Born Edmund Richard Gibson in Tekamah, Nebraska, he learned to ride a horse while still a very young boy. His family moved to California when he was seven years old. As a teenager, he worked with horses on a ranch, which led to competition on bucking broncos at area rodeos.
Given the nickname "Hoot Owl" by co-workers, the name evolved to just "Hoot". (Michael Wallis' book, The Real Wild West: The 101 Ranch and the Creation of the American West, says that Gibson "picked up the nickname 'Hoot' while working as a bicycle messenger for Owl Drug Company." Dan L. Thrapp's Encyclopedia of Frontier Biography says that Gibson "is said to have been nicknamed because he once hunted owls in a cave.")
In 1910, film director Francis Boggs was looking for experienced cowboys to appear in his silent film short, Pride of the Range. Gibson and another future star of Western films, Tom Mix, were hired. Gibson made a second film for Boggs in 1911. After a deranged employee killed Boggs, director Jack Conway hired Gibson to appear in his 1912 Western, His Only Son.
Acting for Gibson was then a minor sideline, and he continued competing in rodeos to make a living. In 1912, he won the all-around championship at the famous Pendleton Round-Up in Pendleton, Oregon, and the steer roping world championship at the Calgary Stampede.
Gibson's career was temporarily interrupted with service in the United States Army during World War I as a sergeant in the Tank Corps. When the war ended, he returned to the rodeo business and became good friends with Art Acord, a fellow cowboy and movie actor. The two participated in summer rodeo, then went back to Hollywood for the winter to do stunt work. For several years, Gibson had secondary film roles (primarily in Westerns) with stars such as Harry Carey. By 1921, the demand for cowboy pictures was so great, Gibson began receiving offers for leading roles. Some of these offers came from up-and-coming film director John Ford, with whom Gibson developed a lasting friendship and working relationship.
From the 1920s through the 1940s, Hoot Gibson was a major film attraction, ranking second only to Tom Mix as a Western film box-office draw. He successfully made the transition to talkies, and as a result, became a highly paid performer. He appeared in his own comic books and was wildly popular until singing cowboys such as Gene Autry and Roy Rogers displaced him.
In 1927, actor Gibson, and five other California businessman sponsored The Spirit of Los Angeles, a modification of the International CF-10 for an attempt at winning the Dole Air Derby. Gibson had his name painted on the nose for publicity. The aircraft crashed in the San Francisco Bay before the start of the race. In 1933, Gibson injured himself when he crashed his plane while racing cowboy star Ken Maynard in the National Air Races. Later, the two friends teamed up to make a series of low-budget movies in the twilight of their careers.
Gibson's years of substantial earnings did not see him through his retirement. He had squandered much of his income on high living and poor investments. By the 1950s, Gibson faced financial ruin, aided in part by costly medical bills from serious health problems. To get by and pay his bills, he earned money as a greeter at a Las Vegas casino. For a time, he worked in a carnival and took virtually any job his dwindling name value could obtain. This included an episode of Groucho's You Bet Your Life, filmed in December 1955. He made the final game with his contestant, but did not win the big money, though he earned himself a share of the $440 prize money for the show.
On September 6, 1913, Gibson married Rose August Wenger, a rodeo performer he had met at the Pendleton Round-Up in Oregon sometime between 1911 and 1913. Under the name Helen Gibson, she became a major film star in her own right for a time, notably in the lead role of The Hazards of Helen adventure film serial. Census records for 1920 indicate they were living separately; Hoot Gibson listed himself as married; Helen listed herself as widowed.
Gibson married vaudeville actress Helen Johnson on April 20, 1922, in Riverside, California. They had one child, Lois Charlotte Gibson. They were divorced on February 2, 1929, in Hollywood, California.
The fact that Hoot Gibson was married to two consecutive women who used the name Helen Gibson in some fashion has led to a good deal of confusion.
Gibson married film actress Sally Eilers on June 28, 1930. The marriage ended in 1933.
Gibson married a final time, to Dorothy Dunstan, a 22 year old yodeler, on July 3, 1942.
Hoot Gibson died of cancer in 1962 in Woodland Hills, Los Angeles, California, and was interred in the Inglewood Park Cemetery in Inglewood, California.
In 1960, for his contribution to film, Hoot Gibson was inducted to the Hollywood Walk of Fame and was honored with a star at 1765 Vine Street in the Motion Pictures section. In 1979, he was inducted into the Western Performers Hall of Fame at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.
References to Gibson in American literature include:From Here to Eternity (1951): "'I wonder,' he said,' what ever happened to old Hoot Gibson? I can just barely remember him. My God, he had grey hair when I was just a kid."
The Carpetbaggers (1961): "'The Bijou's got a new Hoot Gibson picture,' Tommy said."
Myra Breckinridge (1968): "More than ever was Buck, revoltingly, the Singin' Shootin' Cowboy, so inferior in every way to Hoot Gibson."
Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe (1987): "Most of those guards are pretty simpleminded old boys ... they'll go to a picture show and see Tom Mix or Hoot Gibson and then they come back and ride around the farm, pulling their guns, trying to be cowboys."