Most B-western historians today consider Wild Bill Elliott (born at Pattonsburg, MO, in 1904) the successor to the realistic westerns of his hero, silent star William S. Hart. Ironically, Hart retired in 1925, the same year that Elliott made his first picture. On the silver screen Elliott was Wild Bill Hickok, Wyatt Earp, Red Ryder, Kit Carson, Davy Crockett’s son, Daniel Boone’s grandson, and, of course most often — himself.
With his thin handsome face, hawk-like nose, flashing eyes and slender body, Bill was very different from the other more popular singing cowboys of the 1930s and 1940s. Even his resonant voice, characterized by his clipped speech, was distinctive. In the early days of his career, his clothing was simple in comparison to duds worn by other sagebrush stars. Later, he began wearing the tall hat with its brim appropriately turned up on both sides.
Although he never went looking for trouble, and in fact, usually did his best to avoid it — “I don’t want trouble with anybody unless I start it” — he looked like a man who could finish anything that anybody started, as he parted saloon doors, walked to the bar and belted a stiff drink before searching out the man responsible for his brother’s death.
During his brawls, Wild Bill didn’t always fight fair either, and at times when an opponent was on the floor, he would kick to finish the fight quickly. If he needed information in a hurry, he wasn’t above beating the truth from a villain while holding a gun on him. But after a gunfight in one of his early films, he innocently asked, “Why do you call me Wild Bill? I’m a peaceable man.”
However, Elliott’s trademark , and the touch that set him forever apart from the other B-western gunslingers, was the pair of six-guns strapped to his side, close to the belt line, worn butt forward with the handles out. After the cross draw, he would move the guns in a vertical line giving the impression of throwing bullets. Bill was also quite adept with a bullwhip.
During his career, he was also most fortunate to have a thoroughly professional and highly competent technical crew supporting him, especially during his final years. Cameraman Ernie Miller supplied especially pictorial beauty and Lambert Hillyer (who was earlier an associate of Hart’s) directed several of his earlier pictures, and allowed Bill to experiment — and at times even playing an outlaw, though reformation was always a central part of the theme.
Elliott was born Gordon A. Nance on Oct. 16, 1904, on a farm near Pattonsburg, MO. He was the second child of Leroy Whitfield Nance (born Aug. 20, 1874) and Maude Myrtle (Auldridge) Nance (born Sept. 30, 1881) who were married on Sept. 4, 1901. The couple later divorced. The family also included an older daughter, Carmen A. Nance (born Oct. 30, 1902) and a second son, Dale A. Nance (born Sept. 8, 1908).
Gordon fell in love with horses and began riding when he was five and soon was proficient at roping, bulldogging and bronco busting. At 16, he won first place in rodeo riding at the American Royal Horse and Livestock Show in Kansas City, where his father was then employed as a stockyards commission buyer. After graduating from high school, Gordon attended Rockhurst College for a while, and then headed to Hollywood where he enrolled in the Pasadena Community Playhouse, and came under the direction of Gilmore Brown and did a variety of stage roles.
In 1925 he changed his name to Gordon Elliott and appeared in his first film, “The Plastic Age,” which starred Clara Bow and featured both Gilbert Roland and Clark Gable in small roles. Two years later he got a small part in “The Drop Kick” which was John Wayne’s initial motion picture. He also managed to land good-sized roles in “The Private Life of Helen of Troy” (1927) and “Valley of Hunted Men” (1928) before the “talkies” forced him back again to bit parts.
Meanwhile, in February 1927, Gordon married Helen Meyers with whom he had a daughter, Barbara Helen, on Oct. 14, 1927.
In 1931 (during the early years of the Depression) Elliott became a Paramount stock player, although the studio loaned his services to other film companies as often as they used him in their own productions. Two years later, he signed a 5-year contract with Warner Brothers where he was employed in bit roles in dozens of films. In 1935 he appeared in over 20 pictures for the studio, including his first western, “Moonlight on the Prairie” where he garnered considerable praise as an opponent to Dick Foran.
In mid-1937, Gordon was loaned to Republic to work with Gene Autrey in “Boots and Saddles” and then to 20th Century Fox to do “Roll Along, Cowboy,” a Smith Ballew western. He was impressive enough in his parts for Columbia Studios to offer him the lead in their serial, “The Great Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok.” Upon its completion, studio head Harry Cohn immediately signed the 34-year-old hard-working and personable Elliott to a contract to do a series of 8 westerns with the Larry Darmour unit — and changed his name to Bill Elliott.
In the first picture, “In Early Arizona” the actor played a very fictionalized Wyatt Earp. Darmour had only produced four pictures, however, when Columbia took over the series. After first using Bill in another 15-chapter series called “Overland With Kit Carson” (with Trevor Burdette as a villain named Pegleg), they assigned him to producer Leon Barsha for the final four. Beginning with “Taming of the West” (1939), Elliott was cast as screen character “peaceable” Wild Bill Saunders with Dub Taylor as his sidekick, Cannonball.
Columbia then signed the actor to do a series of eight Wild Bill Hickok adventure pictures with Taylor again as Cannonball. Among Bill’s leading ladies were Iris Meredith, Dorothy Faty, Luana Walters, Betty Miles, and Mary Daily. In “Beyond The Sacramento” (aka Power of Justice), he worked with Evelyn Keyes.
The studio also employed Elliott to do an additional eight formula westerns for producer-director Oliver Drake with Tex Ritter (who had just left Monogram when his 5-year contract expired) as his co-star. Their first picture (and what most critics feel was the best) was King of Dodge City, which also featured Taylor (who soon quit, however, and was replaced by Frank Mitchell).
In 1940 Bill was #10 on the Motion Picture Herald-Fame’s poll of Top Western Stars. He also placed every year in the Top 10 on the prestigious survey until 1954 (a total of 15 years) and was in the Top 5 a total of 10 times (#9-1941, #7-1942, #9-1943, #5-1944, #4-1944, #2-1946, #4-1947, #3-1948, #5-1949, #4-1950, #6-1951, #4-1952, #4-1953, #4-1954).
Although he and Tex were good friends, Elliott was not particularly happy about the double billing the two men shared and after eight pictures together, he left Columbia in late 1942 to go to Republic to replace Gene Autry, who had enlisted in the Air Force the previous summer (at the same time, Ritter also left Columbia to go with Universal, where he teamed with Johnny Mack Brown). Bill ended his association with Columbia with a 15-chapter serial entitled Valley of Vanishing Men, which was released in December 1942.
At Republic, Elliott was teamed with George “Gabby” Hayes, Anne Jeffreys and Roy Barcroft for a series of eight pictures, beginning with “Calling Wild Bill Elliott” (released in April 1943). For the first time, Elliott the actor was now also billed as Wild Bill Elliott.
In the summer of 1944, Bill was the studio’s natural choice when Republic decided to revive the popular Red Ryder movie series (based on Fed Harmon’s comic strip hero), which earlier starred Don “Red” Barry in 1940. Gabby, then nearly 60, also appeared with Elliott in the first two pictures in the new series, but then went back to working with Roy Rogers.
Bill especially enjoyed working with Bobby Blake (who played Little Beaver) in the series. Like Tom Mix, Elliott liked children and always insisted that the scenarist write a youngster in the plot of his films at some point. The following summer Bill joined a number of other Western stars to do a guest bit — his only guest appearance — as himself in Rogers’ Bells of Rosarita.
After performing in 16 Red Ryder installments, Elliott was replaced by Allen “Rocky” Lane. Meanwhile, Bill was handpicked by Yates to substitute for Randolph Scott when he decided not to play the colorful highwayman Spanish Jack in Republic’s quality production of In Old Sacramento (1946), directed by Joseph Kane. The popular picture, which co-starred Constance Moore (was later re-issued as Flame of Sacramento) had earlier been filmed in the 1920s as Diamond Carlisle and in 1940 as The Carson City Kid (with Roy Rogers). Now billed as William Elliott, he became a Class A star and was right next to Rogers as the top B-western favorite of 1946.
As William Elliott, Bill did nine additional big-budget films for Republic including The Plainsman and the Lady (1946) and Wyoming (1947) where he was unfortunately teamed with European-born skating star Vera Ralston (Yates’ wife). The cowboy star also did two pictures for his own production unit — Hellfire (1948) with Marie Windsor and The Showdown (1950) — which was his last picture for Republic. During the late 1940s, Bill also tried in vain to interest Yates in casting him in a film based on Hart’s life.
Elliott departed Republic in late 1950 after eight years although the studio continued to re-release his earlier films. During that time Bill could also be heard on the “Wild Bill Elliott” western variety series on radio with the Andrew Sisters and Gabby Hayes.
Bill then signed to do a series of 16 outdoor films for producer Vincent M. Fennely at Monogram, in which he was again billed as Wild Bill Elliott. The first was The Longhorn (November 1951) directed by Lewis Collins.
After Fargo (the fourth picture), Monogram became Allied Artists, and for them the actor did an additional seven westerns. Although the production values were now lower — many were tinted in the sepia process — Elliott did gain a much more mature image, mainly due to Dan Ulman’s exceptional scripts — especially Kansas Territory (also directed by Collins), which featured Peggy Stewart as leading lady. Stewart, who had appeared with Elliott years earlier in his Red Ryder pictures, later told writer Paul Dollinger, “Truly I adored Bill Elliott. And Bill was sharp. He was like an attorney, and he befriended me an awful lot. He’d look after me.”
Ulman also scripted Bill’s last “oater” for the studio — The Forty-Niners — in which he played opposite Virginia Grey. It was directed by Thomas Carr, who had also helmed other Elliott pictures at Monogram.
By the early 1950s, the B-Westerns were biting the dust due to changing economics, public tastes and, of course, television — which dealt the entire movie industry a very serious blow. Elliott’s last western was The Forty-Niners (released May, 1954). He completed his remaining studio obligations — five films — in a series of detective melodramas, the last of which was Footsteps in the Night (1957).
After his retirement from pictures at 53, Bill sold his Westwood, California home and moved to a ranch near Las Vegas in 1957. He also owned a ranch near Calabas, California, which raised horses and cattle. He became interested in collecting Western memorabilia and also studied geology. In the late 1950s he was employed as the national spokesman for Viceroy cigarettes. After moving to Las Vegas, he was persuaded to host a teleseries which offered his old films. He also did two pilot films for television — “The Marshal of Trail City” and “Parson of the West” — but neither found a network sponsor.
Bill and Helen’s 34-year marriage ended in divorce in 1961. That same year he married Dolly Moore.
The great cowboy star died of cancer on November 26, 1965, in Las Vegas (where he is buried). He was 61.
Carmen Nance married Louis Green in 1931 in Kansas City and died two years later on March 2, 1933, at the age of 30. Maude Nance died on June 12, 1936. She was 54. Both women were buried at the Forest Hills Cemetery in Kansas City, MO. Leroy Nance died at 63 on November 15, 1937, and was buried at the Harwick Wheeler Cemetery, located 7 miles west of Pattonsburg. Dale Nance married Frieda N. Lewis (born June 15, 1908 in Australia) on May 13, 1938. The couple had two children — Bruce Dale (born July 20, 1939) and Dianne Audry (born October 28, 1942).
— reprinted from Yesteryear magazine, written by Dwight Bratcher