Monday, July 8, 2013

Mr. Fred Thomson

Sadly, another cowboy actor who didn't get to show his skills in the talkies.

Fred Thomson was born Frederick Clifton Thomson on February 26, 1890 in Pasadena,  to James, a minister, and Clara Thomson. Fred was the third born out of four boys. 

As a child, Fred loved being outdoors and playing sports, even making his college football team. It was also in college that he thought about following in his father's footsteps and becoming a minister. He enrolled at the Princeton Theological Seminary and spent some time as pastor in Washington D.C. and Los Angeles.

So, Fred went from student, to athlete, to pastor, and then to serviceman when he enlisted in the military. Strangely enough, this is where he caught his break in the film industry. He worked as a technical adviser for a Mary Pickford film with a military theme and he became interested in all the workings of the new film medium. 

Fred made his film debut in the 1921 Pickford film, The Love Light. In the next couple of years he was appearing in his own action series and performing his own stunts. He also portrayed legendary heroes of the West like Kit Carson and Jesse James in films of the same name. 

His most well known costar was his horse, Silver King. Fred apparently trained his horse to do all kinds of tricks like nod his head yes or no, wink, nudge with his head, and not to mention all the jumps he could perform. After Fred's death, Silver King continued to appear in films until 1938. Fred made his last film appearance ten years early in 1928.

While working in his stables one day, Fred stepped on a nail. He didn't think much of it, until began limping because of the pain and waking up in the middle of the night with a fever and aches in his leg. He went to the doctor but he was misdiagnosed with kidney stones. What the doctors and Fred didn't realize was that he had contracted tetanus from the nail.

Fred Thomson passed away on Christmas Day in 1928 at age 38. 

He was interred at Forest Lawn in Glendale. Pallbearers at his funeral included Harold Lloyd, Charles Farrell, and Douglas Fairbanks. Honorary pallbearers were Buster Keaton and Joseph Schenck. 

Fred was married twice in his relatively short life. His first wife was his college sweetheart, Gail Jepson. They were married in 1913, but sadly Gail passed away three years later from tuberculosis. His second wife was screenwriter Frances Marion who he married in 1919, with Mary Pickford serving as Maid of Honor. The couple had two sons, Frederick (born in 1926) and Richard (who was adopted in 1927). These two really were a Hollywood power couple.

Like many stars of the silent screen, Fred performed his own stunts, some of which were quite dangerous. While filming 1924's Thundering Hoofs, he had to jump from a stagecoach to one of the horses pulling it. Unfortunately, he hit the ground and not the horse and suffered a compound fracture to his right thigh. The movie production had to be delayed for a few weeks while Fred recovered from his injury. 

He never seemed to lose his drive to minister to people. He would later say that he believed the Western films he appeared in helped preach kindness and morals to his audiences. 

His fan mail included many letters for his horse, Silver King. 

Fred was approached to join United Artists Studio along with Charles Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, and Mary Pickford but he declined because he felt content continuing making his movies the way he liked to make them. Why fix it if isn't broken type of deal. I mean, in 1927 he was the number two male star on the screen, second only to Tom Mix.

During the later part of his career, he had some dealings with Joseph Kennedy, patriarch of the famous Kennedy clan. Working with Kennedy seemed to work in his favor for a bit until it seemed Kennedy grew tired of working with him. Fred's career began to dip a bit after he broke with Kennedy and his wife, Frances Marion said later on that she felt part of the reason Fred died was because he was so distraught over what he thought was a failing career.

"In a short while our hill resembled a gigantic wedding cake, pine trees studded every tier, while on top rose a huge house with a drawing room two stories and a half high, rare tapestries on the walls, an Aeolian pipe organ, and windows overlooking five acres of lawn. Beautifully laid out on the terrace were a tiled barbecue, an aviary, and a hundred-foot swimming pool. Fred and his horses and I had gone Hollywood!" ~~ Frances Marion


  1. You know,,, one doesn;t think one would die from tetanus and there went a great cowboy actor. Such a shame and love to read about him here

    1. It is just terrible that a doctor couldn't diagnose it in time. Ugh, I can't imagine how painful that must have been for him.

  2. Thank you so much for dedicating an entry to Fred Thomson! I am not ashamed to admit that silent and early talking westerns are a guilty pleasure of mine, and no two major westerns stars from the 1920's are as neglected, because so little of their work survives, as Art Acord and Fred Thomson.
    Concerning the latter, I have read in some detail concerning the underhanded shenanigans of Joseph Kennedy, and was quite frankly appalled, especially that he benefitted to the amount of $150,000 from Thomson's death.
    I can't imagine the uncertainty of Thomson's last months: seeing Kennedy favor Tom Mix at FBO, not being offered work, and not being able to get out of his contract with Kennedy (sounds like John Gilbert in 1934). That and the looming transition to sound, and whether or not westerns would even be able to survive with the new technology must have made matters very difficult. I do wonder if he made any sound test in 1928--surely most stars did for their studios?
    Regardless, it's so sad that he couldn't have been part of the talkie western era. Although previous stardom was no guarantee of success, since Tom Mix stepped away from the scene in 1929, and most of the major studios shuffled around their western stars, he could very well have reached #1, and offered his unique approach to the genre in an entirely different manner.
    I'm sorry that this is such a long comment, but there was just so much lost potential with his passing.
    Thank you once again for remembering him.

    1. Thank YOU Jon. I hadn't heard of Fred Thomson until a few months ago, so researching about him was definitely a wonderful learning experience. I have always found it quite interesting how far Joe Kennedy's reach was in Hollywood. I felt awful reading about what happened to him and Fred, especially considering that they were supposed to have been friends.
      Thank you again for stopping by and reading :)