A list of some of Nebraska’s best-known movie and television stars would include not only such greats as Johnny Carson, Henry Fonda, and Robert Taylor, but the man who became famous for his outstanding portrayals of western bad men, Pierce Lyden. Stereotyped as the “bad guy with the black hat and moustache,” Lyden became one of Hollywood’s best professional villains, and one of its most prolific performers.
Lyden was born January 8, 1908, at Hildreth, Nebraska. His father was a horse buyer for the U.S. Army, and Lyden learned to ride horses as a young boy. To earn extra money, he broke wild horses for his father and participated in rodeos. After attending the University of Nebraska and Emerson College of Oratory, Lyden gained stage experience by joining various stock companies. In 1928 he was a leading man at Lincoln’s Liberty Theater.
In the early 1930s Lyden headed for California to further his career. He worked at various jobs until he found work in the legitimate theater, where he performed in a variety of roles from rogue to leading man. This led to employment in the movies, where because of his moustache, he was typecast as a villain.
Lyden’s first cowboy movie was in 1933. He said years later, “I got paid $3 to $5 a day, or more if I fell off a horse,’ . . . I didn’t like wearing the black hat and being the bad guy at first, but I discovered it was the best thing that happened to me in the movies, as it provided me with steady work and a way to make a living. I wasn’t the first to wear the black hat, but I was stereotyped with the black hat and bad man image by 1942-43.” (Franklin County Chronicle, October 20, 1998) Lyden was awarded the title of “Villain of the Year” in 1944 by the Photo Press Fan Poll.
Lyden appeared in about twenty-five films at Republic Pictures from 1940 to 1951, most of them serials and B westerns. He eventually appeared in more than three hundred films, with another one hundred television and serial appearances to his credit. During his long career he appeared with almost every cowboy star in the movie business. Lyden also did stunts, specializing in fight scenes, and used his excellence in horsemanship while stunting.
Lyden’s last movie, made in 1962, was Wild Westerners, Columbia’s last full-length western. In retirement he authored several books on his life and was an honored guest at gatherings of western movie fans. In 1979 he was inducted into the Cowboy Hall of Fame and Heritage Foundation, and in 1992, he was honored with the prestigious Golden Boot Award, presented annually to western actors and actresses. Lyden was also the 1997 recipient of Nebraska’s Buffalo Bill Award, for “outstanding contributions to quality family entertainment in the Cody tradition.” He died at age ninety on October 10, 1998, at his home in Orange, California, the oldest and one of the last surviving Hollywood villains.