Friday, November 4, 2016

Birthday: "There are three kinds of men. The one that learns by reading. The few who learn by observation. The rest of them have to pee on the electric fence for themselves."

William Penn Adair Rogers (1979-1935)
Cowboy, actor, columnist, author

He father a Cherokee Nation judge and community leader, wanted Will Rogers to be a successful man. Will did that, just in the most roundabout and unexpected way possible. In his thirty year public career, Will rogers became a confidante of American presidents, a national newspaper columnist, a Broadway and film star, a successful author, and the most highly paid actor in Hollywood.

He was a smart kid, but school bored him, and he dropped out after the tenth grade. At 22 he and a friend tried ranching in Argentina and went broke in a year. Embarrassed to ask for more money from home, he worked his passage to South Africa, then Australia. He arrived back home in 1904 and got a job as a cowboy in a vaudeville act at the St Louis World’s Fair. At a Madison Square Garden gig, he caught and roped a wild steer that had departed from the script, and was signed to a contract at the Victoria Roof Garden, where he did fifty weeks a year in a horse act.

It was good money, and he married in 1908. Four kids followed, and, over time, he started slipping bits of impromptu monologue into his act, which had evolved into rope tricks. Ziegfeld signed him on in 1915; and he made headlines cracking up the staid President Woodrow Wilson in a 1916 show where, hearing the President was in the audience, Rogers did a monologue on politics off the top of his head. The New York Times hailed Rogers as a comic in the tradition of Aristophanes.

Hollywood beckoned. Even though films couldn’t talk, and Rogers made his living- increasingly- talking- it was three times his New York money. He did fifty short silent films over a decade, and they did pretty well. It helped that he could write his own title cards, which carried the dialogue. When sound came in, he was a natural, playing variations on himself in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, State Fair, Judge Priest and others.

From 1922 on, he was a frequent contributor to The Saturday Evening post, and bundled his monologues into a string of humor books. His New York Times column went daily in the mid-20s; and  from 1929 to 1935 he had a hit weekly radio show. Making up much of his material as he went, he was frequently oblivious to time, getting cut off in mid sentence. He bought a windup clock, and when it went off, started winding up. The show became known as “Will Rogers and His Amazing Alarm Clock.”

Rogers’ humor was solidly grounded in a McKinley-era view of America, where the sun always shined and you could trust your neighbors (his byword, “I never met a man I didn’t like” was repeated by Americans for decades, though the critic, Dwight MacDonald, wrote a piece in Esquire in the ‘70s about trying to get Rogers’ autograph as a boy, titled, “Will Rogers Was No Damned good”.) This basic, common touch allowed him to rove widely across politics and social issues in his commentaries, usually coming down on the side of progress. He teased both parties pretty evenhandedly, though he loved Calvin Coolidge introduced, he stuck out his hand and said, “Beg pardon, didn’t catch the name?”) and Franklin Roosevelt, whose New Deal whirlwind provided him with endless material.

In 1934 Rogers headlined the Eugene O’Neill play, Ah, Wilderness! to such good reviews he was cast in the forthcoming film version, too. After getting  fan mail suggesting O’Neill’s rather adult dialogue didn’t fit Rogers’ image, he turned down the movie part, opting instead for an aerial tour of Alaska with his friend, the flyer Wiley Post. Taking off from Point Barrow, Alaska in August, 1935, the experimental plane stalled and crashed, killing both men.

America went into mourning. American is dotted by Will Rogers schools, theaters, parks and muniments. He is one of Oklahoma’s two statues in the US Capitol, and the only one to face the doors to the House of Representatives (asked, while alive, to let his statue go to Congress, Rogers agreed on condition it be placed where he could keep an eye on them). The centennial of his birth led to a great revival of Rogers’ fame: James Whitmore did a one-man show of Rogers’ work for years, and his column was reprinted in newspapers all over America.  Keith Carradine, the actor, has made a career specialty out of playing Rogers, on Broadway and in the 1994 film, Mrs Parker and the Vicious Circle. Will Rogers, Jr., who also became and actor, played his father in a 1952 biopic, and served as a member of Congress from California.

No comments:

Post a Comment

We enjoy hearing from visitors! Please leave your questions, thoughts, wish lists, or whatever else is on your mind.