Hollywood Flashback: Will Rogers Was the First (and Only) Native American Oscar Host

Hollywood Gossip
2 min readMar 10, 2024

The celebrated performer, who hosted the Academy Awards 90 years ago, was the first Indigenous actor to achieve movie-star status.

BY ANGELA ALEISS

March 10, 2024

By the time Will Rogers was roped into serving as emcee for the sixth Academy Awards, he was a celebrated performer who had appeared in more than 30 features and was on his way to becoming the No. 1 box office star of 1934, topping the likes of Clark Gable and Shirley Temple. Having honed his wit as a lariat-twirling vaudeville humorist (and as a nationally syndicated newspaper columnist), Rogers exuded charm at the March 16, 1934, ceremony at L.A.’s Ambassador Hotel. Offering his thoughts on the prized gold statuettes, he told the room, “It represents the triumph of nothingness over the stupendousness of zero.” THR reported that “Rogers, as toastmaster, was in ‘ribbing’ form and, while he had his serious moments, gave everyone a lot of laughs.”

Critics for decades have lamented the lack of Native Americans in Hollywood, but few recall that Rogers was the first — and arguably, so far, the only — Native American to achieve bona fide movie-star status. He’s also the lone Native American to host the Oscars. Though he did not fit into America’s stereotypical image of a Plains Indian donning a feathered war bonnet and leather moccasins, “He was born in [Oklahoma] Indian Territory,” explains his great-granddaughter Jennifer Rogers-Etcheverry. “He would often say he never forgot where he came from.”

Rogers grew up the youngest of eight children to Clement V. Rogers, a Cherokee politician and judge, and Mary Schrimsher, both of Cherokee descent. He left home at 22, got his first showbiz gig as a trick roper in South Africa and eventually made his way to New York City to become a vaudeville star in the 1910s. The “Cherokee Kid” moved west shortly after Samuel Goldwyn offered him a film contract; he made 71 features and more than a dozen shorts and often referenced his heritage in his movies and writing.

The year after his Oscar gig, Rogers, 55, died in a plane crash in Alaska. In 1960, the Hollywood Walk of Fame dedicated two stars to him, a fitting if belated tribute to one of the industry’s most beloved celebrities. Rogers never won an Oscar — but at this year’s ceremony March 10, Killers of the Flower Moon nominee Lily Gladstone could become the first Native American to receive one for acting.

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