Lassoing fans for four decades Career: From the big screen to the small, Roy Rogers roamed the range -- and left his mark as one of the good guys.

July 07, 1998|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

He had a much longer and far more successful career in feature films, but it is through television that most of us came to know Roy Rogers, who died yesterday at 86.

From 1951 to '57, he and his wife, Dale Evans, starred in "The Roy Rogers Show" Sunday nights at 6: 30 on NBC. And, if you were of the baby boom generation, you could hardly turn on a television set Saturday mornings or after school in the 1950s and early '60s without seeing one of the scores of cowboy films Rogers starred in for Republic Pictures between 1935 and 1952.

Like the Andersons in "Father Knows Best" and the Nelsons in "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet," Roy Rogers and Dale Evans were one of those perfect sets of TV couples.

In fact, they were even better than the other two, because they didn't have any children in the show and you could imagine yourself living out there on their Double R Ranch with: Roy's horse, Trigger; Dale's horse, Buttermilk; the fearless German shepherd, Bullet; bumbling sidekick, Pat; Nellybelle, the back-firing jeep with a mind of its own; and those singing ranch hands, the Sons of the Pioneers.

As television was starting to redefine masculinity in postwar America toward the mild-mannered suburban ways of Ozzie Nelson and the flannel-suited conformist style of Jim Anderson, Rogers was a man of action who spent most of his days on horseback keeping peace on his modern-day ranch with the help of Dale and their wonderful animals. The series emphasized fairness and Roy's sense of justice over violence, but Roy could shoot those six-shooters hanging at his side and he could use his fists when he had to.

When it was all over, though, the Singing Cowboy and his lady would say good night each week with their trademark song, "Happy Trails to You." The formula made Rogers the most popular cowboy on television from 1951 to '57 and paved the wave for the flood of westerns that would come to dominate prime-time network programming by the end of the decade.

There is irony in the fact that Rogers went into television in part, because his film career was drying up.

After making his first film, "Tumbling Tumbleweeds," in 1935, he surpassed another popular singing cowboy, Gene Autry -- whom he often supported -- as "King of the Cowboys." Throughout the 1940s and '50s, the spirited B-Westerns he made with Evans and sidekick Gabby Hayes -- not to mention Trigger, "the smartest horse in the movies" -- were enormously popular with audiences who appreciated the films' blend of story, humor, music and bedrock American values. (Including bit parts, he appeared in more than 100 films.)

But in 1951 he sued Republic, in an effort to share in the money the studio earned from renting his feature films to what was then the new market of TV stations.

Rogers won a lower-court decision saying actors were entitled to such royalties. But, ultimately, the Supreme Court ruled against him saying the studio had the rights to all the money. Republic stopped using Rogers in films once he took his fight over royalties to court.

So, Rogers and Evans took their talents to television, forming their own production company (Roy Rogers Productions) and filming 101 episodes of their show in and around Apple Valley, the desert community 90 miles or so east of Los Angeles in which Rogers died yesterday.

In terms of TV life after the series, from 1958 to 1961, they were part of a rotating lineup of stars and hosts for "The Chevy Show," a weekly musical-variety series on NBC.

ABC tried the couple in a musical variety hour titled "The Roy Rogers and Dale Evans Show" in 1962, but it lasted only three months. The impetus for that series was that CBS had started airing "The Roy Rogers Show" as a Saturday morning rerun for young children in 1961 and enjoyed such success that it stayed with it until all 101 episodes had been used up in 1964.

Over the years, the couple made guest appearances on television series ranging from "The Beverly Hillbillies" in 1964 to "The Fall Guy" in 1984. They also appeared on musical-variety programs ranging from "The Andy Williams Show" to "Hee Haw."

Career highlights

Movies include:

Tumbling Tumbleweeds, 1935

The Big Show, 1936

Under Western Stars, 1938

Billy the Kid Returns, 1938

Arizona Kid, 1939

Days of Jesse James, 1939

Dark Command, 1940

Robin Hood of the Pecos, 1941

Red River Valley, 1941

Sons of the Pioneers, 1942

Romance on the Range, 1942

King of the Cowboys, 1943

Song of Texas, 1943

The Cowboy & the Senorita, 1944

The Yellow Rose of Texas, 1944

Utah, 1945

Don't Fence Me In, 1945

My Pal Trigger, 1946

Song of Arizona, 1946

Helldorado 1946

Apache Rose, 1947

Springtime in the Sierras, 1947

Eyes of Texas, 1948

Grand Canyon Trail, 1948

North of the Great Divide, 1950

Heart of the Rockies, 1951

Son of Paleface, 1952

Alias Jesse James (cameo), 1959

Mackintosh and T.J., 1975

Recordings include:

Tumbling Tumbleweeds, 1934 (Sons of the Pioneers)

Cool Water, 1936 (Sons of the Pioneers)

A Little White Cross on the Hill, 1947

My Chickashay Gal, 1947

(There'll Never Be Another)

Pecos Bill, 1948

Blue Shadows on the Trail, 1948

Stampede, 1950 Money Can't Buy Love, 1970

Lovenworth, 1971

Happy Anniversary, 1971

These Are the Good Old Days, 1972

Hoppy, Gene and Me, 1974

Ride, Concrete Cowboy, Ride 1980 (with Sons of the Pioneers)

Hold on Partner, 1991 (with Clint Black)

Businesses:

Roy Rogers restaurants, developed with the Marriott Corp. Sold to Hardee's in 1990

Television production company: "The Roy Rogers Show," 1951-1957; "The Roy Rogers and Dale Evans Show," 1962-1963

Associated Press

Pub Date: 7/07/98

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