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
Anderson, who was Jewish, is also claimed by Pine Bluff, where he
was raised until age eight.
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
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
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.
In 1943, Anderson sued Paramount Pictures for naming a character in
Star Spangled Rhythm (1943) "Bronco Billy", and for showing
the character as being 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.
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."
At age 85, 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
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
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