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Almost 40 years ago, Colorado rancher Bob Norris was hand-picked as the first Marlboro Man - with no audition or even a chance encounter with a scout. Norris had a contract with the tobacco company to photograph his horses and T-Cross Ranch for the initial Marlboro Man campaign.
But shortly after the crew showed up, they unexpectedly replaced their professional model with “the real McCoy” - Norris.
With a wry smile, Norris claims they lit on him because, as they were stomping on the model's clothes to make them look authentic, they noticed Norris “was already dirty.”
The fact he was tall, lean and ruggedly handsome couldn't have hurt.
Dressed in his everyday gear, Norris was lacking only two accessories, according to the ad agency executive in charge: a felt cowboy hat - he was wearing his summer straw - and a cigarette.
Norris found his winter hat, and they stuck a cigarette in his mouth.
Though they then proceeded to take a couple of thousand shots of him kneeling in front of his horse, Buck, he was skeptical they would waste all that film on him and wondered if the cameras were actually empty.
He was convinced he had been right when his picture showed up two months later on the back of Life magazine. It was a drawing of Norris and Buck, sketched by the same executive who had singled him out that day.
He later learned all those photos were discarded because he was kneeling among a bunch of wildflowers, making him look “too sweet,” as he puts it.
That fortuitous first shoot led to the agency's asking Norris if he would be interested in “some television work” for Marlboro. He said he would “try anything once.”
“Once” turned into three or four TV deals a year. And the commercials ran, he recalls, for a dozen years - about five years in the United States, until tobacco ads were banned from TV, and, after that, in Europe.
From a host of memorable misadventures during his TV shoots, Norris recalls one featuring him fly-fishing. The agency insisted he spend two days beforehand taking lessons from a champion fly-caster, despite Norris's lifelong devotion to the sport.
When it came time for the shoot, the camera was submerged halfway into the water. Right in front of it, a trout was being pulled back and forth, at the exact spot where the fly was supposed to land.
To guarantee a perfect shot, the director told Norris to cast over the cameraman's head, so that - at just the right moment - an assistant could drop a second fly in front of the camera, making it appear that Norris' fly had landed on target.
The only problem was that, having begrudgingly taken all those lessons, Norris was determined “to see just how close I could get it. And it fell right square in front of the lens. So,” he laughed, “they had two flies in the picture!”
In the early 1970s, Norris' son Bobby asked him why he made the ads “when you tell us not to smoke.”
Chagrined, Norris ended his relationship with Marlboro soon afterwards.
Around the same time, Norris passed up an opportunity to launch a second acting career, when John Wayne offered him a role in the 1971 film Big Jake, featuring Wayne and two of his sons, Patrick and John Ethan.
Norris had met Wayne earlier, ironically not through his television work but through his cattle operations. By chance, the two wound up side-by-side outside the fence at a California bull sale.
Since Wayne was just entering the cattle business, Norris grabbed the opportune moment to pitch his horse-breeding operation, telling him, “You're going to need some horses to go with the cattle.”
Wayne came to several of Norris' horse sales “and bought all my geldings,” he recalls.
The two became close friends, and Norris and his wife Jane spent more than a dozen Thanksgivings with the Waynes at their Arizona Ranch.
Wayne was a member of the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum's Board of Trustees for a number of years. Norris has served on the Board of Directors since 1972.
Norris' T-Cross horse sales are legendary - and not just because, in days past, you might get an opportunity to hobnob with “The Duke.”
Norris has produced an extraordinarily long list of champion American Quarter Horses, including Poco Pico and Tee Cross.
Norris bred and raised Tee Cross. “Then we made him an AQHA champion - 53 halter points on him,” Norris noted.
During a 10-day run in Wyoming with horseman Stanley Glover, Tee Cross also won AQHA championships in five events, a feat Norris suspects might never have been equaled.
Tee Cross was then retired to stud, compiling yet another enviable record of 30 foal crops. “We lost him a couple of years ago, at age 36,” Norris said. “He has been a big part of my life, and I'm still riding his sons and daughters.”
Norris' cattle - including Herefords, Salers and a mix of the two - have likewise attracted attention world-wide. “For five or six years,” he recalls, “we shipped about five bulls annually to the Parker Ranches in Hawaii.”
Unfortunately, one flight to the islands with 80 bulls, 10 horses and Norris on board came very close to crashing. Luckily, the only lasting damage was to a window one of the horses kicked out.
Norris' circuitous path to becoming a top horse and cattle breeder - with a 63,000-acre ranch not far from Pikes Peak - began more than 50 years ago in Illinois.
Working on a farm his father owned, he was shoveling ear corn one day while standing knee-deep in water; he was hit with a sinus attack even worse than usual.
He strode up to the house and announced to his wife Jane, “Get out the map. We're moving.”
Guided by fond memories of their 1950 honeymoon trip through the West just four years earlier, they set out for Colorado. Their quest ended at a 5,000-acre ranch in Rist Canyon, nestled in the mountains west of Fort Collins.
The seller didn't own a brand, but knew a former Colorado rancher who had moved to California without relinquishing his. Norris bought the T-Cross brand for $50 and then learned it was the first brand registered in Colorado.
At Rist Canyon, Norris ran cattle with just a few working horses and one mare he began breeding. Eager to expand but hemmed in by a national forest, Norris left Rist Canyon when he found a ranch selling for $10 an acre near Guffey, in Colorado's central Rocky Mountains.
There, in October 1958, six new inches of snow topped off an existing 62” snowpack, burying his 1,500 yearlings. It took two weeks to shovel tunnels through the snow and get them out.
Though most survived, “they were eating each other's tails” by the time they were rescued, Norris recalls.
A few years later, he notes, “I started looking at some country down lower.” At an altitude of “only” 6,100’, he found the perfect place between Colorado Springs and Pueblo.
He soon made good on his promise to Jane to “beg, borrow and steal anything I can” to buy the 20,000 acres that became the nucleus of T-Cross Ranch.
Now, T-Cross is home to about 150 head of horses and a thousand cow-calf pairs, requiring three separate managers for the horse, cattle and farm operations.
Among his many achievements off the ranch, Norris served as 1982 AQHA president and on numerous boards, including the FBI Citizens Academy in Arizona and the Colorado Board of Agriculture.
AQHA Executive Director Bill Brewer calls Norris “a true American cowboy,” highlighting his successful AQHA work with young people.
Calling him “a pioneer in the ranching industry,” Colorado Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell praises Norris for “embodying the spirit of the West” and “raising some of the finest American Quarter Horses in the world,” a few of which Campbell has bought for his own ranch.
Now 74, Norris reflects “it has been a good run.”
Would he do anything differently if he could? “I might have kept the elephant,” he said.
He explained that zinger by telling how, at the urging of his children, he adopted an ailing baby elephant named Amy, after her owner leased two of Norris' horse stalls for her and four other baby elephants brought to the United States from Zimbabwe.
When she finally got too big for the ranch - she's now eight feet tall and weighs 4,000 pounds - he sent her to Buckles Woodcock in Florida.
Woodcock provides her with a comfortable, humane life among other elephants who work alongside her in his shows.
Norris visits Amy whenever he can. She often greets him by first waving her trunk and then hugging him around the waist with her left front foot.
Their unusual relationship is chronicled in A Cowboy and His Elephant by Malcolm MacPherson, published in 2001.
Norris considers the highlight of his life to be “the joys of family working together” on the ranch. He and Jane raised six children, two of whom now own their own spreads.
Son Bobby has a successful ranch and horse-training operation near Fort Worth.
Will Norris ever retire?
Norris smiles and replies, “Not until I hear the thump of dirt. I'll never sell my saddle.”
Kathlene H. Sutton is a free-lance writer residing in Morrison, Colorado.