Explained historian Arthur Wertheim: "Will Rogers was America's court jester." Wertheim, director of development communications at UCLA, is co-editor of the soon-to-be-published "The Will Rogers Papers 1879-1904" (University of Oklahoma Press). "He was there to make fun of every President of his life, and they let him do it."
Up to his time, American humorists were largely urban ethnic comedians, Wertheim said.
"Rogers came along with values reflecting [those of] the common person of the heartland of America--individualism, integrity, neighborliness," Wertheim said. "He could make fun of the politicians and big businessmen and bring them down to size. At the same time he could poke fun at the foibles of the average American, and he did it with Western folk humor . . . and get to the heart of . . . a universal experience."
Indeed, to read his words is to marvel over gems of folksy acuity.
"A senator learns to swap his vote at the same age a calf learns which end of its mother is the dining room," he wrote.
And: "A Ford car and a marriage license are two of the cheapest things known, and both lead to an ambition for something better."
Biographer Bryan B. Sterling, who compiled and edited material for "Will Rogers' U.S.A.," said Rogers had an uncanny ability to probe the human psyche.
"He teaches without preaching, without moralizing and with perspicuity," Sterling said.
The Vienna-born Sterling's obsession with Rogers has resulted in nine books, exhaustively researched with his wife, Frances. He spent six months in Alaska hunting down witnesses and clues for "Will Rogers & Wiley Post: Death at Barrow" (M. Evans & Co. Inc., 1993). The book recounts in grim detail a series of missteps by the aviation pioneer Post, who piloted the plane that carried him and Rogers to their deaths.
Biographer Ben Yagoda, an assistant professor of English at the University of Delaware, said what is remarkable about Rogers' legacy is that he has not been given his rightful place in history as a molder of public opinion.
"Forty million people read his column every day, and he wasn't always being facetious. He always had a serious point to make that really shaped the way people thought," Yagoda said.
Rogers always favored a strong military, but he frequently opposed U.S. military intervention abroad, making him something of an isolationist, said Yagoda, author of "Will Rogers, a Biography" (Alfred Knopf, 1993). Rogers single-handedly turned American opinion against membership in the World Court, Yagoda believes.
But the world changed rapidly and Rogers was a man of his times.
"After he died in 1935, so many issues came up," Yagoda said. "How would Will Rogers have reacted? Would he have been [for] America First [a pre-World War II isolationist movement] like [aviator Charles] Lindbergh? That is a big issue. And whatever issues he spoke out about he would have been a big shaper of people's opinions."
Chodorov, the producer, said World II changed the world so rapidly and completely that Rogers came to be regarded in popular culture as a figure of ancient history. It has only been in recent years that his writings have been re-compiled, bringing him into sharper focus as one of the giants of the 20th Century.
Guessing what he would say about today's news will go on for many years. But time is growing short for those who would like to hear about Will Rogers from the people who actually knew him. Sterling said that since he began to research Rogers in the late 1950s, he has interviewed about 200 people who knew him well. Of those, he said, only about 20 are still alive.
Rogers' wife died in 1944, his daughter in 1990 and his elder son, Will Jr., in 1993. The last of his immediate family to survive is younger son Jim, 80, who lives in a Bakersfield retirement community.
Jim Rogers said he drives to the ranch about once a month to greet tourists and relive the old days.
"They ask, 'Was your dad always funny?' " he said, with a deadpan expression. "Yes, tremendously so. When you came home with a speeding ticket, he was a big ball of laughs."
Jim Rogers attests to his father's most remarkable characteristic: "If there was ever perpetual motion, it was in his head. I think those wheels went 24 hours a day."
"He was definitely a Type-A personality," historian Wertheim said.
He usually spent the day filming, or working all day on his ranch. He would find time to write his daily column for the New York Times, and typically went out in the evening to speak at a banquet and often would go for a bite or drop in on an old friend afterward.
In public, as audio recordings and movies show, he was ever the humorist, even the clown, Jim Rogers said. But out of the limelight, Rogers tended to be impatient and would at times withdraw to recharge his batteries, sometimes spending the day riding alone on the trails surrounding his house.
In the weeks before he left for Alaska, he kept up a busy schedule. He presided over the dedication of the new Los Angeles Times building and went to San Bernardino to perform at a fund-raising variety show, where a plaque on the building at 562 W. 4th St. commemorates his last stage appearance.
It was clear that he was looking forward to the trip for a well-deserved rest. But it was a trip that left only memories behind.
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Gone but Not Forgotten
"Remembering Will," a commemorative program marking the 60th anniversary of the deaths of Will Rogers and Wiley Post, will be held at 1:30 p.m. Aug. 15 at Will Rogers State Historic Park, 1501 Will Rogers State Park Road, Pacific Palisades.
For more information, call (310) 454-8212.