One of the great recurring movie formulas during the Golden Age of Hollywood was the pairing of the heroic, and sometimes singing, cowboy and his scruffy but reliable and loyal sidekick. While many supporting actors were well known for their sidekick roles, none could compare with the greatest sidekick of them all, George Francis “Gabby” Hayes.
During his remarkable career, Hayes paired with John Wayne, 15 times (although as a bad guy several times), “Hopalong” Cassidy, 19 times, Randolph Scott, 6 times, Gene Autry, 7 times, “Wild Bill” Elliott, 14 times and, most of all, “The King of the Cowboys”, Roy Rogers, an amazing 44 times.
Even more remarkable was the fact that Hayes never cared for westerns and had never even ridden a horse until he was forced to take riding lessons for a movie role, at age 43.
As young men, neither Hayes nor Roy Rogers would have been mistaken for future cowboys. Hayes was born in May, 1885, in the hamlet of Stannards, New York. His father, Clark Hayes, dabbled in oil production and owned the local hotel. Hayes was an exceptional athlete, playing semi-pro baseball while still in high school. Somehow, he caught the acting bug and, in 1902, at age 17, ran away from home to join a travelling stock company before spending some time with a circus, and finally becoming a successful vaudevillian. He became so successful, in fact, that in 1928 he was able to retire from show business to his home on Long Island, to keep track of his investments. The stock market crash of 1929, and the Great Depression which followed, profoundly affected Hayes. He was wiped out financially and, at the urging of his wife, moved to California to look for acting opportunities in movies. Shortly after arriving, he had a chance meeting with a producer which resulted in his playing a variety of characters in 30 films over the next six years. Only then did the intelligent, well-groomed and articulate Hayes become the grizzled old codger we remember.
Leonard Franklin Slye, who years later was to take the name, Roy Rogers, was born in November, 1911, into a struggling family living in a tenement on 2nd Street in Cincinnati, Ohio, on the spot which later became the infield of Riverfront Stadium. In 1919, young Leonard’s father, Andy, dissatisfied with his job and life in the city, bought a farm near Lucasville, Ohio, and took a part-time job in a local factory. It was on the farm that Leonard learned to ride a horse. They didn’t have a radio, so he sang and payed the mandolin for entertainment. Unable to make a living, Andy moved the family back to Cincinnati where he took a job in a shoe factory. After his second year of high school, Leonard quit and to help support the family, joined his father in the factory. In 1929, the Slye family moved to California and became migrant workers, picking fruit and living in worker’s campsites. Leonard remarked later that Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrathwas accurate to the last detail. Possessed of a good singing voice, he toured with several western singing groups before forming The Sons of the Pioneers, which became popular through radio appearances and records. In 1935, he and the Pioneers made their first film appearance in SLIGHTLY STATIC (1935). Over the next few years, they appeared in several films starring Gene Autry. In 1938, Autry, in a salary dispute with Republic Pictures, walked out on his contract. The studio then began looking for a new singing cowboy to replace Autry, and Leonard Slye was eventually hired, renamed Roy Rogers…and the rest is history.
LOOK FOR ANOTHER SILVER SCREEN MEMORY NEXT WEEK.