Bob Norris, aka the Original ‘Marlboro Man’ Dies At Age 90—But Never Smoked a Cigarette in His Life

Published on November 9, 2019

His image graced thousands of billboards and magazine ads for almost 12 years, but he never once touched a cigarette himself. Robert “Bob” C. Norris, better known to the world as the “Marlboro Man” died earlier this week in the care of Pikes Peak Hospice in Colorado Springs, Colorado, according to a statement released by his ranch, Tee Cross Ranches, which he founded. He was 90-years-old.

For over 14 years, Norris was known to the world as the original “Marlboro Man,” ironically never smoking a cigarette himself. For the company’s first ad, he was shot with approximately 2,000 pictures holding the iconic cigarette. Despite his career, he continuously emphasized to his children that he didn’t want to see a cigarette butt in their hands either.

According to Norris’ son, Bobby Norris, his father’s opposition to such a habit led to the children’s curiosity as to why their father even agreed to do the commercials in the first place. I mean branding and endorsements are everything, are they not?

While Norris didn’t grow up in the digital age, where brands are now forever immortalized, that iconic cigarette and nickname stuck with him up and until his last breath. Thankfully, the next day after being questioned by his children, Norris walked away from his career as the Marlboro Man, ending his photo shoots after 12 years.

But, before Norris became known for his “tobacco habits,” he was a successful rancher and philanthropist, advocating on behalf of a number of animal causes. In 1950, Norris entered the horse and cattle businesses, thanks to good friend John Wayne. Wayne offered Norris a role in the 1971 film Big Jake, but Norris wasn’t interested, rather taking up a close friendship with Wayne and finding his way into the cattle business. Wayne came to several of Norris’ horse sales.

Eventually, Norris purchased the Tee Cross brand, which was the very first brand registered in the State of Colorado. After establishing the brand, Norris, two -years later, purchased the start to his Tee Cross Ranch with 20,000 acres, later home to 150 head of horses and over 1,000 cow and calf pairs, eventually expanding to a 63,000 acre-spread.

Colorado Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell praised Norris for “embodying the spirit of the West.” Indeed, Bob sometimes seemed a real-life example of a Louis L’Amour character. Bob was an avid reader of L’Amour, whose own commitment to authenticity and personal experiences made his characters and stories ring true. Norris and L’Amour met and became fond acquaintances.

He has a second ranch in Arizona, which his family and the Wayne family spent many Thanksgivings at. Yet, 69-years later, T-Cross Ranches still maintain one of the highest and most respectable reputations in the industry.

Norris survived his wife, Jane Norris, who passed away in 2016 at age 65. Norris is survived by his eldest sister, Lavern Gaynor of Naples, Florida, and by his and Jane’s four children, Steve Norris, Carole Soundrup, and son-in-law Ron Soundrup of Windsor; Leslie Penkhus and son-in-law Bob Penkhus of Colorado Springs; and Bobby Norris and daughter-in-law JJ Norris of Ft. Worth, Texas.

“If any man could be described in three words, for Bob they would be ‘the real deal.’ His solid authenticity, whether astride a horse, sitting in a board room, mentoring a child or sharing a moment with a friend, was his personal and professional brand. No doubt it was these qualities — along with his tall, ruggedly handsome, lanky good looks — that landed him the unexpected role of the first ‘Marlboro Man’ on television,” the statement on the ranch’s website said.

Andrew "Drew" Rossow is a former contract editor at Grit Daily.

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