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JANUARY 2011

Will Rogers.Will Rogers said, “I never met a man I didn’t like.” Well, he never met a horse he didn’t love, and he never understood a man who didn’t feel the same way.

In my movie-goin’ history I’ve seen two horse mounts that just about knocked me outta my seat—(1) Kermit Maynard runs full tilt at his hoss, and pow! Just like that! In one swell foop he’s all aboard and off like a shot! How he did that I’ll never know. (2) Will Rogers, in a silent movie, does a comic take-off on his pal Tom Mix. Will, duded-up to the nines, jauntily ambles up to his hoss—with hands on hips he places his left foot into the stirrup, and, as if by magic, rises straight up into the saddle where he does a full spin. I’ve been thinkin’ about that one since I was a kid—Did he or didn’t he? Did he invoke film-flammery? Wires? Adler elevator boots? It’s a whole lot easier to git off a hoss than git on one. Did ol’ Will trick us by actually gittin’ off that hoss, walkin’ backwards, and then reversin’ the whole works in the lab? (George Stevens played that gag with Jack Palance in “Shane”)—or was Will Rogers just that good?

Jim Rogers told me his dad’s great love of horses was contagious, and Jim, brother Will Jr. and sis Mary caught the bug. They grew up outdoors in perpetual motion, ridin’, ropin’, rough housin’. Every Saturday, when their dad was ‘Mayor’ of Beverly Hills, the three caballeros rode their mounts to the local cinema where they hitched their horses just in time for the matinee.

Will was the perfect gentleman in polite society, but once he got on his polo pony—Yee Haw!—The Cherokee Kid rode again. He taught his brood to ride like the wind—fast, strong, clean—giving no quarter, asking none—ridin’ to win! They took him at his word, and one afternoon they rode him hard into a fence—off he went, down for the count. Una problema—that night he had to perform at Hollywood’s El Capitan Theatre in a production of Eugene O’Neill’s play, “Ah, Wilderness!” The play was a long puppy, and Will had the lead. Could he recollect all them lyrics after being cold conked? Wife Betty drove him to the show, praying all the way. Will made it through without a goof-up. On the way home in the car, Will looked at his watch and let out a whoop, “Holy smokes! Look at the time! I’m way late for tonight’s show!”

Jim told me his dad was most likely the greatest roper for all-time. They don’t make ‘em like that no more. Ropes, that is. A lot of special lassos Will twirled are no longer in manufacture. Mostly, though, ‘twas Will’s genius and obsession that made him a ropin’ fool. To him, no noose was bad noose. He practiced his spinnin’ whenever he could. At home, he cottoned to eating out on the patio, so he could twirl ‘twixt courses. When Betty went away for a couple of weeks to visit relatives, Will slyly hired workers to raise the roof of the front room so he could be a whirligig indoors as well. He’d rope anything that moved. Western painter Ed Borein grew so weary of being constantly lassoed that he gave Will a stuffed calf to practice on, saying, “Will is without doubt the best dead-calf roper in the world.”

Another of Will’s magnificent obsessions was writing the most popular newspaper column in the history of American journalism, “Will Rogers Says…” Not bad for a feller who never made it through high school. When I was a tad, I remember seeing his column each morning on the front page of the La La Times and throwaway. I couldn’t read, but I liked his smilin’ picture. I wanted to comb my hair like Will’s, down on my forehead, but my mom made me use stickum.

Fox Studio gave him a beautiful Spanish style bungalow for his dressing room, but he preferred changing in his car where he also typed his articles. Actor Frank Albertson told me Will was happier writin’ than makin’ monkey faces. Happier readin’ his ruminatins to his fellow workers than gettin’ down to business at hand. Acting was just a sideline to him. Will wrote, “Movies is the only business where you can go out front and applaud yourself.” “One way to solve the traffic problem would be to keep all the cars that are not paid for off the streets.” “Just passed through Chicago—To try to diminish crime they laid off 600 cops.” “I feel sorry for those Ziegfeld Follies gals—In 20 years they’ll be five years older.”

Meanwhile, back on the sound-stage, Will would glance at the script, park his gum, knock wood and, as the camera rolled, ad-lib his dialogue, much to the amusement and confusement of his fellow monkey-facers. He was a faraway feller. He wasn’t of Hollywood. He was a restless breed, rarin’ to get back to his Santa Monica ranch come 5pm.

The Will Rogers ranch is the most comfortable spread I’ve ever passed though. You’d swear Will was in the next room. The guide told us the house looked about the same as always, except for the stuffed animal heads on the walls—Will wasn’t a hunter. Matter of fact, the world’s most famous cowboy never learned to shoot a gun.

Jim told me his dad closed the successful run of “Ah, Wilderness!” prematurely. He’d received a letter from a clergyman who had attended the play with his 14 year old daughter. They skedaddled when the show got too spicy for their tastes. Will was as shocked as the preacher. Will considered “Ah, Wilderness!” to be old-fashioned family fare. But if it struck just one playgoer as improper, he wanted nothing more to do with it. “I could no longer say those lines, even to myself in the dark.”

So, he made a bad career move. He flew North to Alaska with Wiley Post. A smile disappeared from the lips of America—Fox cut out the last shot in “Steamboat ‘Round the Bend”; Will at the wheel, smiling and waving straight into the camera. Fox figured it would be too much for a mourning world to bear.

Kevin Coyne writes, “The history of the universe is up there, because each point of light in the night sky is only a memory. The star it comes from might have died since.” That’s you, Will. I still love seeing you in “Life Begins At Forty”, “State Fair”, “In Old Kentucky”. You’re my favorite actor because you didn’t act. You just were. And what a were there was, ol’ friend. Did I do right by you? Poet Ogden Nash had you about right when he wrote, “I work with gum and lariat, to entertain the proletariat, and with my Oklahomely wit, I brighten up the world a bit.”

   —Adios!