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Will Rogers Biography

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Birth Name: Will Rogers
Born: 11/04/1879
Birth Place: Indian Territory, Oklahoma, USA
Death Place: Point Barrow, Alaska, USA
Died: 08/15/1935

Born on Nov. 4, 1879 in Indian Territory, OK, Rogers was raised on his family's Dog Iron Ranch near present day Oologah, OK, by his father, Clement, a former Confederate veteran and judge, and his mother, Mary. Both his parents were part Cherokee, making Rogers about a quarter Native American. The youngest of eight children, the easygoing Rogers often clashed with his hard-driving father, a rift that was exacerbated after the death of his mother in 1890. A self-admittedly poor student, he dropped out of school in the 10th grade and set out for adventure in 1901 by seeking his fortune as a gaucho in Argentina. But after a few months, Rogers lost all his money and set sail for South Africa, where he broke horses for the British Army after the Boer War. In 1902, he sought work as a wrangler with Texas Jack's Wild West show, but after demonstrating a rope trick, was hired on as an entertainer instead. Rogers learned a great deal from Texas Jack, but soon moved on with his blessing to the Wirth Brothers Circus in Australia, where he performed as a rider and rope artist before returning to the United States.

While at Madison Square Garden in New York City, Rogers roped a steer that had broken loose in the stands and won over the crowd. The incident was front page news and gave him a wider audience who wanted to see more cowboy heroics. Rogers soon performed his vaudeville act - which consisted of cowboy tricks mixed in with a monologue on the day's news that spawned his famous line, "All I know is what I read in the papers" - to growing popularity and eventually joined the famed Ziegfeld Follies. With the Follies, Rogers dropped his monologue in favor of daring tricks, and by 1916, he was one of the production's biggest stars, having built a reputation for satirical performances and his off-the-cuff humor. In 1918, Hollywood came calling and cast Rogers in his first movie, "Laughing Bill Hyde," which marked the beginning of his three-year contract with Goldwyn Pictures. Making more money than he ever did on Broadway, Rogers moved out west and set up his own production company in Santa Monica, CA. But while he enjoyed performing on the big screen, Roger's act suffered because his previous success with his comedic monologues was lost in the silent era.

Rogers continued making movies throughout the silent era, however, including "Jubilo" (1919), "Water, Water Everywhere" (1920) and "The Ropin' Fool" (1921), which basically showed off his roping skills and little else. In 1922, the multifaceted Rogers began writing a weekly column, "Slipping the Lariat Over," which was syndicated in major papers like The New York Times and The Saturday Evening Post, and offered humorous observations and delivered pointed jabs on a variety of subjects, but most often politicians. After leaving Samuel Goldwyn's employ, Rogers worked with legendary producer Hal Roach and made 12 pictures within a year, but made only a handful of movies before leaving the film business for a short spell. During this period, Rogers traveled widely across the United States on his so-called lecture tour and became the first civilian to fly coast-to-coast. Meanwhile, his trip to Europe in 1926, where he saw great advances in commercial airlines, sparked a lifelong advocacy of aviation in the United States, which he often promoted via his syndicated column to shape public opinion in support of building commercial air service in America.

But with the advent of sound, Rogers returned to features, where he was able to fully realize his potential and quickly became a major star. He made his talkie debut in "They Had to See Paris" (1929), where he played a genteel, but poor family man who suddenly strikes oil and becomes filthy rich, allowing him and his social-climbing wife to live the high life. From there, Rogers played any number of homespun types in movies like Henry King's "Lightnin'" (1930) and the satirical comedy of manners "Ambassador Bill" (1931), where he played a cattle baron-turned-foreign diplomat. In a rare case of serendipity, Rogers' folksy rural humor joined forces with another American humorist, Mark Twain, when he starred in "A Connecticut Yankee" (1931), where he played an Everyman who finds himself suddenly transported back to King Arthur's Camelot after a blow to the head. Building upon his ever-growing popularity, Rogers was a homespun farmer in "The State Fair" (1933) and an unlettered small town doctor dealing with a typhoid epidemic in "Doctor Bull" (1934).

Also during this time, Rogers was the star of his own radio program, where he effortlessly rambled from one subject to the next, often leading him to lose track of time and be cut off while still speaking. To remedy the problem, he set an alarm clock that could be heard on air which led to his program to being humorously called "Will Rogers and His Famous Alarm Clock." But film remained his biggest medium and Rogers began a brief, but fruitful collaboration with director John Ford on "David Harum" (1934), where he was an upstate New York rancher. From there, he starred in his most notable film, "Judge Priest" (1934), playing an easygoing judge constantly at odds with the self-righteous citizens of small town Kentucky in the 19th century. Rogers starred once more for Ford, this time in "Steamboat around the Bend" (1935), where he appeared alongside old friend and fellow humorist, Irvin S. Cobb. Having played the lead in a 1934 production of Eugene O'Neill's stage play, "Ah, Wilderness!," Rogers originally agreed to star in a 1935 film version for MGM, but a negative fan reaction to a particular scene prompted him to back out of the role, which soon proved a fateful decision.

In July 1935, Rogers convinced friend and pilot Wiley Post to fly him around Alaska to search out new material for his column. The pair embarked in early August from Seattle, WA. As Post flew the craft - a modified seaplane built from two different Lockheed models the company refused to support due to the incompatibility of the parts - Rogers wrote his columns on a typewriter. On August 15, they left Fairbanks, AK and headed for Point Barrow, only to re-land in a lagoon due to bad weather. Upon taking off once more, the engine sputtered and the nose-heavy aircraft plunged 50 feet into the lagoon, killing Rogers and Post instantly. A nation mourned the death of a favored son as memorials across the country were erected in his honor, particularly in his home state of Oklahoma and his adopted state of California. Over the years, everything from schools and parks to roads and airports were named after him. The same year he died, the Will Rogers Institute was formed to raise money for medical research by asking for donations before the screening of movies, a fixture of movie-going life for decades. Meanwhile, his son, Will Rogers, Jr., starred in a 1952 film biography, "The Story of Will Rogers" and also portrayed his father in "Look for the Silver Lining" (1949) and "The Eddie Cantor Story" (1953). Years later, James Whitmore portrayed Rogers on stage in a one-man show, and in the 1991 Tony Award-winning musical, "The Will Rogers Follies," he was played by Keith Carradine.

By Shawn Dwyer