The "King of Cowboys" dies at 86

By Franz Lidz
Updated July 17, 1998 at 04:00 AM EDT
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So many films have been made about the Real West that a certified Easterner can fairly wonder whether there really was a Real West, what it was, or even where it was. Roy Rogers, the “King of the Cowboys,” found the Real West in the terrain of the heart and the imagination. Before galloping into the sunset July 6 at age 86—the cause was heart failure—the sagebrush hero appeared in 91 features, in a popular TV show, and on dozens of recordings.

Born, perhaps befittingly, in Cincinnati, Rogers could warble a tune as felicitously as an old cowhand could drop a rope around a mustang’s neck. His big break as a cinematic crooner came in 1937. While hanging around a Glendale, Calif., tailor shop waiting to get his Stetson cleaned, Rogers heard Republic Pictures was looking for singing cowboys. He sneaked into the studio and landed the lead in Under Western Skies. Rogers’ B Westerns all followed the same formula: a little singin’, a little shootin’, and a little gal who needed savin’.

Rogers teamed with Dale Evans in 1944’s The Cowboy and the Señorita. They married three years later. The duo closed every episode of their NBC series, The Roy Rogers Show (1951-57), by singing “Happy Trails to You” (written by Evans). It’s the most enduring image of the cheerily earnest couple, yet an alien one to a generation more familiar with Rogers’ eponymous fast-food chain.

Evans’ greatest rival for Rogers’ affections was his palomino Trigger. Billed as “the smartest horse in the movies,” Trigger was far brainier than his master’s sidekick, Gabby Hayes. Trigger could count to five, three higher than Hayes, who could only cook. When the trusty steed died in 1965, Rogers had him mounted—alongside his dog Bullet and Evans’ mare Buttermilk—and put on display at the museum near his ranch in Victorville, Calif. “When my time comes,” Rogers once said, “just skin me and put me right up there on Trigger.” The museum has announced no plans to put him on exhibit.

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