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Roy Rogers, 'King of the Cowboys,' dead at 86

Web posted on: Monday, July 06, 1998 11:19:56 AM

VICTORVILLE, California (CNN) -- Roy Rogers, the King of the Cowboys who appeared in more than 100 films and rode atop his trusty horse named Trigger in most of them, singing his theme song "Happy Trails," died Monday morning at the age of 86.

The singing television and movie star passed away at his Apple Valley home after suffering from congestive heart failure, a statement from his publicist said. Funeral services are being planned.

Following news of his death, the entertainment world tried to put in perspective what Rogers stood for in his films and TV shows, and in life.

"He just seemed to be the ultimate good guy," film historian Leonard Maltin told CNN. "He was a good looking man, a good singer. There was just something easy-going and likeable about him."

CNN's Sherri Sylvester takes a look back at Rogers' life
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Go West, young man

Born Leonard Slye on November 5, 1911, in Ohio, Rogers worked on his family's farm until 1929. With the Great Depression sweeping the country, Rogers packed up a guitar that he bought for $20 and headed west for Hollywood.

"You couldn't beg, borrow, or steal a job in 1931, 1932," Rogers once said. "It was really tough."

But Rogers survived and thrived. He worked as a truck driver, peach picker and country singer. Forming a band called "Sons of the Pioneers," Rogers enjoyed moderate success, appearing on Los Angeles radio. His big break came in 1937 when he snuck onto the lot of Republic Pictures and landed a $75-a-week contract.

"The funny part of it is, I say I must be where God wants me or I wouldn't be here," he said. "I just got in the door and a hand fell over my shoulder."

roy rogers on horse
Rogers rode Trigger in all his films and on his television show  

Roy and Dale

Rogers appeared in his first film, "Way Up Thar," in 1935. By the late '30s, he had changed his name to Rogers, was playing himself in each movie -- a singing cowboy in a white hat -- and would soon earn the nickname "King of the Cowboys," a title that, in the eyes of his fans, placed him above his friend and Hollywood cowboy rival Gene Autry.

It was while making the 1944 film "The Cowboy and the Senorita" that Rogers met Dale Evans. They married three years later, 14 months after his first wife, Arlene, died. Evans became the reluctant queen to his cowboy empire.

Through the 1940s and into the 1950s, Rogers career rode the crest of an incredible wave. For 12 straight years he was the No. 1 Western star at the box office in a magazine poll of theater operators. His television series, which ran from 1951 to 1957, and thereafter in reruns, had similar appeal.

rogers and  evans
Rogers with his wife, Dale Evans, who became known as the "Queen of the Cowboys"  

The Roy Rogers theme

In films and on TV, Roy Rogers' style of entertainment followed his theme song, "Happy Trails." He played the good guy who would shoot the gun out of the villain's hand, rather than shooting and wounding the villain.

"When I was a boy, our parents taught us that hitting below the belt was a cowardly thing," he once said. "I don't believe this kind of thing is 'entertainment' no matter how you look at it."

In his films, Rogers was often accompanied by his trusty sidekick, bewhiskered George "Gabby" Hayes, and his dog Bullet. Evans often played the female lead.

young rogers
Rogers bought his first guitar for $20, left his parents' farm in Ohio and headed west  

Trigger happy

And then there was Rogers' horse, Trigger, who reached heights of popularity paralleling that of his famous rider. Billed as "the smartest horse in the movies," Trigger often received billing over Evans.

"Cowboys weren't allowed to kiss girls in pictures, so one time I gave Dale a little peck on the forehead and we got a ton of letters to leave that mushy stuff out," Rogers recalled. "So I had to kiss Trigger instead."

Trigger appeared in all the films and TV shows in which Rogers starred. When the horse died in 1965, at age 33, he was stuffed and remained a fixture at Roy and Dale's museum in Apple Valley.

"So many people loved him through the years, that I just didn't have the heart to put him in the ground," Rogers said.

At first, Evans tried to talk Rogers out of it. "I told him, 'OK, when you die I'm going to stuff you and put you on him," she said. Evans later had a change of heart and even had her own horse, Buttermilk, put on display.

The golden years

The couple spent their later years greeting fans at the museum and enjoying life with their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. In 1993 they were honored for their humanitarian efforts.

Rogers' rodeo grossed $425,000 on a tour of state fairs, and he estimated it cost $30,000 in 1960 just to answer his fan mail.

"I'm an introvert at heart," Rogers once said. "And show business -- even though I've loved it so much -- has always been hard for me."

It made him a millionaire, though. With his wholesome image and shrewd business sense, Rogers made a fortune, becoming second only to Walt Disney in souvenir sales and licensing -- everything from cap pistols to lunch boxes. Nearly 600 restaurants bear his name and have paid him a percentage of the profits. Rogers' estate was once valued at over $100 million.

Rogers is survived by Evans; sons Roy Rogers Jr. and Tom Fox; daughters Cheryl Barnett, Linda Lou Johnson and Dodie Sailors; 15 grandchildren and 33 great-grandchildren.

Correspondent Sherri Sylvester and Reuters contributed to this report.

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