How did a rope-twirling, plain-talking Cherokee cowboy become one of the most powerful political voices in America?
RSU Public Television attempts to answer that question in its newly produced documentary “Will Rogers and American Politics,” which will air at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 30. The premiere is part of the annual Winterfest pledge drive.
The production highlights Rogers’ political power as revealed through interviews with Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, Mickey Rooney, Cherokee Chief Chad Smith, comedian Lewis Black and others.
The documentary is narrated by Bill Kurtis, former CBS news anchor most recently known for hosting the A&E Network and History Channel series.
Also interviewed for the documentary are former Oklahoma Gov. George Nigh, Judge Robert Henry, president of Oklahoma City University and former judge for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit, and Doris “Coke” Lane Meyer, grandniece of Will Rogers. Several scholars at universities across the nation also were interviewed.
When Will Rogers talked the White House, Congress and all of America listened. He was a king maker and a deal breaker. The nation looked to him for comfort and common sense during difficult times. His words and musings influenced the American political landscape in the 1920s and 1930s and still have an effect on our political system today.
Will was also the nation’s first superstar. He headlined in Vaudeville, conquered the radio airwaves, and was America’s most read columnist. During his lifetime, he starred in 71 movies, published more than two million words (4,000 newspaper columns), raised thousands of dollars for charity, and traveled around the globe three times — meeting people, covering wars, talking about peace and learning everything possible.
But Will Rogers remained a simple Oklahoma cowboy. “I never met a man I didn’t like,” was his credo of genuine love and respect for humanity and all people everywhere. His deepest connection was with the American people — not the rich and famous, but the millions of ordinary folk who read his columns and gathered by the radio for his broadcasts. They saw in him what they hoped was in themselves: common sense, belief in hard work, skepticism about the powerful, and a biting good humor delivered with a shy, sly smile.
The hour-long documentary on the Oklahoma folk icon and his political influence is the culmination of 18 months of planning and development by RSU Public Television. The script was written by Geoff O’Gara, senior producer for Wyoming PBS, based on a book in progress by Dr. Richard White, professor at Louisiana State University.
Steve Gragert, director of the Will Rogers Memorial Museum in Claremore, served as consultant and archivist for the production, and provided access to rare archival film footage, 15,000 photos and 18,000 documents.
RSU Public Television staff members involved in the project included Tim Yoder, producer and videographer, Jessi Blythe Ammons, assistant producer, and Bryan Crain, music and graphics. The production team traveled to Pennsylvania, Arizona, California and Louisiana to interview individuals with ties to or special knowledge of Will Rogers.
“Tim and his team have done an outstanding job producing our next award winning documentary,” says Dan Schiedel, RSU Public TV general manager and executive producer of the production. “The images, music, interviews and archival film footage brings Will Rogers back to life.
“Will’s political commentary is uncanny and reflective of the American public’s sentiment as if it were today. After the local premiere broadcast this winter and spring we intend to distribute to a national and possibly an international audience. I believe our native son and his beliefs will resonate with the American people and others abroad,” he added.
RSU Public Television is licensed to Rogers State University and is the only public TV station operated by a university in Oklahoma. The station, based on the RSU campus in Claremore, reaches more than one million people within a 75-mile radius of the campus.
RSU Public TV broadcasts on digital channel 35.1 and 35.2, Tulsa and Claremore cable channel 19, Cable Channel 4 in Bartlesville and satellite channel 35 across northeastern Oklahoma.
More information is available by visiting www.rsupublictv.org.