Larry Mahan, an eight-time rodeo world champion and swashbuckling showman who was once called “rodeo’s first matinee idol,” and who brokered that reputation into side careers as a Hollywood actor, a country singer and a purveyor of must-have cowboy boots, died on May 7 at his home in Valley View, Texas. He was 79.
Bobby Steiner, a friend and a fellow member of the National Rodeo Hall of Fame, said the cause was bone cancer.
Even without his oft-noted rock-star swagger, Mahan (pronounced MAY-han) would have qualified as a titan of the sport. Competing in bull riding, saddle bronc riding and bareback riding, he won six World All-Around Cowboy championships in the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association, including five in a row from 1966 to 1970.
He added another in 1973, and he also won world bull-riding championships in 1965 and 1967.
Ah, but the swagger. Mahan emerged as a new-breed competitor in the mod 1960s and the breezy 1970s.
“With his flared double-knit slacks and Cassini shirts,” The Austin American-Statesman observed in 1971, he was “the antonym of the old cowhand from the Rio Grande bit.”
He climbed onto bulls and broncs wearing shoulder-brushing locks, as well as silk shirts and chaps in a rainbow of colors. Away from the arena, he carried himself like the star he was — tooling around in a Jaguar, traversing the country in his twin-engine Cessna, appearing as Johnny Carson’s guest on “The Tonight Show.” Some likened him to Elvis Presley.
“Football had Joe Namath, boxing had Muhammad Ali, and rodeo had Larry Mahan,” Steiner said in a phone interview. “I don’t know that anybody will ever know what ‘it’ is, but he had ‘it.’”
He also helped bring mainstream visibility to what was traditionally a regional sport. Long before Martha Stewart and the Kardashians, the flamboyant Mahan dabbled in celebrity brand extension; in 1967, Time magazine called him the “Grey Flannel Cowboy.”
Branching into Western wear, he developed a line of cowboy togs including signature boots that became as coveted among lonesome-trail types as prime Air Jordans are among sneakerheads. (Josh Brolin’s character asks for a pair of Larry Mahans, size 11, when shopping for fresh clothes in the 2007 film “No Country for Old Men.”)
He also made his matinee-idol reputation at least a tad literal, studying acting in Los Angeles and appearing in “The Honkers,” a 1972 rodeo drama starring James Coburn and Slim Pickens; “Sixpack Annie,” a racy 1975 drive-in special; and “The Good Old Boys,” a star-studded 1995 television western directed by and starring Tommy Lee Jones.
Even music beckoned — if briefly. In 1976, Mahan released a country album, “King of the Rodeo,” on Warner Bros. Records. “Couldn’t sing a lick,” he recalled in an interview with the newspaper The Oklahoman. “It was a flop, but it was fun.”
Perhaps his biggest mark on popular culture came in 1973, when he was the subject of “The Great American Cowboy,” which won the Academy Award for best documentary feature. That movie, directed by Kieth Merrill, chronicles his quest to reclaim the All-Around World title from Phil Lyne, a younger Texan champion who had seized his mantle after Mahan scuffled through injury-marred years in 1971 and 1972. The American-Statesman called the movie “a stunning look at the least understood anachronism in modern America — the cowboy.”
Larry Edward Mahan was born on Nov. 21, 1943, in Salem, Ore., the eldest of four children of Ray and Reva (English) Mahan.
He grew up in the nearby town of Brooks, and his parents bought him his first horse — a half Arabian, half quarter horse that cost $125 — when he was 7 or 8. He entered a children’s rodeo weeks later and took home a $6 prize riding calves.
Larry continued to rack up wins in dozens of youth contests while in high school. He joined the professional tour in 1963. Two years later, at 21, he took home the national bull-riding title and $25,000 (the equivalent of about $245,000 today). A year after that, he won his first all-around title. To the rodeo world, a legend was born.
But for all his glittering escapades, he never lost sight of the stakes — especially when riding a 1,500-pound Brahma bull, a feat that has been called “the most dangerous eight seconds in sports.”
After he suffered a broken leg at a rodeo in Ellensburg, Wash., in 1971, Sports Illustrated wrote, “Outsiders sometimes protest that rodeo is cruel to animals, which must have struck Mahan as ironic once the horse stopped dragging him like a rag doll along the hard ground.”
He echoed that point in an interview with the same magazine two years later: “Bulls are the meanest, rankest creatures on earth. Horses don’t try to step on you when they throw you off. They don’t want to trip. Bulls love to step on you, or whip your face into the back of their skull and break your nose and knock out your teeth.”
Mahan is survived by his daughters, Lisa Renee Mahan and Alli Eliza Mahan, and his sisters, Susan Stockton-Simpson, Jody Thompson and Dana Mahan Hermreck. His son, Tyrone, died in 2020, and his wife, Julanne Read Mahan, died last year. His marriages to Darlene Mahan, Robin Holtze and Diana McNab ended in divorce.
Along with fame came famous friends, including the country stars Jerry Jeff Walker and Tanya Tucker and the Dallas Cowboys fullback and rodeo standout Walt Garrison. But in his social life, Mahan rarely let the revelry get out of hand.
“He wouldn’t go to the cowboy bars and celebrate at night,” Steiner said. “Back in those days, most people did the ‘I’m a cowboy and I’m going to party my butt off’ thing. But he took it seriously. He had to. He was in three events every day. I was a bull rider, and that was tough enough.”
Mahan, in fact, got his highs in other ways. “Winning is to me what alcohol is to the alcoholic, what dope is to the addict,” he said in a 1975 interview with the New York Times sports columnist Red Smith. “I’ve got to have it.”