It was just a matter of personal pride. IfI just went out and played myself, why, that was all that I could give the kids.
I notice when you started naming your friends in Hollywood, you didn ‘t include the other cowboy stars—Harry Carey, Art A cord, Buck Jones, Tom Mix…
I knew those fellows.
But you didn ‘t hang around with them?
No, the only time I ever saw half of them was on the set. I never saw them socially, and I am not saying this in a snooty sort of way.
Well, they were a pretty tough crowd.
Yeah, they were. They just weren’t my kind of people.
Did your time away during World War II hurt your career in films?
Yes, it practically finished me. I came back and got in touch with my agent and said, well, I’m ready to go to work again. Now, I was the same guy that went off to war and in just as good shape, and what we ran up against was this: “Oh, Tim’s been offthe screen for a long time.”
And I said, “But I’ve been to war. ”
“Well, a lot of the guys have been in the war, so what?” That’s when I said, “Oh, the hell with it.” And I fussed around a bit and I saw this thing television coming on, so I just lowered my head like a buffalo and charged. I got myself a television program that I had for five years, right in Hollywood. I got that Emmy for it, up there on the shelf.
You were almost a pioneer in TV too?
Yeah, I was the first one, I think, that started a one-man show. I had a one-man show but I would gather around me all that bunch of Indians I had used in pictures for years. They were very versatile, and if I wanted to do a thing about the Hopi Indians they were Hopis. IfI wanted to do something about the Plains Indians they were Plains Indians. I could go over to the director of the Southwest Museum and borrow anything out of the cases. Maybe if I was doing a Hopi wedding, I had the original Hopi wedding dresses and everything was authentic. Or I might go into guns—Colts and rifles. A teacher told me one time she took a class over to the Southwest Museum, and as they stepped in the door there were some guns on the wall, and a little kid ran right over and he started telling her about the guns. She asked him how he knew all those details. He said, “I saw Tim McCoy on the television.” He had learned all aboutit.
I had prime time. I was on Saturday night at seven o’clock on KNX-TV out there. Well, the guy that took my place was Jackie Gleason.
Would you care to make any observations on the progress of TV between then and now?
Well, I don’t like what TV is doing. It’s just like the picture business, except it’s on a smaller screen. And if someone gets an idea about one picture everybody wants to make another picture just like it.
What are your plans for the future?
I’m exactly like Cal Stuart, a fellow who was in vaudeville years ago, did one of those early New England characters. As he talked he whittled. He’s speaking about his son who he sent off to school. He asked him, he said: “Did you go through Algebra?” And the boy said, “IfI did it was in the night and I was on the train and I didn’t see it.” He whittled for awhile and then he said, “The boy has a bright future, behind him.” So when you say, what are my plans for the future, I have a bright future behind me.
There is one thing, though. I told you earlier that I have no unfulfilled ambitions, but that isn’t exactly true. There’s one thing left in my life needs doing, and I’ll have a hard time lying still if I don’t do it.
A couple of years ago, I drove up through Wyoming and I knew that between Lander and Riverton, right on the edge where St. Steven’s Jesuit Mission is, there was an Indian cemetery and a lot of my old friends would be buried there. So I pulled my car off the road and fought my way through the weeds up to this Indian burying ground and I practically wept. Here were these old-time buffalohunting Indians, buried in a place that no pet cemetery … of course, pet cemeteries are well kept. Weeds, dirt, beer cans, crosses knocked down, the damnedest looking place I’d ever seen. So I made up my mind that I’m going back up there, get a few friends who will contribute some money, and go on up there and clean up that cemetery and put it back so it is respectable for those Indians to lie in.
I walked around there, through the weeds and the junk, and saw the names of my friends. They Anglicized all of their names. We have taken away not only their culture but even their names. James L. Brown. I said, “For God’s sake, that’s Jim Lonebear.” D. D. Hill—this Indian’s name was Drives Downhill. And the one that really got me was Charles Caldwell. He was a big chief in the Arapahoes, Yellow Calf. He’s buried under the name of Caldwell. God Almighty!
There is a tombstone up there that is most interesting. Indians that had a little money and had ranches and made the ranching business go, they didn’t become wealthy or anything of the sort. But this one is so pathetic. They got a white tombstone and had taken it in and had it carved: “Annie Wise, aged four years, buried in coffin same as a white man.” Pretty damn pathetic, isn’t it? I’ve got the priest up there now at the reservation, hunting to find where my old friend Chief Goes In Lodge is buried. I know he’s buried out there in that cemetery somewhere. Not even a marker. He’s my brother.