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Will Rogers

trick roper-turned humorist, movie actor, lecturer, and writer

Will Rogers

William Penn Adair Rogers was born near Oolagah, Indian Territory (now Oklahoma), on November 4, 1879, the last of eight children born to Clement Vann Rogers, a very successful rancher, and Mary America Schrimsher Rogers, both of whom were part Cherokee. Will spent his boyhood on the ranch and at several boarding schools in the territory, but was never very interested in either. At seventeen, after more than a year at Kemper Military Institute in Boonville, Missouri, Rogers "quit the entire school business for life," and struck out for the West. He worked on several ranches in the Texas Panhandle, and may have even applied to be one of Roosevelt's Rough Riders, before returning to Oolagah in the fall of 1898. Clem Rogers, who had remarried and moved into Claremore to engage in banking and tribal politics, assigned his son to oversee the cattle on the ranch. The young man did the routine work and established his Dog Iron cattle brand, but he was more interested in testing his well-honed riding and roping skills in various pre-rodeo-era contests. He grew so talented with a rope, in fact, that he was placed in the Guinness Book of World Records for throwing three lassos at once. One went around the horse's neck, another circled around the rider, and the third flew under the horse, looping all four legs together.

In 1900, Rogers and a friend decided to head to South America. After journeying by boat from Galveston to New York to London and, eventually, to Buenos Aires, the young men were disappointed to find no work there, but Rogers did manage to get a job on a cattle boat. That boat took him to South Africa, where he spent 1902-1903 spinning ropes in "Texas Jack's Wild West Show," as the "Cherokee Kid." He then spent about a year touring Australia and New Zealand with the Wirth Brothers Circus, and by the time he returned home in 1905 Rogers had become enamored with show business. He subsequently developed a vaudeville act featuring his mostly silent roping of a friend, Buck McKee, on a favorite horse, and toured throughout the United States and Europe.

On November 25, 1908, after an eight-year courtship, Rogers married Betty Blake. The couple eventually had four children, Will, Jr. (1911), Mary (1913), Jim Blake (1915), and Fred (1920). The youngest, named for Will, Sr.'s best friend, Fred Stone, died of diphtheria in 1922.

In 1915, Rogers became part of Florence Zeigfeld's Follies and Frolic. By this time, Rogers had refined his act to a science. He appeared on stage in his cowboy outfit, nonchalantly twirling his lasso, and said, "Well, what shall I talk about? I ain't got anything funny to say. All I know is what I read in the papers." He then made jokes about what he had read in that day's newspapers. At one performance, with President Woodrow Wilson in the audience, he improvised a "roast" of presidential policies that had Wilson, and the entire audience, in stitches and proved his remarkable skill at off-the-cuff, witty commentary on current events. He built the rest of his career around that skill.

Rogers began his movie career in 1918, when he starred in Samuel Goldwyn's Laughing Bill Hyde. Goldwyn subsequently signed Rogers to a three-year contract, and the Rogers family made the move to California in 1919. In 1923 he signed a one-year contract with Hal Roach. He ultimately made 48 "silent movies," most of them shorts, but did not become a true movie star until after audiences could hear him. His first sound film, They Had to See Paris (1929), finally gave him the chance to exercise his verbal magic. He played a homespun farmer (State Fair) in 1933, an old-fashioned doctor (Dr. Bull) in 1933, a small town banker (David Harum ) in 1934, and a rustic politician (Judge Priest) in 1934. He was also in County Chairman (1935), Steamboat 'Round the Bend (1935), and In Old Kentucky (1935). In 1934, he was voted the most popular male actor in Hollywood, and was also one of the best paid.

Having issued two short books of "Rogers-isms" about prohibition and the peace conference in 1919, Will Rogers began in 1922 to write a weekly column titled "Slipping the Lariat Over" for the New York Times, and a daily column, "Will Rogers Says," began in 1926. Both columns were syndicated and eventually distributed around the country to more than five hundred newspapers. He was also a frequent contributor to The Saturdat Evening Post. His travels to Russia, Mussolini's Italy, Latin America, and other points outside the United States provided material for several books, including Letters of a Self-Made Diplomat to His President (1926).

In addition to his work in movies, newspapers, magazines, and books, Rogers also maintained a very busy lecture schedule, delivering his unique combination of political commentary and satire to audiences across the country and around the world. Rogers was also a star on the radio, broadcasting a Sunday evening show called Gulf Headliners beginning in 1930.

Preferring to comment on politics rather than practice it, Rogers declined a nomination to be governor of Oklahoma, but did agree to serve as honorary mayor of Beverly Hills in 1925. For the 1928 election, Life magazine formed the Anti Bunk Party, in the hope that their nominee for the Presidency of the United States would not talk "bunk," as other politicians did, and Rogers' no-nonsense spin on the political "show" made him the obvious candidate for the spoof campaign. Promising that he would resign if he won, Rogers wrote his observations on the election in Life and became one of the country's foremost opinion leaders. As a result of his status as a nationally beloved figure and powerful political pundit, Rogers also came to know many world leaders. He was a guest at the White House and a friend of Presidents Calvin Coolidge and Franklin Roosevelt.

An early fan and advocate of aviation, Rogers became good friends with famed aviator Wiley Post. On August 15, 1935, the two men were attempting to establish a mail-and-passenger air route from the West Coast to Russia when Post's plane crashed shortly after taking off from Point Barrow, Alaska; both men were killed in the crash.

Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture
Internet Movie Database
The Official Website of Will Rogers
Will Rogers Institute

Rough Riders
President Woodrow Wilson
Calvin Coolidge
Franklin Roosevelt
Wiley Post

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The Robinson Library >> Linguistics, Languages, and Literatures >> Dramatic Arts >> Biography: United States

This page was last updated on 09/24/2017.