When Roy Rogers began his movie career in the 1930s, the cowboy was achieving new fame on the silver screen—and he became one of the most famous of them all.
When Roy Rogers (1911 – 1998) began his career as a singer and actor in the 1930s, the golden era of the real-life cowboy was coming to an end. But on stage and screen, the cowboy was achieving new fame—and Roy Rogers became one of the most famous of them all.
Though Rogers was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, he discovered the Wild West when he moved to California in his teens. He also discovered his calling there, while working as a fruit picker during the Great Depression and living in a campsite along with other temporary workers. Times were hard and the work was cruel, but Rogers discovered that everyone’s spirits were raised when he played his guitar and sang in the evening as everyone sat around the campfire. He was inspired by the response and decided to pursue his fortune in music.
It’s not a common career trajectory—from migrant fruit-picking to hit single in just four years—but it happened to Rogers. The band he became a part of, the Sons of the Pioneers, captured the attention of a public that was just beginning to immortalize the mythical cowboy in music and movies. Their early song, “Tumbling Tumbleweeds,” hit it big—and helped Rogers break into the movie biz.
In short order, Roy Rogers became a movie star. He was one of the great singing cowboys, those affable gentlemen of the silver screen who were as likely to burst into song while on horseback as they were to rope a calf or sling a gun. Along with Gene Autry, Tex Ritter, John Wayne (who, with dubbed vocals, wasn’t a true singing cowboy; but John Wayne never let a little thing like singing ability get in the way of a good cowboy movie), and his own equally famous spouse Dale Evans, Roy Rogers helped create a western archetype that survives today.
Rogers and Evans turned their big-screen success into a radio and TV phenomenon with the long-running favorite “The Roy Rogers Show.” The series featured cowboys and cowgirls in Wild West scenarios—but often with the surprising additions of contemporary touches like cars and telephones.
All these years later, the Western is still popular, with recent films like “Django Unchained” and TV shows like “Deadwood” drawing audiences. We can thank Rogers and his contemporaries for jump-starting the genre.