The Marlboro advertising campaign featuring rugged men smoking a cigarette may have been one of the most brilliant advertisement campaigns of all time. Over the years, 1954 to 1999, many men were featured in the role of the ‘Marlboro Man,’ but it usually came back to the cowboy and Texas had its share.
One of those was Benjamin Henry Bates, otherwise known as “Big Ben” in the rodeo circuit, who went on to become highly-recognized for stunt work and films in Hollywood.
Ben was born Sept. 4, 1933 to parents Herman and Matti Lou Bates, raised in Liberty City (otherwise known as Hogeye Country). He attended school in the Sabine school district – photos document his attendance through his junior year of high school.
“Ben was about two years younger than me,” said Bo Camp. “He was just a tall, lanky, red-headed kid at the time and he played football. Ben didn’t do much with football, but he got involved in rodeo.”
“They lived on the corner of Peavine and Fritz Swanson Road,” along with Ben’s brothers John, Charles and Bill.
Before he was the Marlboro Man, he served in the U.S. Navy during the Korean War. After Ben’s return to the states and an honorable discharge, he operated heavy equipment during the week and rodeoed on the weekends. He set arena records winning championship buckles as a team roper and qualified for the National Finals rodeo twice in steer wrestling.
It was in 1967, while competing in the Chicago Rodeo, he was chosen to be the Marlboro Man in print and television ads. In 1970, he received the Andy Award for Excellence for those ads.
Ben’s horsemanship ability led him to become James Arness’ stunt double in the “Gunsmoke” television series. Stepping in to the role of Marshall Matt Dillon also led him to additional work in the “Gunsmoke” movies, “How the West was Won,” “Red River,” “13 Days to Glory,” the “Legend of the Lone Ranger,” “McClain’s Law” and others.
In James Arness autobiography, Ben was quoted as saying “the outstanding way Arness treated me is something I will never forget,” and he said Arness made the company pay him more money each year he was on “Gunsmoke.” Arness also gave Ben the .45 gun he used on the show.
Ben was honored for his accomplishments during the 19th Silver Spur Awards Banquet. The Reel Cowboys felt Bates upheld their mission statement of helping to sustain the Western Heritage through wholesome storylines, values and morals portrayed in the series and films in which he worked. It was Janet Arness, wife of James and their son Jimmy that presented the award to Ben.
“My sister, Corine, said she saw Ben one time after he moved away from Liberty City,” Bo recalled. “He returned driving a brand-new Cadillac and told her he had earned it being the Marlboro Man. What he accomplished in his life just amazes me.
“You just never know what comes out of these piney woods.”
Ben died October 4, 2017 in Sun City, California, which his fiancé, daughter, sons, grandchildren and great grandchildren continue to call home. He was in the truest sense a cowboy and it started in a little community called Hogeye Country on the outskirts of Kilgore, Texas.
RAIN OR SHINE, the Overton/New London Chamber of Commerce will be holding their Games Day event from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. today inside Massage World at 118 E. Henderson Street in Overton. There is an admission charge for the meal plus fun, games and door prizes. To learn more call Ilene Merchant at 903-241-4618.
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