Where a Cowboy Film Star Made His Last Stand

Tom Mix

hide captionTom Mix performed his own spectacular stunts in his action-packed films, helping to make him the first Western superstar. He starred in more than 300 Westerns between 1910 and 1935.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Western film star Tom Mix is gone, but not forgotten. On a stretch of desert highway between Phoenix and Tucson, a rock monument topped by a riderless horse marks the spot where Mix died in a 1940 car crash.

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LYNN NEARY, Host:

This morning, we're headed out west to visit the place where a legendary movie cowboy rode into the sunset for the last time. Tom Mix was a superstar who made over 300 westerns between 1910 and 1935. Today, the man and the legend are remembered on a lonely stretch of Arizona highway. NPR's Ted Robbins reports.

TED ROBBINS: I'm just off State Highway 79, a two-lane road between Oracle and Florence, Arizona. There's a sign off the side of the road, a little brown-and- white sign that says "Tom Mix Monument." I must have passed this dozens of times and never even slowed down.

Today, I stopped because I found out this is the place where Tom Mix died.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ROBBINS: When Thomas Hezekiah Mix was born in 1880, the Old West wasn't old. He learned to ride and rope on an Oklahoma ranch, skills which landed him in Hollywood and, in short order, set him apart from other movie cowboys.

Gerry Miller is a Tom Mix historian.

GERRY MILLER: Mix wasn't the first necessarily to have stunts in a film, certainly, but he was the first principal actor in the cowboy movies to do his own stunts, and to make them quite spectacular.

ROBBINS: Take the silent "Riders of the Purple Sage": the dark, handsome actor climbs a cliff with a baby in his arms, pulls the actress playing his sister behind him, then pushes a giant boulder onto pursuing outlaws. Stunts like that made Tom Mix the first western superstar.

The studios cranked out Tom Mix films and a Tom Mix persona. It was a persona Mix himself had no trouble embellishing.

MILLER: Mix claims to have fought in the Boar War in the - in the, you know, in the Boxer Rebellion, the Spanish-American War. You know, he claimed to be a Texas Ranger; he wasn't. In my files here of Mix, I have a drawing that Mix one time made showing 23 wounds that he'd received on his body.

ROBBINS: And it was true?

MILLER: None of it. None of it, no.

ROBBINS: Tom Mix did live hard, though. He loved his liquor and he loved the ladies. He was married five times. Wife number four took a shot at him over another woman.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ROBBINS: But the public loves his action-packed films. His last, a b-movie serial in 1935, "The Miracle Rider."

(SOUNDBITE OF "THE MIRACLE RIDER")

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNSHOT)

Unidentified Man: Tom.

TOM MIX: (As Tom Morgan) (Unintelligible) That man of yours (unintelligible) expect it. The Indians have raised $28,000.

ROBBINS: In "The Miracle Rider," Tom saves the Ravenhead Indians from unscrupulous oil speculators. In this scene, Tom thanks the tribe for making him an honorary member.

(SOUNDBITE OF "THE MIRACLE RIDER")

MIX: My brothers, (unintelligible), they (unintelligible) these tribal words(ph).

ROBBINS: By this time, Tom Mix is 55 years old, tired of learning lines and doing stunts. He tours Sweden with a Wild West show. Then in 1940, he escapes the war in Europe and returns to America. Mix drives west in his yellow Cord Convertible, stopping in Tucson to visit friends. He parties hard on a Friday night.

The next day, he heads north toward Phoenix, driving way too fast. What he doesn't know is that a bridge is out, and the repair crew has cut a detour through a dry wash. Historian Gerry Miller says Mix sees the detour, tries to make the turn, and slams on the brakes, but it's too late.

MILLER: He had two suitcases in the back of the car, and they came flying out on impact, and one of them hit him in the back of the head. He had a partially crushed skull and severed spinal column, so he was killed instantly.

ROBBINS: The aluminum suitcase with a dent in it sits in the Tom Mix Museum in Dewey, Oklahoma. The car didn't have much damage; a California collector now owns it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEEDING CARS)

ROBBINS: Today, on that desert highway, the Tom Mix monument is more of a pit stop than a destination. In an hour, one red sedan pulls up to the 10-foot-high rock and cement memorial topped with a small figure of a riderless horse.

CHUCK CROWNE: Well, I saw the sign, and I remembered that as a child I used to listen to Tom Mix.

SANDY CROWNE: The movies.

CROWNE: Movies.

ROBBINS: Then, Chuck and Sandy Crowne(ph) drive away. A plaque on the monument thanks Tom Mix for fixing memories of the Old West in people's minds even today. Thing is, apart from old timers, few people know it was Tom Mix who gave them those memories. Ted Robbins, NPR News, Tucson.

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