Burbank’s Mayor Going Strong Despite Cancer Diagnosis

5 min
Mayor Will Rogers in his office at Burbank City Hall in January.  (Steven Cuevas/KQED)

Last month, the Burbank City Council held its first public session of the new year. Normally, this wouldn’t really be a big deal. Lots of city councils are getting back to work after the winter break.

But Burbank's council meetings have taken a different feel just a few months after 60-year-old Mayor Will Rogers made this announcement:

“I am here to tell the people of Burbank that I have been diagnosed with liver cancer. My cancer is at Stage 4. I don’t know today if I have another week or another five weeks,” Rogers announced at a news conference in front of Burbank City Hall in September.

Not only is Rogers still going strong, but he also continues to preside over each and every City Council meeting.

Rogers sat down with The California Report in his City Hall office to talk about his priorities for 2018, his colorful past as a TV actor and his ongoing health challenges:

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Burbank Mayor Going Strong After Cancer Diagnosis

Burbank Mayor Going Strong After Cancer Diagnosis

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So how are you feeling?

Good, feeling good. The number one symptom that I deal with is exhaustion. I can plan one or two things in a day and then I go home and I am absolutely wiped out. Because I’m either dealing with nausea or exhaustion or both.

Why did you choose to stay on (the job) after this diagnosis? And not, say, focus on just your health, your family and other things you like to do outside of this?

Because there isn’t too much that I enjoy as much as doing this, to actually make changes.

I don’t know if you’ve ever seen one of our council meetings, but I have fun. I’ve always admired City Hall. City Hall is so important to us no matter where we live.

What are your priorities for 2018?

In 2018 we’re dealing with some messes from the middle 1990s.

Burbank councils back then chose to take a vacation on making pension payments (leading to a roughly $11 million shortfall). That really narrows the choices for solutions to things like a parcel sales tax, something along those lines. We'll see what the voters say.

The council is also contemplating deep cuts that could include everything from shuttering many of the city’s public parks to laying off dozens of workers -- actions that Rogers says few city leaders or residents have the stomach for.

A flock of plastic pink flamingos now inhabit a garden behind Burbank City Hall. The flamingos are a tribute to Mayor Rogers, placed there by a neighbor of his. For years he and his wife kept a collection of the kitschy lawn ornaments in their front yard. (Steven Cuevas / KQED)

Burbank is known for its contribution to film and television. It is home of "The Tonight Show," of Walt Disney. You yourself have acted in the past on TV and in film. Did you have aspirations you were going to be a star?

Everybody who starts out thinks they’re going to be a star, yeah absolutely! And I did a lot of little bit parts.

So, I found this 1982 episode of M*A*S*H...

Oh God, I was so young!

You have a small appearance as a wounded soldier, a Cpl. Logan. You have a scene with Harry Morgan, who played Col. Potter, and Loretta Swit, who played nurse ‘Hot Lips’ Houlihan. Can you remember your two or three lines?

I remember, 'What about my buddy?'

OK, here it is. So, nurse Houlihan says, ‘We’re sending you to the evac, corporal.’ And then you say, ‘What about Fisher? We’re buddies.’ And then Col. Potter says, ‘I’m afraid we’re going to have to extend his reservation another couple days.’ And then you say, ‘But we have the same wounds, don’t we?’ And that’s it.

Man, I was so naïve. I remember Alan Alda (who played chief military surgeon ‘Hawkeye’ Pierce) came up behind me in the makeup chair and said, ‘Hi, I’m Alan Alda.’ And I said, ‘Hi, I’m Will Rogers.'

And he said; ‘No, really! I’m Alan Alda.’ And I said, ‘I’m really Will Rogers!’ (Rogers was not actually born ‘Will Rogers’, nor was he purposely named after the famous humorist of the same name. He assumed the Rogers surname after his stepfather.)

You look like this good-looking, fresh-faced kid from Wisconsin.

I was a fresh-faced kid from Wisconsin! And I wore great big hiking boots, and during the summer I wore shorts, denim cutoff shorts. So I really looked like something completely different.

I asked you how you felt at the beginning (of the interview) about how long you think you can reasonably keep working based on what you have been feeling these past few months.

I’m going to find out. I’m going to find out, because this is not work.

It sounds like its own kind of medicine.

It really is. Because yeah, what would I be doing? I think I’d be sitting at home.

Watching reruns of M*A*S*H.

Yeah, exactly! But that’s part of the fun I have.

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