5 minute read

Let's Talk Westerns

ROBERT (BOB) C. NORRIS, the original Marlboro Man, died on November 3rd, 2019. Two stories have circulated on how Bob got the job of an advertising icon for Philip Morris. In the early fifties, advertising executives for the Philip Morris Tobacco company were scheduled to take photographs at Bob’s ranch in Colorado, as part of the new advertising campaign. The model they brought with them didn’t dressed in his normal working outfit, but he fit the image the advertising executives wanted to a tee. He had the rugged good looks the ad executives wanted, and they promptly offered him the job. The executives took his straw hat, placed a felt hat on his head and a Marlboro cigarette in his hand, and advertising history was made. Prior to the Marlboro Man, Philip Morris Tobacco used the hand tattoo campaign in magazines, and a few early tv ads. A cowboy, police officer, or a construction worker was shown reaching for a cigarette, and a close up showed a tattoo on his hand. Most of the time it was an eagle on the web of flesh between the thumb and forefinger.

The second story had the tobacco executives looking through photographs. They found one of Bob and John Wayne at a quarter-horse sale. They secured transportation to Colorado and visited the T-Cross Ranch. They found Bob working cattle and asked him if he was interested in making commercials. He told them he was busy, at the moment, but if they were serious, to return in a week and they’d talk it over. The executives returned and Bob became the Marlboro Man.

Whichever story was true, Bob was the Marlboro Man, the face of the brand for a dozen years. He made tv commercials, and newspaper and magazine ads. The Marlboro cigarette ad campaign was one of the most successful in history. Prior to the change in advertising and the creation of the Marlboro Man, the cigarette was designed for women and was even pulled from the market in the late 40’s. After the addition of the cowboy hawking the product, Marlboro became the best-selling cigarette in the United States, selling more that the rest of the top eight cigarettes combined. In early 1970, his son Bobby, asked him why he made ads for the sale of cigarettes but didn’t smoke and didn’t want any of his children to smoke. Bob ended the relationship with Philip Morris tobacco soon after.

President Richard Nixon banned cigarette ads on TV on January 1st, 1971 at one minute after midnight. The televised ads continued to be shown in other countries, and other men assumed the role in magazine and newspaper ads until those were also discontinued.

Bob Norris was born in Chicago, on April 10, 1929. He attended Elgin Academy at St. Charles and later attended the University of Kentucky where he played football and met Jane Wright. They were married in June of 1950 and remained married until her death in 2016, 65 years. Bob was the grandnephew of John W. Gates, an entrepreneur and salesman who convinced Texas ranchers that barbed wire could hold Longhorn cattle. Bob and Jane moved to Fort Collins, Colorado in 1953 and purchased the Rist Canyon Ranch.

Bob was good friends with John Wayne. The Duke even offered him a role in the 1971 film Big Jake. Bob turned down the role. John Wayne bought several quarter horse geldings from Bob. Bob and his wife Jane were frequent guests during the Thanksgiving Holiday at Wayne’s 26 Bar Ranch in Arizona.

When he arrived in Colorado, Bob looked for a registered brand he could purchase. He bought the rights for the T Cross brand for fifty dollars from a former rancher who moved to California. The T Cross was the historic first brand registered in Colorado. It’s currently the largest property in El Paso County, stretching out over 120,000 acres.

The T Cross Ranch produced a long list of champion American Quarter-horses, including Poco Pico and Tee Cross which was an AQHA Champion with 53 halter points. Tee Cross was retired to stud and produced thirty foals. He died at the age of thirty-six, a very full life for a horse. The ranch also raised registered Herford and Salers cattle and a cross of the two breeds. The ranch usually shipped five bulls a year to the Parker Ranch in Hawaii. During one transport, Bob was shipping eighty bulls and ten horses by air, the plane nearly crashed when one of the horses managed to kick out a window.

In the late 1980’s, an ailing baby elephant named Amy came into Bob’s life. She was part of a group of elephants transported from Africa to be sold in the United States. Her owner rented stable space from Bob, enough to handle her and three others. A year later when the owner was preparing to move the orphans, Bob asked him how much he wanted for Amy. When the price was given, Bob wrote him a check on the spot. He kept the elephant and worked with her every day, teaching Amy to trust people. Eventually she grew too big for the ranch, and he took her to an elephant sanctuary in Florida. Bob’s relationship was chronicled in the book, A Cowboy and his Elephant, by Malcolm Macpherson, published in 2001.

In 1988, Bob founded Roundup for Autism. The organization raised awareness and funds for the Autism Treatment Centers of Texas. He was also a member of the board of trustees for the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City.

There is a statue of Bob on horseback at the Shrine of Remembrance in Colorado Springs. His wife Jane is interred in the Gates of Heaven Mausoleum. The statue is placed so that he is looking at Jane’s final resting place.

Bob took his last ride in 2017, but never sold his horse or saddle. His four children, thirteen grandchildren, and eighteen great-grandchildren are all involved with the operation of the T Cross. Bob passed away in his home on November 3rd, at the age of 90. He lived a long and full life and was a true cowboy. Bob set the bar for all the other actors who portrayed the Marlboro Man. He was the face of the best-selling cigarette in America for over a dozen years, and he didn’t smoke.

—Terry Alexander is a western, science fiction and horror writer with a vast number of publishing credits to his name. He’s also a connoisseur of all things related to the Hollywood Western. He and his wife, Phyllis, live on a small farm near Porum, Oklahoma.