CowboySpirit.com – He realized that his movies were a pulpit from which he could reach a vast audience of boys whose letters fell upon him like blessings: “I’ll never use guns when I grow up, Fred, because you never use guns to kill anybody.” “You and Silver King capture the bad guys by tricks.” “I’m kind to animals, Fred, on account of you’re kind to animals.”
Tom Mix, Hoot Gibson, Art Acord, Buck Jones, William S. Hart, Big Boy Williams, Jack Hoxie, Ward Bond … of the great Western stars, the name Fred Thomson has faded into history, but during his six-year career, his popularity was rivaled only by Mix and Hart.
Frederick Clifton Thomson was born January 1890 in Pasadena, Calif., one of four boys and the son of Clara and James Harrison Thomson. Extremely athletic, Fred was a star fullback at Occidental Academy High School, and at 16 entered Occidental College where he continued to play football. Working hard to live up to the extremely high standards set for him by his mother, he was a member of the high school band, the yearbook staff and in his senior year was elected president of the student council.
After graduation Thomson followed in his father’s footsteps, entering Princeton Theological Seminary to become a Presbyterian minister. He continued to play football, and before starting at Princeton won the AAU National Championship, defending his title while there.
Passing up the opportunity to enter the Olympics, Thomson instead began preaching. During July and August of 1912, his last year at the seminary, he served as pastor at Peck Memorial Chapel in Washington, D.C. Despite his devotion to his calling, Fred continued to train and competed at AAU National meets, beating records set by Jim Thorpe in the Olympics.
After graduation, he returned to Los Angeles and became the pastor at Hope Chapel. Under his byline, the Los Angeles Evening Herald featured a 14-week series of articles extolling the virtues of clean living.
On Aug. 1, 1913, Fred and college sweetheart Gail DuBois Jepson, a teacher, became engaged and two months later were married. Thomson was assigned to the Presbyterian Church of Goldfield, Nev., a remote mining town on the edge of Death Valley halfway between Carson City and Las Vegas (where he also served as commissioner of the Boy Scouts of America in Nevada.) Three years later, Gail died of tuberculosis, and soon after the United States entered World War I Fred decided to enlist. He was commissioned a second lieutenant and assigned to Battery F of the 143rd Field Artillery as chaplain, where he organized sports events, lent a sympathetic ear to the enlisted men and arbitrated spats between the officers and the enlisted men.
During a football game Fred broke his leg, and it was in the hospital that he met and fell in love with scenarist Frances Marion, a best friend of Mary Pickford. While arranging for the appearance of the 143rd for the film “Johanna Enlists,” Pickford had noticed the handsome young man and was determined that her friend would meet him. Romance blossomed, but with activity in Europe Thomson was sent overseas with his battalion.