Roy Rogers, born Leonard Franklin Slye (November 5, 1911 – July 6, 1998), was an American singer and cowboy actor, one of the most heavily marketed and merchandised stars of his era, as well as being the namesake of the Roy Rogers Restaurants franchised chain. He and his wife Dale Evans, his golden palomino, Trigger, and his German Shepherd dog, Bullet, were featured in more than 100 movies and The Roy Rogers Show.
The show ran on radio for nine years before moving to television from 1951 through 1957. His productions usually featured a sidekick, often either Pat Brady (who drove a Jeep called “Nellybelle”), Andy Devine, or the crotchety George “Gabby” Hayes. Rogers’s nickname was “King of the Cowboys” and Evans’s nickname was “Queen of the West”.
Slye was born to Mattie (Womack) Slye and Andrew (“Andy”) Slye in Cincinnati, Ohio. The family lived in a tenement building on 2nd Street (Riverfront Stadium was constructed at this location in 1970 and Slye would later joke that he had been born at second base). Dissatisfied with his job and city life, Andy and his brother Will built a 12-by-50-foot houseboat from salvage lumber, and in July 1912 the Slye family traveled up the Ohio River towards Portsmouth, Ohio. Desiring a more stable existence in Portsmouth, they purchased land on which to build a house, but the Great Flood of 1913 allowed them to move the houseboat to their property and continue living in it on dry land.
In 1919 the Slyes purchased a farm in Duck Run, located near Lucasville, Ohio about 12 miles north of Portsmouth, and built a six-room house. Andy Slye soon realized that the farm alone would provide insufficient income for his family, so he took a job at a Portsmouth shoe factory, living in Portsmouth during the week and returning home on weekends bearing gifts following paydays. A notable gift was a horse on which young Len Slye learned the basics of horsemanship.
After completing the eighth grade, Len attended high school in McDermott, Ohio. When he was 17, his family returned to Cincinnati, where his father began work at another shoe factory. He soon realized that his family needed his financial help, so he quit school and joined his father at the shoe factory. He tried to attend night school, but after being ridiculed for falling asleep in class, he quit school and never returned.
By 1929, when Len’s older sister Mary and her husband had moved to Lawndale, California, he and his father had started feeling imprisoned by their factory jobs. When the family packed their 1923 Dodge to visit Mary, they stayed for four months before returning to Ohio. Almost immediately afterward Len had the opportunity to travel to California with Mary’s father-in-law, and the rest of the family followed in the spring of 1930.
The Slyes rented a small house near Mary, and Len and Andy immediately found employment as truck drivers for a highway-construction project. But one morning they reported to work to discover that their employer had gone bankrupt. The economic hardship of the Great Depression had followed them west, and they soon found themselves among the economic refugees traveling from job to job picking fruit and living in worker campsites (Len would later read John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath and marvel at its accuracy). One day, Andy was told of a shoe factory hiring in Los Angeles and asked Len to apply there for work with him. But having seen the joy that his guitar and singing had given the destitute around the campfires, Len hesitantly told his father that he wanted to pursue a music career. With his father’s blessing, he and his cousin Stanley Slye sought musical employment in Los Angeles as The Slye Brothers.
In 1932 a palomino colt foaled in California was named “Golden Cloud”; when Len acquired him, he renamed him “Trigger”. Len then went on tour with the “O-Bar-O Cowboys” and in June 1933 met Grace Arline Wilkins at a Roswell, New Mexico radio station. She traded Len a lemon pie for his singing “Swiss Yodel” over the air. They were married in Roswell, New Mexico on June 11, 1936 after having corresponded since their first meeting. In 1941, the couple adopted a girl, Cheryl Darlene. Two years later, Arline bore daughter Linda Lou. She bore Roy Jr. (“Dusty”) in 1946, but died of complications from the birth a few days later, on November 3.
Roy Rogers had met Dale Evans in 1944 when they were cast in a film together. They fell in love soon after Arline’s death and Rogers proposed to her during a rodeo at Chicago Stadium. They married on New Year’s Eve in 1947 at the Flying L Ranch in Davis, Oklahoma, where they had filmed Home in Oklahoma a few months earlier. They stayed married until Rogers’s death in 1998.
Slye moved to California to become a singer. After four years of little success, he formed the Sons of the Pioneers with Bob Nolan and Tim Spencer, a Western cowboy music group, in 1934. The group hit it big with songs like “Cool Water” and “Tumbling Tumbleweeds”. From his first film appearance in 1935, he worked steadily in western films, including a large supporting role as a singing cowboy while still billed as “Leonard Slye” in a Gene Autry movie.
In 1938, when Autry temporarily walked out on his movie contract, Slye was immediately rechristened “Roy Rogers”. Slye’s stage name was suggested by Republic Picture’s staff after Will Rogers and the shortening of Leroy. and assigned the lead in Under Western Stars. Roy Rogers became a matinee idol and American legend. A competitor for Gene Autry as the nation’s favorite singing cowboy was suddenly born. In addition to his own movies, Rogers played a supporting role in the John Wayne classic Dark Command (1940). Rogers became a major box office attraction.
In the Motion Picture Herald Top Ten Money-Making Western Stars poll, Rogers was listed for 15 consecutive years from 1939 to 1954, holding first place from 1943 to 1954. He appeared in the similar Box Office poll from 1938 to 1955, holding first place from 1943 to 1952. (In the final three years of that poll he was second only to Randolph Scott.) Although these two polls are really an indication only of the popularity of series stars, Rogers also appeared in the Top Ten Money Makers Poll of all films in 1945 and 1946.
Roy Rogers was an idol for many children through his films and television shows. Most of his postwar films were in Trucolor during an era when almost all other B westerns were black-and-white. Some of his movies would segue into animal adventures, in which Rogers’s horse Trigger would go off on his own for a while, with the camera following him.
With money from not only Rogers’ films but his own public appearances going to Republic Pictures, Rogers brought a clause into a 1940 contract with the studio where he would have the right to his likeness, voice and name for merchandising. There were Roy Rogers action figures, cowboy adventure novels, and playsets, as well as a comic strip, a long-lived Dell Comics comic book series (Roy Rogers Comics) written by Gaylord Du Bois, and a variety of marketing successes.
Roy Rogers was second only to Walt Disney in the amount of items featuring his name. The Sons of the Pioneers continued their popularity, and they have never stopped performing from the time Rogers started the group, replacing members as they retired or passed away (all original members are deceased). Although Rogers was no longer an active member, they often appeared as Rogers’ backup group in films, radio, and television, and Rogers would occasionally appear with them in performances up until his death. In August 1950, Evans and Rogers had a daughter, Robin Elizabeth, who had Down Syndrome and died of complications with mumps shortly before her second birthday. Evans wrote about losing their daughter in her book Angel Unaware.
Rogers and Evans were also well known as advocates for adoption and as founders and operators of children’s charities. They adopted several children. Both were outspoken Christians. In Apple Valley, California, where they made their home, numerous streets and highways as well as civic buildings have been named after them in recognition of their efforts on behalf of homeless and handicapped children. Rogers was an active Freemason and a Shriner, and was noted for his support of their charities.
Rogers and Evans’s famous theme song, “Happy Trails”, was written by Evans; they sang it as a duet to sign off their television show. In the fall of 1962, the couple co-hosted a comedy-western-variety program, The Roy Rogers and Dale Evans Show, aired on ABC. It was cancelled after three months, losing in the ratings to The Jackie Gleason Show on CBS. He also made numerous cameo or guest appearances on other popular television shows, starring as himself or other cowboy-type characters, such as in an episode of Wonder Woman called “The Bushwackers”. Rogers also owned a Hollywood production company which handled his own series. It also filmed other undertakings, including the 1955–1956 CBS western series Brave Eagle starring Keith Larsen as a young peaceful Cheyenne chief, Kim Winona as Morning Star, his romantic interest, and the Hopi Indian Anthony Numkena as Keena, Brave Eagle’s foster son.
In 1968, Roy Rogers licensed his name to the Marriott corporation, which converted its Hot Shoppes locations to Roy Rogers Restaurants, with which Rogers otherwise had no involvement.
Rogers owned a Thoroughbred racehorse named Triggairo, who won 13 career races including the 1975 El Encino Stakes at Santa Anita Park.
When Roy Rogers died of congestive heart failure on July 6, 1998, he was residing in Apple Valley, California. He was buried at Sunset Hills Memorial Park in Apple Valley, as was his wife, Dale Evans, three years later.
For his contribution to the motion picture industry, Rogers has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 1752 Vine Street, a second star at 1733 Vine Street for his contribution to radio, and a third star at 1620 Vine Street for his contribution to the television industry. Rogers and Evans were inducted into the Western Performers Hall of Fame at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, in 1976 and Rogers was inducted again as a member of the Sons of the Pioneers in 1995. Rogers was also twice elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame, first as a member of The Sons of the Pioneers in 1980 and as a soloist in 1988. To this day, he remains the only person elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame twice. In 2001, a Golden Palm Star on the Palm Springs, California, Walk of Stars was dedicated to him and Dale Evans.
Roy Rogers was mentioned in the Lyle Lovett single “If I Had A Boat”, Elton John’s 1973 album “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” contained the escapist ballad “Roy Rogers”, and Toby Keith’s “Should’ve Been A Cowboy”.
In the 1988 film Die Hard, the Bruce Willis character John McClane used the pseudonym of “Roy”, saying “I was always kinda partial to Roy Rogers actually”.
American Dad character Roger uses “Roy Rogers” as a pseudonym in the episode “Roy Rogers McFreely”.
Roy Rogers and Dale Evans are mentioned in the song “Let’s Ride Into The Sunset Together” performed by the Lost Weekend Western Swing Band. This song appears in the video game Fallout: New Vegas.
Roy Rogers himself makes an appearance in the music video for the song “Heroes and Friends” by Randy Travis.
Daughter Cheryl Rogers Barnett has written with Frank Thompson; Cowboy Princess: Life with My Parents, Roy Rogers and Dale Evans