Films and television shows featuring real working cowboys have made America’s icon famous worldwide since 1894.


Casey Tibbs left home at 14 years old to earn his spurs on the professional rodeo circuit. In 1949, Tibbs was a world champion and was featured on the cover of LIFE magazine. After rodeo, the fun-loving Tibbs spent two decades in Hollywood as an actor, stuntman and technical advisor on rodeo. Courtesy Rosebrook Family Collection


In America’s first film studio in New Jersey, Thomas Edison produced the first Westerns starring real cowboys, cowgirls, vaqueros and American Indians. Director William K. L. Dickson and cinematographer William Heise made Annie Oakley, Bucking Broncho, Buffalo Bill, Buffalo Dance, Lasso Thrower, Mexican Knife Duel and Sioux Ghost Dance. Shot on 35 millimeter black-and-white film, the shorts were less than 60 seconds long, but they were the first Westerns and the first to employ real working cowboys, vaqueros and Native people, all of whom worked for Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West show.

One hundred and thirty years later, working cowboys and cowgirls are still a large part of the film and television industry. From Hollywood to Santa Fe, from Tucson to Fort Worth, current film companies , including Taylor Sheridan’s Bosque Ranch Productions, continue to depend on real, experienced Western wranglers to make their movies and streaming shows authentic.

True West’s editors tip their hats to the cowboys and cowgirls who gave up their real work on the range in exchange for reel work in Hollywood. Without them bringing authenticity to the artform, the American cowboy would not be the worldwide icon we love and admire so much today. The following portfolio is dedicated to those real cowboys and cowgirls who entertained us with their hard-earned skills with a rope and a horse. As South Dakota cowboy, rodeo champion and actor Casey Tibbs loved to say, “Let ’er buck!”


Born in Flagstaff, Arizona, Andy Devine (above, left, with George Bancroft) was raised in Kingman, where his parents owned the famed Beale Hotel. Because he had a reputation as a good teamster who could handle a six-horse team, John Ford put him behind the reins in the 1939 Western, Stagecoach. Devine was a beloved character actor who appeared in more than 400 films. Courtesy Warner Bros.


In 1958, Oklahoma cowboy Ben Johnson was the uncredited technical advisor for the rodeo sequences in the Mamie Van Doren Western, Born Reckless. Five years earlier Johnson had won the world team roping championship. Almost two decades later he won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his role in The Last Picture Show. He is the only cowboy ever to win an Academy Award and a rodeo championship. Courtesy Warner Bros.


Before Jack Holt made his first movie appearance in 1914, he had led a roustabout life in Alaska as a stagecoach driver, trapper, cowboy, miner, engineer and mail courier. The native New Yorker soon found steady work in Hollywood, working with John Ford at Universal before becoming a star at Paramount, where he made The Mysterious Rider with Betty Jewel in 1927. Before he died in 1951, Holt and his son Tim Holt made the father-son B-movie favorite, The Arizona Ranger, in 1948. Courtesy Paramount Pictures


Slim Whitaker (right, with Jack Randall in Oklahoma Terror) started cowboying on a big spread in California’s Central Valley in 1910. Two years later, silent film star Broncho Billy Anderson hired him as an extra and stuntman. Whitaker went on to appear in more than 300 films over a 36-year career. Courtesy Monogram Pictures


Native Oklahoman Gene Autry cowboyed growing up on his parents’ ranch. Following in the entertainment bootsteps of fellow Sooner Col. George Miller and Miller’s protégé Tom Mix, Autry sang, acted and entertained his way to the top of the box office. Before World War II, he even had his own touring rodeo company, the Flying A Ranch Rodeo. After the war, Autry built a media empire that included five seasons with his horse Champion and his sidekick Pat Buttram (right) on CBS’s The Gene Autry Show. Courtesy CBS TV


In 1976, Roy Rogers came out of retirement to make Mackintosh and T.J. “The King of Cowboys” cast two famous cowboys in the modern Western, Dean Smith (center) and six-time world rodeo champion Larry Mahan (right). Smith and Mahan passed away in 2023, but not after leaving their marks in both rodeo and Hollywood. Courtesy Penland Productions


Yellowstone producer Taylor Sheridan, famous for the equestrian training he demands of his actors, also prides himself on hiring real, professional cowboys. In addition to Forrie J. Smith (not pictured), working cowboys (fourth from left to far right): Jake Ream, Ethan Lee and Ryan Bingham star with actors (left to right) Ian Bohen, Jen Landon and Denim Richards in the highly touted Western series.
Courtesy Paramount


In the annals of Western popular culture, very few men or women had such a profound influence on the popularity of the West as good friends cowboys Will Rogers (left) and Charles M. Russell. True West Archives


Louis Burton Lindley Jr., aka Slim Pickens, grew up riding and roping on his parents’ California dairy farm. He took the pseudonym to get around the fact that his father did not want him to rodeo. The name stuck and Pickens went on to have a major career as a Western character actor in Hollywood after World War II. Courtesy Warner Bros.


John Wayne, the most iconic and popular cowboy movie hero of all time, had a great respect for real, working cowboys and went out of his way to hire and work with experienced horsemen and cowhands like Texas cowboy Chuck Roberson (right). Roberson started as a stuntman after World War II and was soon discovered by Wayne and director John Ford. Roberson went on to a long and successful career in Western film and television. He was also a well-known breeder and trainer of racehorses. Courtesy Warner Bros.


Arizona Cowboy Hall of Fame member Rex Allen grew up cowboying in Cochise County, 40 miles outside Willcox, Arizona. Considered the last of the “singing cowboys,” Allen was one of the most respected of the working cowboys who found fame as a Western singer, actor and later, well-known voiceover narrator for Walt Disney Studios’ award-winning documentaries. Courtesy Republic Pictures


While Richard Farnsworth grew up in Los Angeles, the son of an engineer, he gravitated to the life of a cowboy and rodeoed for 10 years with other future Western stars Ben Johnson and Slim Pickens. He started work as a stuntman in 1941, a career choice that led to a six-decade career in Hollywood, including a leading role in The Grey Fox (1982) and two Oscar nominations for Best Supporting Actor.
Courtesy United Artists


In 2024, the Texas cowboy and Four Sixes ranch owner Taylor Sheridan is sitting atop one of the most powerful independent film and television production companies in the U.S. When Sheridan isn’t making one of his eight series currently airing on TV, he is raising, training and competing reining horses. Courtesy Paramount


Like fellow rodeo cowboy Ben Johnson, Hank Worden spent most of his career as a character actor in Westerns. Born in Iowa and raised in Montana, Worden went from rodeo to Broadway to Hollywood where he became a regular in John Ford and John Wayne Westerns. Courtesy United Artists

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