For more than a year, the name of America's most celebrated movie cowboy, who had suffered for two decades from heart problems, had been carved on a headstone in the cemetery near his home in Apple Valley, Calif. Finally, on July 6, Roy Rogers, 86, died in his sleep, not long after his nurse heard him say, "Well, Lord, it's been a long, hard ride."
But also a grand one. For two generations of young buckaroos, the white-hatted, straight-shooting King of the Cowboys represented the best of the good guys. Kids cheered him at Saturday matinees—he was America's top cowboy box office attraction from 1943 to '54—and during his TV show, which ran from late 1951 to '57. Rogers was a gentlemanly, plainspoken hero with virtues as solid as the fists he used in fights he never started—and never lost—and a smile as ready as his six-shooters. And he could sing, even while riding his glorious palomino, Trigger.
In fact, Rogers was neither a cowboy nor a true son of the West. But he managed his image shrewdly, until more than 400 products bearing his name racked up $1 billion in sales. Long after his acting heyday, in 1968, he helped found the Roy Rogers restaurant chain with the Marriott Corporation.
Rogers often professed ignorance about his appeal, but, says son Dusty, 51, "we all know it was that boyish backwoods charm and that grin. That's what people liked about him. He was no different on the screen or off." Roy and Dale Evans, his acting and singing partner and wife of 50 years, engaged in countless acts of unpublicized kindness, visiting sick children and raising money for them. (Three of their kids—they had nine between them, including three adopted children and a foster child—were lost to illness or accident.) In later years, grown men were known to cry when they encountered Rogers—and precious childhood memories—at the Roy Rogers-Dale Evans Museum in Victorville, Calif. There, Trigger, who died in 1965, stands mounted. "I couldn't bear to put him in the ground," Rogers confessed.
Born Leonard Franklin Slye in a Cincinnati tenement to a part Choctaw Indian shoe-factory worker and his wife, he grew up on a houseboat in Portsmouth, Ohio, and on a farm in rural Duck Run. In 1930, the Slyes traveled to California in a '23 Dodge, Grapes of Wrath style. ("There are parts in that book that made me wonder if maybe Mr. Steinbeck wasn't looking over the shoulders of the Slye family," Roy once observed.) Out West, the future star discovered his talent for singing at campfires. Later, after driving a truck and picking fruit in California, he began barnstorming the Southwest with bands.
In 1936, Roy married Arlene Wilkins, who had brought him a pie for singing "The Swiss Yodel" for her on the radio in Roswell, N.Mex. (She died of an embolism in 1946, shortly after giving birth to Dusty—Roy Rogers Jr.) After hearing that Republic Pictures was auditioning for an actor to replace cowboy star Gene Autry during a contract dispute, Rogers, who by then had his own band, the Sons of the Pioneers, brazened his way into a tryout and was signed. He had the first of his 86 starring roles in Under Western Stars, in 1938. Thirteen years later, he and costar Dale Evans, whom he had married in 1947, moved to TV, where they made 100 TV episodes with Trigger, Bullet the dog and their rubber-faced sidekick, Pat Brady. The show's theme song, "Happy Trails," written by Evans, bespoke a sunnier view of life than Rogers later found on TV or in movies, where he was pained by gratuitous violence. In his day, he told Dusty, "you didn't beat a man to death. You just knocked him out and didn't keep kicking him. There's movies today I wouldn't even let Trigger watch."
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