“I never met a man I didn’t like” is probably a shortened version of what he wrote, and while the actual source is unclear, the meaning of this epigram is not. It sums up what people saw in Will Rogers: honesty, plain-spokenness, and decency.
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Born in the Cherokee Nation in the Indian Territory (now Oklahoma) in 1879, the youngest of eight children, William Penn Adair Rogers’s family was established enough that the county they lived in was named Rogers County after his father.
He dropped out of school after the tenth grade and worked on the family ranch until 1901, when he and a friend decided to become gauchos on a ranch in Argentina. It didn’t work out, so he moved to South Africa where he caught on with “Texas Jack’s Wild West Circus,” doing trick roping. Within a year he had moved to Australia and was appearing with Wirth Brothers Circus, adding pony riding to his trick roping act.
Rogers typically performed on stage with a partner and his horse. The story goes that, when he muffed a trick, he’d react to it humorously with a slight comment that drew laughs from the audience.
The vaudeville circuit was grueling, as it meant constant travel. At some point he met Betty Blake of Rogers, Arkansas and in 1906 he asked her to marry him. She said no, perhaps not being enthusiastic about life on the road. By 1908, however, she had relented, and they were married in her hometown of Rogers. She accompanied him for several years, but when the first of their four children arrived, she remained at their ranch in Claremore, Oklahoma.
Will’s vaudeville time brought him to the notice of William Hammerstein, who signed him and his horse in for $250 a week to appear at the Victoria Roof — literally a rooftop theater at New York’s Seventh Avenue and 42nd Street.
In 1915 he began appearing in Florenz Ziegfeld’s “Midnight Frolic,” which was held on another rooftop theater, this one the New Amsterdam theater, where Ziegfeld’s “Follies” were performed below. By 1918 he had become Ziegfeld’s (and New York’s) biggest star.
Will began lacing his act with commentary and deft political jabs at any politician in sight. Once, when President Woodrow Wilson was in the audience, his ad-lib roast had not only the audience but Wilson himself roaring.
Samuel Goldwyn, the producer and president of Goldwyn Pictures Corporation, convinced Rogers to star in a silent film called Laughing Bill Hyde in 1918.
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He worked mornings on the film, then returned to the theater for afternoon and evening performances for Ziegfeld.
When Goldwyn asked Will to move to Hollywood to make more pictures, Will agreed but stayed with Ziegfeld for the duration of the New York run of the “Follies” plus the annual tour, which concluded on May 31, 1919. Ziegfeld, who had only a handshake agreement with Will, threw a going-away party and presented Will with a gold watch, engraved “To Will Rogers, in appreciation of a great fellow, whose word is his bond.”