Joel McCrea, was a real-life cowboy who became one of the best of Hollywood's make-believe saddle heroes.
Tall and taciturn, good-looking and good-humored, McCrea may have ranked just behind John Wayne as the most believable of western heroes. During a career that spanned three decades, he made 86 motion pictures, starring in many of them.
Although best remembered for his cowboy roles, he was a versatile actor who handled frivolous light comedy and adventurous melodrama with the same skill he brought to westerns. Some of his best-known films were westerns such as "The Virginian," "Union Pacific" and "Wells Fargo," thrillers such as Alfred Hitchcock's "Foreign Correspondent," and comedies such as Preston Sturges' "Sullivan's Travels."
The McCrea family moved to Hollywood when Joel was 8 or 9 and he then came into contact with film figures—he delivered the Los Angeles Times to such moguls as Sam Goldwyn and Jesse Lasky, and stars such as William S. Hart and Wallace Reid.
"I learned a good deal about life — and Hollywood — back then," McCrea reminisced many years later. "There were certain stars, supposed to be worth millions, who couldn't dig up the 60 cents, which The Times cost then, at the end of the month."
McCrea loved and understood horses — and started hanging around the back lots of Hollywood, volunteering as a "horse-holder" for cowboy star Tom Mix and one of his newspaper customers, Hart.
McCrea first went before the cameras at age 12. Ruth Roland, a star of silent serials, was making a shoot-'em-up in the hills above Sunset Boulevard, and young Joel was again a horse-holder.
He graduated from Hollywood High School and enrolled at Pomona College, where he began acting in amateur roles.
McCrea decided that he liked the acting life and after college graduation in 1928 began haunting the studios and picking up occasional work as an extra.
His first feature role came in 1929 in "The Jazz Age," and in the same year he played in "So This Is College," "Dynamite" and "The Silver Horde." He began winning star roles the next year.
McCrea's poetic way with a horse and gritty western look were perhaps most evident in Sam Peckinpah's 1962 film "Ride the High Country," in which he and Randolph Scott costarred over-the-hill lawmen transporting gold to a bank.
McCrea invested his Hollywood earnings in a 1,000-acre working cattle ranch near Camarillo in Ventura County. He added to it over the years until he owned 3,000 acres of prime ranchland, which later became prime residential land. At one time, his ranch was producing 200,000 pounds of beef annually. McCrea was active in its management and in riding, roping and branding.