Rancher Robert Norris, whose rugged good looks earned him fame in advertising for Marlboro cigarettes, has died at 90 his family confirms. Norris, who never smoked, passed away surrounded by family in Colorado Springs on Nov. 3. He was under hospice care and had been suffering from dementia at the time of his death.
Born April 10, 1929, in Chicago, Illinois, Norris attended Elgin Academy in St. Charles, Ill., where he grew up. He attended the University of Kentucky, where he played football under Coach Paul William “Bear” Bryant.
Norris’ career in ranching began in 1950 when he entered the horse and cattle business. A few years later he purchased 20,000 acres that became the famous T-Cross Ranch south of Colorado Springs.
According to his obituary, the love of Norris’ life was his wife Jane and ranching. His family were mostly financiers and lawyers, but Norris had an uncle in ranching who taught him the basics.
“In 1950 Bob went into the horse and cattle business, with one of his first purchases being the T-Cross brand—the first brand registered in Colorado,” the obituary says. “A few years later Norris established that brand with the purchase of 20,000 acres that became the start of the T-Cross Ranch south of Colorado Springs, later to be home to 150 head of horses and more than 1,000 cow and calf pairs, and eventually to expand to a 63,000 acre spread. A second ranch was later established in Arizona. After 69 years, the T-Cross Ranches have one of the most distinguished reputations in the industry, with well-established leadership in both Quarter Horse and cattle operations.”
Norris’ son Bobby told KKTV News in Colorado Springs that advertising executives saw the elder Norris in a newspaper photograph with his longtime friend, actor John Wayne. They tracked Norris down at his ranch.
"They walked out of their car, these guys in their pinstripe suits, and they walked up to Dad and they said, 'How would you like to be in commercials for Marlboro cigarettes?' He said, 'Well, I'm kind of busy right now. Why don't you come back next week, and, if you're serious, we'll talk.' They came back the next week," Bobby said.
Norris in an ad for Marlboro
They came back and shot more than 2000 photos that day, beginning a 12-year long career Norris had with Marlboro. The relationship, however, ended abruptly. Bobby said he always told his children “I don’t ever want to see you smoking.”
“So, one of us finally asked, 'If you don't want us smoking, why are you doing cigarette commercials?' He called up Phillip Morris and quit that day," Bobby recalls.
The twitter account for John Wayne, who died in 1979, remembered Norris on Twitter upon news of his passing. The pair were close pals and often came together on Thanksgiving at Wayne’s 26 Bar Ranch.
This weekend we lost a legend & one of Duke’s close friends, Bob Norris. Bob was a Colorado rancher & the original Marlboro man. He & his wife spent many Thanksgivings at 26 Bar Ranch with John Wayne and his family. Our condolences go out to the Norris family. pic.twitter.com/hF7MILAXto— John Wayne Official (@JohnDukeWayne) November 4, 2019
They became friends after Wayne offered him a role in the 1971 movie “Big Jake.” Rather than accept, Norris helped the actor start his own foray into the cattle business.
Norris was also noted as a philanthropist, and he contributed generously to Colorado State University. Norris was also a member of the board of trustees for the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum, also known as the Cowboy Hall of Fame.
Norris is survived by his four children he shared with his wife, 13 grandchildren and 18 great grandchildren.