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Roy Rogers, Straight Shooter

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 7, 1998; Page C1


Roy Rogers/AP
Roy Rogers in a Sept. 1991 photo. (AP)
For Roy Rogers, the compass always read true west, the clock always said high noon and every town was Dodge City. And the good guys -- notably himself -- always won.

The West was a dream of decency and justice, manifest destiny was the better path, men were noble, women were schoolmarms or best pals like Dale Evans, children were li'l pioneers. As glorious as the past had been, the future looked even better. Happy trails to you and you and you. That's what Roy stood for, that's what Roy meant.

And if now we no longer believe it, maybe that's our problem, not Roy's, and that gives us no license to laugh at the great cowboy star, who died yesterday at the age of 86 at his home in Apple Valley, Calif., after a long illness.

Still, it can be a little hard to stifle a snicker today, particularly if you've seen the dusty, bitter, haunted things that westerns became. After all, after the trashy killers of "The Wild Bunch" or even sweaty, shaky Gary Cooper in "High Noon," Roy always looked a little foolish, like some Eastern dude's view of the campy Westerner. Sophistication wasn't in him: He was foursquare, forthright, but without tragic foreboding.

Yet to laugh at him, and to feel smugly superior to the uncomplicated virtues he represented, is to somehow miss the point. He was exactly what he seemed: courtly, gentlemanly, a man of the Old West -- even if he'd been born under the graceless name Leonard Slye in Cincinnati in 1911 -- who did all the cowboy things with sure, convincing ease.

His wardrobe was almost as lovingly assembled as the armor of a knight about to joust for his lady. He wore two engraved, highly polished six-guns in a double-holster rig, the leather engraved in the high Mexican style and adorned with silver conchos. He never wore jeans, but tight whipcord pants, with squared pockets sporting bright piping to make them stand out. His boots were tall and shiny, also elaborately engraved, usually brightly colored. He often wore a peculiar shirt, dazzling to Easterners, with buttons and pockets at strange angles, contrasting patterns of checks, a flutter of fringe spangling the chest.

Such shirts! Sometimes they had drawstring necks and sometimes that double placket of buttons running in a V up the torso. Fascinating shirts, like feats of engineering, shirts that took a blueprint to put on each morning. And of course he always wore a neckerchief tight about his throat and a white hat unstained with sweat. He rode a magnificent palomino, a horse so golden it could have come from an argonaut's dream, and he commanded it -- Trigger, "the smartest horse in the movies" -- atop a saddle as magnificent as a king's, festooned with silver as well. And when he rode, he was sentimental poetry in motion, with that easy Western authority, posture rigid yet flexible, standing in the stirrups, the wind battering him but never blowing that white hat away. Like all the great cowboys, he was great on horseback, good with animals and guns and the elderly, infinitely courtly to women, and steady of gun hand or fist with bad guys, all of whom, by some weird code of etiquette, forgot to shave that morning.

Of course he was the ceremonial cowboy; each of his implements or accouterments had its roots in authentic cowpoke or cattle-drive culture, but each had been removed from it, shined, polished, turned to artifact, almost as if to be inserted into a museum. His was the blemishless West, a museum West, a boy's West.

So it was not merely consistent but also mandatory that although he was a man of justice, he was never a killer, a gunman, a shootist, a sociopath. He was never a man with no name and no past or future: He had a name and a past and a future -- it was America. He hailed from the age where they didn't know the prefix to "hero" was necessarily "anti-". When he drew and fired it was never to kill, but only to knock the firearms out of his opponent's hands.

And this played well. It's easy to forget that for nearly a decade before the box miniaturized him and made him a mere touchstone in the pop-cult meltdown of baby boomer prepubescent memory, he was a genuine movie star. After migrating to California in 1929 and spending time as a fruit picker and truck driver, he tried to convey his sweet but hardly overpowering singing voice into a radio career.

"Leonard Slye" sounding like a child molester in a novel by Dickens, he changed his name to Dick Weston, to little avail; but when he changed it again, to Roy Rogers, and founded the western signing group Sons of the Pioneers, he began to get radio jobs.

As a singer, he's credited as one of the founders of the western sound, and has been voted into the Country-Western Hall of Fame twice, first as part of Sons of the Pioneers (in 1980) and then as a solo artist in 1988. His standards included "Tumbling Tumbleweeds," "Cool Water," "I'm an Old Cowhand (From the Rio Grande)" and, of course, "Happy Trails," which he recorded with his second wife, Dale Evans, who wrote it and who survives him.

He broke into films in 1935 in "Tumbling Tumbleweeds," when the concept of the Singing Cowboy wasn't cornball but deadly earnest. His competitors included Gene Autry and even John Wayne, who was reduced to playing "Sandy the Singing Cowboy" in late '30s B-westerns.

Rogers, with his low-key skills and pleasant singing voice, prospered, getting his first starring role in "Under Western Stars" in 1938. Soon he began his association with the avuncular, bewhiskered and comical George "Gabby" Hayes. In his few mainstream films, like "Dark Command," he hardly registers, but in the lively, informal world of the B-westerns, he found his milieu and the perfect outlet for his talents. In 1942 he starred in and earned the nickname "King of the Cowboys," beginning a run that lasted throughout the '40s and into the early '50s, when he was voted the No. 1 western star for nine consecutive years.

Always a shrewd businessman, he understood early on that TV would kill the B-westerns, and so he got into it as soon as possible, beginning a TV series that would last from 1952 until 1957.

As an actor, his prime virtue was his low-key likability. There was something open and uncomplicated in his face and he seemed unplagued by deeper states of anxiety. Nothing ever fazed him, nothing ever perturbed him. He was without doubt or hesitation. His sureness of character, his lack of rancor and pain, his lack of complex sexual or masculine edge made him the ideal small-screen star. He took to television without a crumb of trouble and quickly rose to prominence just when the new medium was taking over the American family. He assembled a superb cast of second-line comic players, as well as the wonderful animal sidekicks, like Bullet, a German shepherd, and Trigger, that golden horse. And there was always Pat Brady, struggling with his fickle jeep Nellybelle, good for a laugh.

With other theatricalized cowboys like Autry and Hopalong Cassidy and the Lone Ranger, he starred in hundreds of televised morality plays, usually sponsored by a cereal company or a chocolatey milk enhancer, and in less than hour led justice to triumph. As such, he became part of the collective unconscious of the baby boomer generation, a lodestone memory so intense that men in their fifties who make hundreds of thousands of dollars a year will this day feel just a little chill of mortality as they look down upon the city from behind the tinted glass of their 55th-story corner offices. If death can come to the King of the Cowboys, they'll think, it can come for me, too.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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