CONVERSATION WITH WILL ROGERS JR.
About His Famous Father, Laughter and Politics
(During television broadcasts whenever you see elected officials or reporters standing in Washington’s Capitol Building backdropped by a familiar statue of a man with his hands in his pockets, that statue is of the legendary actor and humorist Will Rogers, who died in a plane crash in 1935 at the age of 55. Erected four years later to represent his home state of Oklahoma, it stands in the building’s National Statuary Hall — tradition has it that it is good luck to rub the figure’s shoes while passing. Indeed he remains a ubiquitous presence, his name attached, among other things, to schools, hospitals, highways and awards in his honor. His sharp social commentary still applies and is quoted extensively. In 1978, I profiled Will Rogers Jr., a journalist and former Congressman who had tried his own hand at acting, most notably playing Will Sr. in a 1952 biopic [others who have portrayed Will Sr. include James Whitmore and Keith Carradine]. He was greatly influenced by his father, and his childhood recollections provided a rare and revealing glimpse into the elder Rogers’ mindset. Sadly, in 1993 at the age of 81, in ill health and depressed, Will Rogers Jr. took his own life.)
By Greg Joseph
It took a couple of world wars and about 35 years of living to convince Will Rogers Jr. that his father wasn’t “some kind of cornball who was just talking about Coolidge.”
By that time, Rogers Jr., who had cast himself as “the family intellectual,” had picked up a degree in philosophy from Stanford University, worked as a newspaper correspondent covering the Spanish Civil War, served as a Congressman for two years, and had been wounded while fighting in the Battle of the Ruhr in World War II. It took several months of treatment in English and French hospitals for his war injuries to heal.
“Long about that time, “ mused the junior Rogers, now just two months short of 67 years old, “it dawned on me that dad was talking about all wars, all men, not just Silent Cal or Hoover or Roosevelt and whatever was going on at the moment.
“It never really struck me that what he was writing and saying then would hold any pertinence now. But it does. All you’ve got to do is read his old columns — heck, they’re still being run in lotsa newspapers — to see that.”
Here on part of a cross-country tour to promote a cereal for which he does television commercials, Rogers Jr. was breathing proof that whatever doubts he had about being compared to his humorist father had faded like yesterday’s film stars.
And here he was in a denim, Western-style leisure suit, red shirt right off the range and some rounded-at-the-heels cowboy boots.
The only things missing were his dad’s famous lariat and a wad of chewing gum to punctuate his wisecracks, another of his father’s favorite mannerisms
But then, young Will, by now broader of girth and ruddier of complexion, is more Will Rogers than Will Rogers Jr. The chin on the chest, the face-filling smile, the tumbling gray forelock scored by the crinkling crow’s feet — he has them all.
Where once he fidgeted in on-again, off-again negotiations to portray his father in “The Story of Will Rogers” in 1952 (he spent six months at the Warner Bros. studios before shooting to “climatize” himself), he is comfortable in the role this time around.
He explained his antipathy for acting in the patented high, crackling Rogers voice, the one that somehow eluded him when he tried to imitate his father on a radio series in the early 1950s.
“I’m what they call an actor with two distinct ranges,” he said, mulling the syllable like a tough chaw of tobacco. “Yeah — I can take my hat off in a scene, or if the director prefers, I can put it back on.”
Not that he didn’t feel at ease with people all along.
“My dad always made sure we had tumbling, speech, theater, a little of this, a little of that,” he said. “But I’ll tell you, the best way I can answer why I’m not an actor is to tell a story I was telling at a party for David Butler, one of my father’s directors, the other day.
“Back in the days of Shirley Temple and the stage mothers, some gal came to the door right at lunchtime with her little girl and wanted my dad to see the kid dance.
“Pretty soon, my dad came back to the table, looked at us and said, ‘Thank God none of you kids got any talent.’ We were okay, we just weren’t theatrical.”
He said his father, who perished in a plane crash 43 years ago this week, never let any type of animosity seep into his humor.
“The only rule he ever followed,” said his son, “was that if a guy was down, leave him alone. But if someone’s called brilliant, he’s fair game, go get ‘em.”
One of Will Sr.’s secrets was that he was close personal friends with the very politicians he lampooned.
“It was that way with Roosevelt and Hoover in their campaign,” Will Jr. said. “He knew ’em both, respected ’em. But when one said I’ll put a car in your garage and the other said I’ll make grass grow in the streets, he just reared back and said, ‘You’re both honorable gentlemen, I respect you. But why don’t you spend your time doin’ somethin’ worthwhile, like fishin’.”
He said his father, who got his big break in the Ziegfeld Follies, would have a tough time making the same impact on folks today.
“He had this little column, no bigger’ that,” he said, holding his fingers several inches apart. “It was the most widely read column of the day. Dad never sweat blood over his typewriter, it just came to him.
“He didn’t use writers. But if he hit on a good line, if he said something good at a party, for example, you could pretty much count on seein’ it in the paper.
“But today, people don’t like to read, They’d rather watch TV. Hell, I’m not sure anybody reads, anymore. But my dad’s stuff would still be good, I’m sure of it.”
Will Jr., who still considers himself more journalist than anything else, was a writer of a different ilk.
“I’ve climbed down a bit from my radical days,” he said of his tenure as owner and publisher of the Beverly Hills Citizen newspaper, which he sold in 1952 after 18 years at the helm.
“That’s the time when I had my name on the door as Bill Rogers, not Will Jr.,” he recalled. “It wasn’t because I was wanting to go out on my own, not be associated with my father, or anything like that.
“I didn’t want my dad’s name to be associated with some of my editorials, which tended to go after them a bit. I was really hot for the war after Pearl Harbor.”
He became interested in journalism on his high school newspaper, and that affection endured into college, where he worked on both campus and off-campus papers.
It was there, at Stanford, that he met his wife, Collier, who was working as women’s editor of the school paper. The couple now resides in Tubac, Arizona, where they moved because of her health, although Will Jr. still maintains a real estate business in Beverly Hills.
They have two children — Clem Adair, a Navajo boy whom they adopted at age 9 in 1948, and Carl Connell, born to them 26 years ago.
Rogers and his wife harbor a special place in their hearts for the Native American cause — he is part Cherokee and she is the daughter of a one-time government Indian agent. Their adopted son was born on a Navajo reservation in Arizona.
In 1967, Rogers was appointed special assistant to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs by then-Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall.
Moving to Washington, D.C., Rogers specialized in Indian education, spending most of his time out on the reservations. He left this post two years later, although he remains as a part-time consultant to the bureau.
He’s still active in Indian affairs as a lecturer and a member (since 1946) of the National Congress of American Indians.
He spoke of militancy and political activism across the social spectrum, observing that there had been times “of sudden, violent rage that somehow had to happen then and did.”
Then he paused and used the famous Rogers smile to cut short the serious moment.
“Hell, who know why these things happen,” he asked, mostly of himself. “Like my dad was always sayin’ with his humor, and I later came to realize — nobody, nothin,’ ever really changes.”