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Cowboy king Roy Rogers dies at 86

Associated Press Published: July 6, 1998 12:00 AM

His death at his home in Victorville was announced in a statement by his spokeswoman, Jane Hansen.

Rogers was a Depression-era truck driver, peach picker and country singer who in 1937 landed a $75 a week job as singing cowboy at Hollywood's Republic Studio.

In 87 modest-budget films, armed with a guitar, six-shooters and charm, he rose in salary and popularity to "King of the Cowboys." For 12 years _ 1943 to 1954 _ he was No. 1 Western star at the box office in a magazine poll of theater operators.

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Loaded with fights, always fair, and chases that corralled the bad guys, films with names like "Under Western Stars" and "Song of Arizona" were especially popular in small towns. His television series, which ran from 1951 to 1957, and thereafter in reruns, had similar appeal.

Rogers preferred to play down violence, shooting the gun out of the villain's hand, rather than hurting the villain himself. He criticized other, more violent Westerns.

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"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 many films and in the television series, he co-starred with Dale Evans, whom he married in 1947. Featured were his famous palomino horse, Trigger, and his dog, Bullet. His sidekick in films was bewhiskered Gabby Hayes, in television Pat Brady.

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. His investments included real estate, a chain of restaurants bearing his name, and a TV production company.

His success as both performer and businessman mirrored that of his great cowboy rival, Gene Autry. The two both said they were good friends.

In June 1967, he and Miss Evans opened an 18,000-square-foot museum near their home in Apple Valley, some 90 miles east of Los Angeles. On display are a variety of Rogers memorabilia _ including Trigger, stuffed and mounted in a rearing posture after his death in 1965.

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

Rogers kept up his musical career in recent years, releasing an album of old and new songs, "Tribute," in 1991. The album featured country superstar Clint Black as a guest singer on one cut, "Hold On Partner."

The song garnered Rogers and Black a 1992 Country Music Association award nomination in the category, "vocal event of the year," which covers pairings of singers best known for solo work.

"I respect him immensely," Black said after working with Rogers. "He's just a great human being, very devoted to his family, and he has great appreciation and respect for his fans."

Rogers was born Leonard Slye on Nov. 5, 1911, in Cincinnati, of part-Indian ancestry. The family moved to California in 1930.

He was getting some singing work on radio when "I heard a rumor they were testing for singing cowboys out at Republic," he once said. "I guess you could say it was fate." He recalled that the only way he was able to get in the studio was by waiting until the workers began returning from lunch and sneaking in with them.

Wrote Variety of one of his early pictures, 1938's "Under Western Stars": "In Roy Rogers producers present a cowboy who looks like a wrangler, is a looker, an actor and a singer. Pushed into a quick starring spot after only a couple of appearances as supporter, he lives up to every expectation and then some."

Rogers replaced Autry as Republic Studios' top cowboy when Autry took time out to serve as a flier in the Army Air Corps during World War II.

He was teamed with Miss Evans, a radio singer and sometime actress, in "Cowboy and the Senorita," 1944.

They married in 1947, 14 months after his first wife, Arlene, died. Miss Evans, born Frances Octavia Smith in Uvalde, Texas, became known as "Queen of the Cowgirls."

After they left Republic, Rogers got locked in a legal dispute with the studio's longtime chief, Herbert Yates, over whether actors had the right to share in the profits when their films were sold to television. Rogers won a lower court decision but lost in the U.S. Supreme Court.

He later blamed the battle for drying up movie offers after 1953. But his and Miss Evans' television show kept them in the spotlight.

The couple became well known for their Christian beliefs and spoke at many religious gatherings, including some of evangelist Billy Graham's. She wrote several inspirational books.

But family tragedy tested their faith more than once. They had nine children _ two by Roy's previous marriage, one by Dale's, one of their own, four by adoption and one by foster parenthood.

Rogers' and Evans' daughter Robin, who was retarded, died of complications of the mumps shortly before her second birthday in 1952. Dale wrote her first book, "Angel Unaware," about Robin.

Korean-born Debbie, one of the couple's adopted children, was killed with seven others in a 1964 church bus crash, and the following year, their adopted son John choked to death while serving in the Army in Germany.

"In the Bible, it doesn't say you're going to get by without having troubles," Rogers once said. "I'm not a fanatic about religion. I think it's a practical way of life."

"People say, 'How can you be in the motion picture business and be a Christian?"' he once said. "I say, 'Why not?' If the good Lord hadn't wanted me in the picture business, I wouldn't be in it."

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