September 21, 2015

Charles Bickford - Quite a Character

Charles Bickford was an actor whose crinkled hair, gruff voice and granite features made him a well-known figure on Broadway and in Hollywood for more than three decades.

Always of independent mind, exceptionally strong-willed and quick with his fists, Mr. Bickford frequently argued and nearly came to blows with Louis B. Mayer and any number of other MGM authority figures during the course of his contract with the studio in the late 1920s and early 1930s. During the production of Cecil B. DeMille's Dynamite (1929), he punched out his director following a string of heated arguments primarily, but not exclusively, related to the interpretation of his character's role.

He was for a time blacklisted among the studios. He spent several years working in independent films as a freelancer, then was offered a contract at Twentieth Century-Fox. Before the contract could take effect, however, Mr. Bickford was mauled by a lion while filming East of Java (1935).

Aged with Character Parts

"Actors," Mr. Bickford once said, "seem to attach some kind of personal importance to heroism and youth, and insist on clinching in the sunset, first making sure that the touch of gray on top has been carefully shoe-polished out. If they want to stay on the screen and make money, which is a point, too, they ought to be willing to grow old and act out villainy."

In keeping with that philosophy, Mr. Bickford manifested an apparent indifference toward becoming or remaining a leading man or romantic idol. The length of his career in Hollywood — nearly 40 years — testified to his willingness to "grow old and act out villainy."

Millions came to know him in the 1960s for his television portrayals in The Virginian series, but he was also known to millions for his countless and versatile character portrayals in scores of movies.

On three occasions his artistry was recognized with Academy Award nominations — for The Song of Bernadette, The Farmer's Daughter and Johnny Belinda — but he never won an Oscar.

Every time he was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, one of his co-stars won the Oscar for Best Actress: Jennifer Jones for The Song of Bernadette (1943), Loretta Young for The Farmer's Daughter (1947) and Jane Wyman for Johnny Belinda (1948).

With seemingly equal ease, the rugged-looking Mr. Bickford portrayed priests and farmers, newsmen and ranchers, prisoners and physicians. Among his co-stars were Greta Garbo, Judy Garland, Loretta Young, Jane Wyman, Jennifer Jones, Jean Simmons, Lee Remick, Clark Gable, Gregory Peck, Burgess Meredith, Jack Lemmon, Burt Lancaster, Joseph Cotten, Cary Grant and Robert Mitchum.

Two of the actor's most memorable big-screen roles came in the western The Big Country, as a wealthy and ruthless rancher, and in the drama Days of Wine and Roses, as the forlorn father of an alcoholic.

Mauled by Lion in 1935

His life and career nearly ended prematurely in 1935, when a 400-pound lion named Baby mauled him as they were filming a jungle scene for East of Java at Universal Studios.

Handlers hauled the lion away, but not before the animal had torn Mr. Bickford's throat close to the jugular vein. Nearly a year was required to repair the injuries to Mr. Bickford's neck and shoulders.

The Milwaukee Journal - June 24, 1943 features an interesting article about the horrible accident. Click here to read it.

Charles Ambrose Bickford (he used his middle initial early in his career) was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on January 1, 1891. He was the youngest of four sons of Lorettus E. Bickford, a coffee importer, who also had three daughters. Bickford said of his birth, "It's appropriate that I should have come in on the wings of a blizzard. I've been blowing up a storm ever since."

At the age of nine he was tried and acquitted of the attempted murder of a trolley motorman who had callously driven over and killed his beloved dog.

Intending to become an engineer, he enrolled in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology following a world cruise as a coal passer for the Navy. He worked as a lumberjack, an investment promoter, and briefly ran his own pest extermination business. At one point, he found himself in San Francisco, penniless. As he later told an interviewer, a date with a burlesque queen led to an introduction to her show's impresario, who offered him a job.

It was his introduction to the theater, and, after a hitch as a lieutenant in the Army Corps of Engineers in World War I, he returned to acting. He reached Broadway 10 years later, and in 1925 gained recognition as Oklahoma Red in Maxwell Anderson's picaresque drama of hobo life, Outside Looking In.

After further successes on Broadway, Mr. Bickford was lured to Hollywood, for Cecil B. DeMille's first venture in sound, Dynamite. From then on, Mr. Bickford became a familiar screen figure.

While pursuing a busy career in films, Mr. Bickford found time to develop his talent as an amateur painter and to devote himself to many business ventures. At one time he owned a gold mine in San Bernardino County, California, a gas station and garage, a half interest in a pearling schooner, a pair of whaling boats, a hog farm, a chicken ranch, a lingerie shop, and purchased an island off the coast of the Indonesian island of Java where coconuts were harvested.

But acting remained his principal interest, and he told an interviewer once that he intended to continue in that profession "as long as I can get up on my feet."

"No person with acting in his blood ever wants to retire, or is happy if he does," he commented. "He is an actor to the last."

After several years in Hollywood, however, he grew dissatisfied with the parts he was playing. "Gradually I noticed that I was slipping into those cruel, gravel-voiced roles of the chief jailer and the backwoods father and the escaped convict. I made lots of pictures — mostly 'Bs' — and then I began thinking of parts which would take me out of prison cell blocks and off quarterdeck of a hell ship and out of those seven-day epics into which I had gravitated."

In 1941, he began turning down "B" pictures and seeking better roles.

He campaigned for, and won, the role of the priest in The Song of Bernadette and his portrayal led the way to the more serious work he had been seeking.

Despite his success, Mr. Bickford said that he rarely watched himself. "Perhaps it's because I'm too critical that I don't usually see my stuff," he said. "Very often it's a weird experience, and sometimes it's a little nauseating."

In 1919, he married Beatrice Loring, an actress. They had two children, Doris Marie and Rex Albert.

In 1965, Mr. Bickford published his autobiography, Bulls Balls Bicycles and Actors.

Mr. Bickford died November 9, 1967. He had been a patient at the University of California at Los Angeles Medical Center since July 1967, when he checked in for treatment of emphysema. His illness became complicated by pneumonia and then by a blood infection.

He was cremated and interred at Woodlawn Cemetery, Santa Monica, California.

Charles Bickford on the Radio

Encore Theater
"Dr. Ehrlich's Magic Bullet" - July 23, 1946 - :29:14 - Charles Bickford, Frank Nelson, Paula Winslowe, Norman Field, Barney Phillips

The Fifth Horseman
"Memo to Mankind" - August 22, 1946 - :29:06 - Charles Bickford

The Hallmark Playhouse
"The Barker" - May 26, 1949 - :27:10 - Charles Bickford
"Farmer in the Dell" - January 11, 1951 - :27:59 - Charles Bickford

Lux Radio Theatre
"The Virginian" - November 2, 1936 - :59:39 - Gary Cooper, Charles Bickford, Helen Mack, John Howard
"Song of Bernadette" - October 26, 1954 - :55:14 - Ann Blyth, Charles Bickford

The Screen Guild Theater
"Tuttles of Tahiti" - March 13, 1944 - :28:27 - Charles Laughton, Elsa Lanchester, Florence Bates, Charles Bickford
"The Informer" - July 10, 1944 - :29:52 - Charles Bickford, Wallace Ford, Reginald Denny, Isabel Jewell
"Barbary Coast" - June 24, 1946 - :29:19 - Charles Bickford, Mary Astor
"The Babe Ruth Story" - October 21, 1948 - :29:03 - William Bendix, Lurene Tuttle, Charles Bickford

Charles Bickford - Public Domain Films

East of Borneo (1931)
Director: George Melford, Producers: Carl Laemmle, Jr., Paul Kohner and George Melford, Writers: Edwin H. Knopf and Dale Van Every, Editor: Arthur Tavares, Cinematographer: George Robinson
Distributed by Universal Studios
Release date: August 1, 1931
Running time: 77 minutes

Cast: Rose Hobart as Linda Randolph, Charles Bickford as Dr. Allan Randolph, Georges Renavent as Hashim--Prince of Marudu, Lupita Tovar as Neila, Noble Johnson as Osman, Tetsu Komai as Hrang the Raftsman

In 1936, artist Joseph Cornell edited this feature film into his short experimental film Rose Hobart which runs about 19 minutes.

Linda Randolph (Hobart) looks for her husband (Bickford) on the island of Marado, just east of Borneo. Although Linda is warned that Marado's jungles are "entirely too dangerous" for a woman, she persists through dangerous raft rides and wild crocodiles. She discovers that her husband is now the personal physician to the island's enigmatic prince (Renavent). The prince lusts for Linda, and a love triangle ensues.

Gangs of New York (1938)
Director: James Cruze, Producer: Armand Schaefer, Writers: Herbert Asbury (book), Samuel Fuller (screenplay and story), Charles F. Royal, Wellyn Totman, Jack Townley, Nathanael West, Editor: William Morgan, Music: Alberto Colombo, Cinematographer: Ernest Miller
Distributed by Republic Pictures
Release date: May 23, 1938
Running time: 67 minutes

Cast: Charles Bickford as Rocky Thorpe/John Franklin, Ann Dvorak as Connie Benson, Alan Baxter as Dancer, Wynne Gibson as Orchid, Harold Huber as Panatella, Willard Robertson as Inspector Sullivan, Maxie Rosenbloom as Tombstone, Charles Trowbridge as District Attorney Lucas, John Wray as Maddock, Jonathan Hale as Warden, Fred Kohler as Kruger, Howard Phillips as Al Benson, Robert Gleckler as Nolan, Elliott Sullivan as Hopkins, Maurice Cass as Phillips

A policeman (Charles Bickford) poses as a look-alike mobster to bust the mobster's gang.

Queen of the Yukon (1940)
Director: Phil Rosen, Producer: Paul Malvern, Writers: Jack London (story) and George Waggner (screenplay) (as Joseph West), Editor: Russell F. Schoengarth, Cinematographer: Harry Neumann
Distributed by Monogram Pictures
Release date: August 26, 1940
Running time: 74 minutes

Cast: Charles Bickford as Ace Rincon, Irene Rich as Sadie Martin, June Carlson as Helen Martin, Dave O'Brien as Bob Adams, George Cleveland as Grub, Guy Usher as Stake, Melvin Lang as John Thorne, Tris Coffin as Carson, Jack Daley as Captain

In this film adapted from a Jack London story, Sadie Martin (Irene Rich) runs a casino riverboat that travels the Yukon River, catering to a variety of prospectors. Despite her success, Sadie strives to keep her daughter, Helen (June Carlson), in the dark about her unsavory lifestyle. But, just as dubious businessman John Thorne (Melvin Lang) makes an offer on her boat, her daughter abruptly returns from her posh boarding school with Bob (Dave O'Brien), a friendly but gullible fiancé, in tow. Sadie turns to her trusted friend Ace (Charles Bickford) to sort out all the complications.

Charles Bickford on Television

2.08 - The Man Behind the Badge - "The Case of the Priceless Passport"
February 26, 1955 NYC
Host and narrator: Charles Bickford
Guest Cast: Willis B. Bouchey as Immigration Officer, Claude Akins as Tony, Leon Askin as Leon, Pepe Hern as Pedro, Robert S. Carson as Winston, George Eldredge as Gallup
Synopsis: A former immigration officer comes out of retirement to expose the illegal selling of American passports in Mexico.

2.33 - The Man Behind the Badge - "The Case of the Hunted Hobo"
August 20, 1955 NYC
Host and narrator: Charles Bickford
Guest Cast: Frank Jenks as Officer John O'Mara, Aaron Spelling as Billy,  Lewis Charles as Cherokee Kid, Bill Phillips as Chester, Maureen Cassidy as Betzy, Amzie Strickland as Betty,  Paul Knight as The Reporter, Don Oreck as Al, Dick McGowen as The Boy
Synopsis: A policeman risks his life to capture a murder suspect in Chicago's hobo jungle.

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