He starred in the first Hollywood film to earn an Academy Award for Best Picture, but Charles "Buddy" Rogers's most cherished role was as Mr. Mary Pickford. Scouted by Paramount in 1925, the surpassingly handsome university undergrad was introduced to moviegoers in comedies starring W. C. Fields and Clara Bow. Paramount brought him west in 1927, but prominent parts failed to materialize. Rogers was on the verge of quitting when director William Wellman cast him as a World War I fighter pilot in "Wings" (1927), whose innovation and realism were rewarded with the first Best Picture Oscar. Rogers found offscreen love in the arms of his "My Best Girl" (1927) co-star Mary Pickford, but he had to wait a decade for Pickford to divorce Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. In the interim, he led a dance band, debuted on Broadway, worked in England, and developed a cinematic reputation as America's Boyfriend, a distinction that netted him 20,000 fan letters a month. After his 1937 marriage to Pickford, Rogers withdrew from the limelight to produce films, to serve his country in World War II, and to entertain American troops during the Korean War. Rogers and Pickford remained one of Hollywood's longest-married couples, a union that lasted until her death in 1979. Devoted to philanthropic pursuits and preserving Pickford's legacy, Rogers enjoyed the quintessential Palm Springs retirement until his own passing in 1999 marked the final chapter of an American success story that could have been written only in Hollywood.
Charles Edward Rogers was born in Olathe, KS on Aug. 13, 1904. The son of a Johnson County probate judge who owned the local newspaper, Buddy Rogers delivered papers as a boy and was given free passes to the local movie house. Though the privilege enabled him to attend three to four movies per week, Rogers was drawn less by the moving pictures than the bands that performed before the feature. After his graduation from Olathe High School, Rogers attended the University of Kansas, where he majored in journalism and led a five-piece campus dance band. He was an undergraduate in 1925, when his father called to tell him Paramount Pictures was starting a talent drive and making a tour of the nation's universities to find students for its School of Acting. Though Rogers had no interest in being an actor, he submitted to the audition to please his father and wound up with a Paramount contract. Brought to Astoria Studios in New York City, Rogers was given an education in silent film acting, beginning with a tutorial on how to fall down a flight of stairs without hurting himself.
After his third month at the Paramount School of Acting, Rogers was driven out to a Long Island golf course and introduced to former vaudevillian-turned-silent film comic W. C. Fields. The meeting led to Rogers making his film debut in in Gregory La Cava's farce "So's Your Old Man" (1926), as a son of the upper-crust who falls for the daughter of Fields' calamity-prone inventor. Rogers and his entire acting school graduating class were given roles in the frothy "Fascinating Youth" (1926), which feathered cameo appearances by Paramount A-listers Clara Bow, Richard Dix, and Adolph Menjou, as well as film director Lewis Milestone into the tale of a hotelier's son torn between the love of a society girl and an alluring Greenwich Village artist. Paramount president Adolph Zukor himself informed Rogers that he had been chosen to play Ronald Colman's kid brother in the upcoming foreign legion actioner "Beau Geste" (1926). After he traveled to Hollywood, first stopping off to pass on the good news to his friends in Olathe, KS, Rogers learned the part had gone instead to British actor Ralph Forbes.
Offered the consolation prize of a role in the seafaring tale "Old Ironsides" (1926), Rogers found himself bumped yet again, his part bequeathed to Charles Farrell. Buttonholing Paramount head of production Jesse Lasky, Rogers demanded he be allowed to break his contract, but was persuaded instead to go meet director William Wellman, who was casting the World War I aviation drama "Wings" (1927) and needed actors to play young pilots. Reluctantly, Rogers walked away with the part of a poor recruit who falls out with his affluent brother-in-arms Richard Arlen over the affections of army nurse Clara Bow. The lumps Rogers endured practicing pratfalls at the Paramount School of Acting were nothing compared to the risks he faced taking a crash course in aviation from Wellman himself. Hating studio fakery, Wellman insisted on Rogers and Arlen doing their own flying, performing their own stunts, and operating their own cameras for cockpit close-ups. For a scene of rest and relaxation at the Folies Bergere in which Rogers' character needed to be drunk, the actor was plied with champagne until no acting was necessary.
Wellman's devotion to accuracy paid off when "Wings" won the first Academy Award for Best Picture. Dubbed "America's Boyfriend," Rogers amassed an estimable fan base of admiring young women who sent him 20,000 letters a month, among them many proposals of marriage. While playing a millionaire's son who poses as a commoner and falls in love with one of his father's lowly stock girls in "My Best Girl" (1927), Rogers fell for his older co-star Mary Pickford. Though Pickford shared Rogers' affection, she was in the last stages of a legendary but failing marriage to Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., swashbuckling actor and cofounder with Pickford and Charles Chaplin of United Artists. Rogers remained friends with the couple as he added more film roles to his résumé, playing a poor boy making good at Princeton in "Varsity" (1928) and reteaming with Clara Bow for "Get Your Man" (1927), as a Paris nobleman who woos a visiting American girl. For Wellman, Rogers appeared in a semi-sequel to "Wings" involving aviators and spies on the front lines of the Great War but "Young Eagles" (1930) was unable to recreate the success of the earlier film.
To compensate for his lackluster studio assignments, Rogers led a big band combo, the California Cavaliers, whose members included vocalist Mary Martin and drummer Gene Krupa. Rogers made his Broadway debut in Florenz Ziegfeld's 1932 musical "Hot-Cha!" starring Lupe Velez, and traveled to England to play a bandleader in the film "Dance Band" (1935). The following year, he announced his engagement to the recently divorced Pickford, whom he married in 1937 and with whom he would adopt two children. Rogers had a recurring role in the film series spawned by "Mexican Spitfire" (1940), succeeding Donald Woods as star Lupe Velez's devoted gringo husband. Enlisting in the U.S. Navy for service in the Second World War, Rogers served as a flight instructor for the Naval Air Corps while he and Mary Pickford opened up their famous Pickfair mansion to entertain troops. Rogers brought his band to play for American servicemen during the Korean War, while he and Pickford produced such United Artists releases as "Susie Steps Out" (1946) and Douglas Sirk's "Sleep, My Love" (1948). Rogers retired from acting after playing a prairie preacher in "The Parson and the Outlaw" (1957) with Anthony Dexter as Billy the Kid.
Buddy Rogers and Mary Pickford remained one of Hollywood's longest married couples, a successful union complicated in later years by health issues and Pickford's alcohol dependence. After his wife's death in 1979, Rogers married real estate agent Beverly Ricono, eventually selling off Pickfair to actress Pia Zadora and her financier husband, who had it demolished. Remaining active in charities through the Mary Pickford Foundation, Rogers was awarded the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award in 1986 for his philanthropic commitment. In 1997, he took an executive producer's credit for the documentary "Mary Pickford: A Life on Film." Charles Rogers died at his home in Rancho Mirage, CA on April 21, 1999, at the age of 94.
By Richard Harland Smith
Cast (Feature Film)
Producer (Feature Film)
Misc. Crew (Feature Film)
Father submitted photograph to Famous Players-Lasky nationwide talent search; one of 20 selected for a screen test
Chosen by Paramount to take six-month training course for actors
Film debut, "Fascinating Youth" alongside other winners of talent search
Starred in first Oscar-winning Best Picture, silent film "Wings"; second feature directed by William Wellman; also starred Clara Bow
Acted opposite future wife Mary Pickford in "My Best Girl" (Pickford's final silent movie)
First time headlining a movie, "Varsity"; also his first talkie, which contained 13 minutes of dialogue mostly in last 10 minutes of film
Reteamed with Wellman for "Young Eagles," once again playing a WWI American pilot
Asked to be released from Paramount contract; formed first in a series of orchestras with musicians Johnny Green and Gene Krupa, and singers Mary Martin and Marilyn Maxwell; Pickford reportedly provided some financing for band
Acted in movie musical "Take a Chance"
Played playboy son of George Barbier in Edward Ludwig's fluffy musical "Old Man Rhythm"
Replaced Donald Woods as Lupe Velez's husband in "Mexican Spitfire" movies, acting in "Mexican Spitfire's Baby"; also acted in "Mexican Spitfire at Sea" and "Mexican Spitfire Sees a Ghost" (both 1942)
First producing credits, two movies directed by Reginald LeBorg "Little Iodine" and "Susie Steps Out" (also produced LeBorg's "Adventures of Don Coyote," 1947)
Produced Cy Enfield's "Stork Bites Man"
Returned to screen after six year absence in "An Innocent Affair/Don't Trust Your Husband"
Produced Douglas Sirk's "Sleep, My Love"; Pickford also produced after 12 years away from films
Final screen appearance, "The Parson and the Outlaw"; also produced
Executive produced documentary "Mary Pickford: A Life on Film"