Buddy Rogers, the silent screen matinee idol and bandleader who spent half his life tending the lady and legend known as America's Sweetheart and the world's first real movie star, Mary Pickford, died Wednesday. He was 94.
Rogers died at his home in Rancho Mirage, said his godson, Keith Lawrence.
An accomplished actor in his own right, Rogers had been known for decades as Pickford's devoted consort and then widower, who could always be counted on for kind and witty words at gatherings celebrating the history of the silent era. Pickford, 11 years Rogers' senior, died in 1979, ending their 42-year marriage.
Rogers carried on their philanthropy and fund-raising work for the Motion Picture and Television Fund, which Pickford co-founded. He earned the academy's Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award in 1985 for his efforts to aid industry colleagues.
The silver-haired actor already had a historic connection to the Academy Awards. He starred in the first film to ever receive an Oscar as best motion picture, the 1927 "Wings," one of the most famous and enduring of all silent films.
Directed by William Wellman, "Wings" starred Rogers and Richard Arlen as two all-American fliers serving in the Army Air Corps during World War I who were both in love with "It Girl" Clara Bow. The film also introduced a lanky young actor named Gary Cooper.
Rogers, the last survivor of the "Wings" cast, had to learn to fly in the days of minimal special effects. His teacher was Hoyt Vandenberg, who became a four-star general during World War II and has an Air Force base in California named for him.
Tall, slim and handsome, Rogers graciously attended showings of Pickford's films and spoke to her fans, who outnumbered his own. In 1996, he was the honored guest at a special screening of the 1927 movie "My Best Girl," co-starring Pickford and Rogers at Silent Movie on Fairfax Avenue. The event, which also featured a documentary on Rogers titled "Anytime's the Time to Fall in Love," benefited the Cinema Glamour Shop, originated by Pickford in 1930.
Reviewing the film then, The Times' Kevin Thomas called the story of a shopgirl falling in love with the boss' son one of Pickford's best films and said, "The versatile Rogers is arguably Pickford's best leading man." The attending Rogers, he observed, remained "durably handsome, unpretentious and vigorous at 91."
Charles "Buddy" Rogers was born in Olathe, Kan., the son of a weekly newspaper publisher who became a judge. He delivered his father's Olathe Mirror and the Kansas City Star as a youth and attended the University of Kansas, planning to be a bandleader.
"I had a raccoon coat, a Model T Ford, two or three girls and I was in a fraternity. Heaven!" Rogers told former Times entertainment editor Charles Champlin in 1987. The busy musician also played trumpet, trombone, drums, piano, accordion and all the reed instruments in campus dance bands.
Although Rogers had no early interest in acting, his father persuaded him to enter a contest by Paramount Pictures seeking 10 young men and 10 young women to train as actors. Rogers reluctantly mailed a few pictures to please his father, and a three-member crew showed up in Lawrence, Kan., to give the student a test.
" 'Now laugh, now cry, now turn around,' that's what I remember about the test," the charming raconteur recalled throughout his Hollywood life.
He told The Times in 1995 that he went to Astoria, N.Y. Rogers said: "We studied how to fall down without hurting ourselves and how to hold a kiss for three minutes without laughing. That's what I mostly remember."
After bit parts in "So's Your Old Man" with W.C. Fields and "Fascinating Youth," both filmed in New York, Rogers was cast as Ronald Colman's brother in "Beau Geste," the romantic French Foreign Legion adventure. Fitted for his uniform in New York, Rogers took the train to Hollywood, stopping in his hometown to show off his foreign military costume.
By the time he reached Los Angeles, however, he had been rejected—then was promptly cast and rejected for "Old Ironsides."
"I just wanted to say the heck with it and go back to Kansas," he said years later. "Then I had lunch with Billy Wellman and he put me in 'Wings' and there went Kansas."
That single film, in which Rogers proved a capable actor as well as a pretty face, assured him a place in motion picture history. He went on to make about 60 films, but none was as memorable as the initial Oscar winner.
The picture also introduced him to Pickford, who became the love and focus of the rest of his life. She saw him in "Wings" and asked to screen test him for her next film, "My Best Girl."
"Three of us tested, but I got the part," he said seven decades later. "I ran it again the other day and it still plays well."
Among Rogers' other films were "Varsity," "River of Romance," "Paramount on Parade," "The Road to Reno," "Old Man Rhythm," "Sing for Your Supper," and in 1957 "The Parson and the Outlaw," which he produced.
Unlike many of his colleagues, Rogers bridged the chasm from silents to talkies, but never forgot the panic that the new technique struck in Hollywood.
"We were all being tested, and four of us—Coop, Dick Arlen, Jack Oakie and I—made a solemn vow that if any one of us failed, the others would each give 10% of their salaries to help him out," he said in 1987. "Luckily we didn't have to. We all made it."
Rogers also realized his long-desired career as a bandleader, once earning a dinner invitation in Chicago from an appreciative fan named Al Capone.
But Pickford--who divorced Douglas Fairbanks in 1936 and married Rogers the next year—soon threatened to divorce him if he didn't give up the band and stay home.
"I couldn't blame her. I was away so much. But she really took my band away from me," Rogers recalled with his usual wry grin.
He seemed to enjoy entertaining with Pickford at her palatial Pickfair, raising two children they adopted in the 1940s and engaging in philanthropic work for the motion picture industry. As Pickford grew more frail and reclusive, Rogers proved the perfect caretaker for her and her silent screen legacy.
With Pickford's prior agreement, Rogers sold Pickfair after her death and built a smaller house on part of the property. In 1981, Rogers married Palm Springs real estate agent Beverly Ricono, who survives him.