Wild Bill Babcock
by Tony Coppi
Wild Bill Babcock stood beside some of the most famous western movie stars of all time as a stunt man and stand-in, doing some of the things that the Hollywood marquee cowboys couldn’t do—like standing up on a running horse, riding through fires, and stopping run away stage coach horses.
He worked through the run of old western movies with Tom Mix, Hoot Gibson, Buck Jones, and Ken Maynard. He later worked with box office favorites like John Wayne, Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, and the Lone Ranger.
He was born in New York state on a dairy farm. He started riding horses at the age of five when his dad bought him a pony. “And I’ve never stopped riding since,” Babcock recalled.
At an early age he wanted to travel and see the world. In 1937, he and three other buddies from California volunteered to join the Flying Tigers in China. “I lied about my age and after six months they found out that I was under age and sent me back to California.”
He served during WW II in the 8th Air Force as a radar operator on small bombers and small flight planes. He performed reconnaissance missions in the Marine Corps during the Korean War. He was a police officer in San Francisco before he went to Korea.
He became a professional rodeo performer with the Rodeo Cowboy Association and traveled throughout the United States and Canada. “I used to go out and do some crazy things in the rodeo like hanging on the side of a horse or breaking horses and falling off of horses going 30 miles an hour. All this got me getting into movies as a stunt man,” Babcock explained.
Most of the western pictures were shot at the Corriganville movie ranch in Simi Valley, California.
He made several movies with John Wayne including Rio Bravo, Sons of Katie Elder, and Big Jake—all big box office shows. In Rio Bravo he was ‘shot and killed’ by Dean Martin.
He did stunts and stand-ins for Burt Lancaster and Clark Gable in Run Still, Run Deep and with Charleston Heston in the classic Ben Hur. The chariot races were filmed in Oklahoma. He appeared in another movie with Gable, The Misfits. Marilyn Monroe was in the cast. The movie with Gable and Monroe was shot in Nevada. Wild Bill said, “ They couldn’t get 20 wild horses down from the mountains to the set. So they asked me to go up and rustle them down—which I did.”
Babcock owned a 550 acre ranch in Simi Valley. Roy Rogers was a neighbor on one side of his ranch and Joel McCrea was on the other side. He raised Angus cattle and had a large herd of horses on the ranch. There were seven homes, a racetrack, stables, and a training area where some rodeos were held. For some time “The Marlboro Man” and his brother worked on the ranch.
Of all the many horses he had, his favorite was Thunder, a solid gold stallion. It was the horse he rode in the Sacremanto State Fair and Rose Bowl parades along with Ronald Ragan.
After years in the rodeos, the movies and the military, the 75 year old stuntman settled in Nashville. “The greatest place I have traveled in my life is right here in the state of Indiana. The people are very kindly and good,” Babcock said.
His Nashville apartment is decorated with many mementos. There are cowboy hats, boots, and even two saddles. Old photos yellowed with age adorn the walls—photos of him with Roy Rogers and Dale Evans. “I used to do his stand-ins. They were great people.” Babcock remembered. There is a large framed picture of John Wayne. “He was a good man and also a big man. I couldn’t stand in for him because he was so big but I did some of his stunts.” His Flying Tiger uniform and his San Francisco police uniform are neatly hung on closet doors.
One of his favorite pieces of memorabilia is a certificate given to him by Senator Richard Lugar at a luncheon in Indianapolis. It reads: The Library of Congress and United States Senator Richard Lugar presents this meritorious certificate to William W. Babcock for participation in the veteran history project and in recognition and supreme dedication to the United States.
A Hall of Fame for stunt men is being organized in California. Babcock will be one of the first inductees.
Babcock summed up his life as a stuntman by saying, “I did a lot of crazy things like jumping out of airplanes, doing the Russian Cossack Death drag, and fender dragging, but those were the glory days.”