Happy Trails Appreciation: The sun sets on Roy Rogers after 86 years in the saddle. He was the kid from middle America who fashioned himself into the ultimate movie cowboy.

July 07, 1998|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,SUN STAFF

A bright star from Hollywood's simpler years has fallen - a star from the days of the cinematic Old West where blood never flowed, despite a proliferation of flesh wounds, where the good guys always beat the bad guys, and where there was never any problem telling which was which.

Roy Rogers died of congestive heart failure in his sleep yesterday in Apple Valley, near Los Angeles. He was 86.

Rogers was in more than a hundred movies through his long career, and for nearly a dozen years - 1943 to 1954 - was the biggest cowboy movie star on the back lot, famous on nearly every continent. For a time, he was one of the country's most popular cowboy singers, and from 1951 to 1957, he and his wife, Dale Evans, starred in "The Roy Rogers Show" on television. Re-runs of his black-and-white films brought him a second generation of fans.

So what if he was born in Cincinnati? Wasn't Billy the Kid born in New York City?

So what if he was born Leonard Franklin Slye? Wasn't John Wayne born Marion Morrison?

Like the Duke, the kid from Cincinnati - a high school dropout who moved to California with his family at the opening of the Great Depression and wound up picking peaches - had the wit to realize there was a lot more to a name than many people thought.

What he knew was that nobody named Leonard Slye was ever going to be called "King of the Cowboys." Thus he chose the name "Roy Rogers," a rawhide moniker with the impact of a short right cross, and the alliteration to roll it off the tongue as fluidly as it eventually came to unfold across the screens of a thousand movie houses across the nation.

Singing cowboy

Rogers nee Slye also learned to sing. He formed a band of guitar pluckers named "The Sons of the Pioneers," who had two hits in the '30s, "Cool Water" and "Tumblin' Tumbleweed."

He also got himself a horse almost as smart as he was.

This huge palomino he named Trigger, and it could do a lot of things most horses couldn't. It could also do a few things some people couldn't. Like arithmetic.

In virtually every movie starring Roy Rogers, Trigger's big scene came when he got his chance to count, sometimes all the way up to five. He did this by tapping the ground with one of his forelegs.

While this helped Roy's career a lot, it wasn't at all certain that sidekick Gabby Hayes - who immortalized the line "Tarnation! Dab Gummit!" - was as big an asset.

It is said that Roy Rogers supplanted Gene Autry as America's favorite singing cowboy, which may or may not be true. But Rogers' first big break with Republic Pictures came in 1938 when he was handed the opportunity to replace Autry in the movie "Under Western Stars."

They were two of a kind, Rogers and Autry. They were the good guys and they were always clean. They fought fair and dressed in bright fancy shirts with piping and embroidery, mother of pearl buttons and pristine white hats. They looked like men who hadn't worked a day in their lives.

Though Rogers' movies were all formulaic and predictable, and contributed heavily to the great treasury of American movie cliches ("We'll camp here tonight!"), he did offer something different.

Rogers was the only cowboy who ever galloped across the silver screen with a permanent girlfriend, in picture after picture. This was Dale Evans, with whom he made 35 of his movies, later married, and starred with in radio and television shows between the years 1951-57.

Autry seemed earthier, more genuine, and he had a real western accent. He called his horse Champion, more ennobling than Trigger. But clearly Rogers was the natural showman, and probably the sharper businessman.

Yesterday, Autry described his rival as "an outstanding American" and "a true Western hero."

Another fan, President Bill Clinton, said, "Today there will be a lot of sad and grateful Americans, especially of my generation, because of his career."

And Dale Evans said, "What a blessing to have shared my life together with him for almost 51 years." Rogers had married Evans after his first wife, Arlene, died in 1946. He sang to Evans, gave her a big ruby ring and proposed to her on horseback.

President Clinton also praised the man for his pluck in pulling himself up from poverty to fame. He began his career earning $75 a week, but began to build his fortune with films like "Billy the Kid Returns" and "Springtime in the Sierras."

Even before he got too creaky to leap onto the back of a horse, audiences had turned to Westerns with more explicit sex and violence and anti-heroes like Clint Eastwood. It was a change in taste that left no room for the kind of film Rogers preferred to make.

"When I was a boy, our parents taught us that hitting below the belt was a cowardly thing," he once told the Associated Press. "I don't believe this kind of thing is 'entertainment' no matter how you look at it."

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