Close Window

Gene Autry (1907 - 1998)

Actor, Businessman

Gene Autry died October 2, 1998, three days after his 91st birthday. He was, until the end, playing his greatest and nearly sole role: himself. To explain the philosophy behind a multifaceted career that put the screen cowboy into the ranks of America's moneyed elite, Autry would recount the following:


" Whenever a lone cowboy or Indian needed to take a long journey by horseback, it was customary for him to ride on a saddled horse while leading another bareback. When his mount began to tire, instead of stopping for a rest, he merely slipped the saddle onto the spare horse and rode on. In just about that way I eased out of my life as a performer and began to devote my full energy to business. I just changed horses".


Like his rival and friend, Roy Rogers, who died just months before Autry, he was first a singer and later a star in other media. Rogers went west during the depression, seeking fortune and fame. Autry, who was an actual Okie and later became known as "Oklahoma's Yodellin' Cowboy", went east after Will Rogers discovered him singing and strumming his guitar one night on the job as a radio telegrapher. He scored early hits in a number of genres - cowboy songs, folk songs, and even with a labor ballad "The Death of Mother Jones". His first real hit was "That Silver Haired Daddy of Mine", a mournful lament that has the distinction of being the first official gold record certified as a million-seller.He prospered during the depression, leading the National Barn Dance, a country radio show, which was supplanted by the Grand Ol' Opry in the late 40s.


In 1934 Autry started appearing in singing cowboy films, his first being "In Old Santa Fe". He was far from being the first singing cowboy. Even John Wayne - though his voice was dubbed - had done some crooning in chaps. However, "In Old Santa Fe," Autry set a number of precedents. It was the first cowboy film driven primarily by song, Autry played himself, and the film was named after Autry's current hit record.Second billing went to his horse, Champion.

Since Champion had far more screen time than the romantic lead, and since the romantic lead never got so much as a chaste kiss, the billing was merited. Considering the quality of the music and acting, Champion probably should have received first billing in many of the oaters. None of these innovations were Autry's idea, although he did write many of the tunes.


Scripts touched on social issues relevant to the day — Autry portrayed an everyman facing down heartless business conglomerates, corrupt politicians and the injustices of "the system". Films were set in the present, and women were portrayed as independent and intelligent - frequently in need of rescuing, but not helpless.


Autry pumped out westerns at a rate of about eight a year until his famous walkout of 1937, when he refused to work for Republic Films until they paid him more and changed their practice of tying distributors' access to his films to their acceptance of other Republic pictures. It was an early public display of Autry's developing business acumen. In retaliation, Republic promoted Roy Rogers to starring roles. Autry settled with Republic after a few months and returned to work alongside Rogers. There was plenty of movie money for both of them. Autry harbored no resentment for Rogers' scabbing. The two remained lifelong friends.


Autry left Republic in 1942 to join the Army Air Corps, which dropped his salary from $50,000 a month to $115. While he ferried planes he stayed involved in business, buying stakes in radio stations. On his return he bought television stations. His recording career continued to strike gold, and one of his biggest hits was "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer" (not his composition). He continued to make movies, but his career as a content provider began to wane in the early 50s, and his last real effort came in 1957. By then he was too deeply immersed in business to miss his career in front of the camera and mike.


The western genre had peaked in years surrounding WII, and Autry had the sense to realize that his limited talents wouldn't make a graceful transition. Besides media outlets, he had investments in real estate, hotels, oil and land. By the 80's he was regularly featured in the Forbes list of the 400 wealthiest Americans. He was best known in later years for his purchase of the Angels, which he said, was "the most exciting and frustrating experience of my life. In the movies, I never lost a fight. In baseball, I hardly ever won one." And indeed, the Angels have remained a lousy franchise, never even reaching the playoffs.


He leaves behind a sprawling business empire, the Autry Museum (a serious institution in Los Angeles), a record five stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and a catalog of over 200 songs that continues to be recorded and to find new listeners. The craziest thing is, some of the music is really good.