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Wallace Beery

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Wallace Beery

Wallace Beery
Born Wallace Fitzgerald Beery
(1885-04-01)April 1, 1885
Clay County, Missouri, U.S.
Died April 15, 1949(1949-04-15) (aged 64)
Beverly Hills, California, U.S.
Cause of death Heart attack
Occupation Actor, singer, director
Years active 1913–1949
Spouse(s) Gloria Swanson (m. 1916-1919; divorced)
Rita Gilman (m. 1924-1939; divorced) 1 child
Children Carol Ann (adopted)

Wallace Fitzgerald Beery (April 1, 1885 – April 15, 1949) was an American film actor.[1] He is best known for his portrayal of Bill in Min and Bill opposite Marie Dressler, as Long John Silver in Treasure Island, as Pancho Villa in Viva Villa!, and his titular role in The Champ, for which he won the Academy Award for Best Actor. Beery appeared in some 250 movies during a 36-year career. His contract with MGM stipulated in 1932 that he be paid $1 more than any other contract player at the studio, making him the highest paid actor in the world. He was the brother of actor Noah Beery, Sr. and uncle of actor Noah Beery, Jr.

Early life

Beery was born in Clay County, Missouri, near Smithville.[2] The youngest of three sons born to Noah Webster Beery (1856-1937) and Frances Margaret Fitzgerald (1859-1931), he and his brothers William C. Beery[3] and Noah Beery became Hollywood actors. The Beery family left the farm in the 1890s and moved to nearby Kansas City, Missouri, where the father was a police officer.

Wallace Beery attended the Chase School in Kansas City and took piano lessons as well, but showed little love for academic matters. He ran away from home twice, the first time returning after a short time, quitting school and working in the Kansas City train yards as an engine wiper.[2] Beery ran away from home a second time at age 16, and joined the Ringling Brothers Circus as an assistant elephant trainer. He left two years later, after being clawed by a leopard.


Wallace Beery circa 1914
As Bavu (1923)

Wallace Beery joined his brother Noah in New York City in 1904, finding work in comic opera as a baritone and began to appear on Broadway as well as Summer stock theatre. His most notable early role came in 1907 when he starred in The Yankee Tourist to good reviews. In 1913, he moved to Chicago to work for Essanay Studios, cast as Sweedie, The Swedish Maid, a masculine character in drag. Later, he worked for the Essanay Studios location in Niles, California.

In 1915, Beery starred with his wife Gloria Swanson in Sweedie Goes to College. This marriage did not survive his drinking and abuse. Beery began playing villains, and in 1917 portrayed Pancho Villa in Patria at a time when Villa was still active in Mexico. Beery reprised the role seventeen years later in one of MGM's biggest hits.

Wallace Beery's notable silent films include Arthur Conan Doyle's dinosaur epic The Lost World (1925; as Professor Challenger), Robin Hood with Douglas Fairbanks (Beery played King Richard the Lionheart in this film and a sequel the following year called Richard the Lion-Hearted), The Last of the Mohicans (1920), The Round-Up (1920; with Roscoe Arbuckle), Old Ironsides (1926), Now We're in the Air (1927), The Usual Way (1913), Casey at the Bat (1927), and Beggars of Life (1928) with Louise Brooks.

Transition to sound

With Marie Dressler in Min and Bill trailer (1930)
Jackie Cooper, Edward Brophy, and Wallace Beery in The Champ (1931)

Beery's powerful basso voice and gruff, deliberate drawl soon became assets when Irving Thalberg hired him under contract to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer as a character actor during the dawn of the sound film era.

Beery played the savage convict "Butch", a role originally intended for Lon Chaney, Sr., in the highly successful 1930 prison film The Big House, for which he was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor. The same year, he made Min and Bill (opposite Marie Dressler), the movie that vaulted him into the box office first rank.

In 1931 he starred in The Champ, and shared the Best Actor Oscar with Fredric March. Though March received one vote more than Beery, Academy rules at the time—since rescinded—defined results within one vote of each other as "ties".[4] In 1934 he played the role of Long John Silver in Treasure Island, and received a gold medal from the Venice Film Festival for his performance as Pancho Villa in Viva Villa! (1934) with Fay Wray. )

Other Beery films include Fay Wray, and Pert Kelton that same year, China Seas (1935) with Gable and Harlow, and Eugene O'Neill's Ah, Wilderness! (1935) in the role of a drunken uncle later played on Broadway by Jackie Gleason in a musical comedy version. During the 1930s Beery was one of Hollywood's Top 10 box office stars; it was during the early part of this period, in 1932, that his contract with MGM stipulated that he be paid a dollar more than any other contract player at the studio, making him the world's highest paid actor.

He starred in several comedies with Marie Dressler and later, after Dressler's death, Marjorie Main, but his career began to decline in his last decade. In 1943 his brother Noah Beery, Sr. appeared with him in the war-time propaganda film Salute to the Marines, followed by Bad Bascomb (1946) and The Mighty McGurk (1947). He remained top-billed and none of Beery's films during the sound era lost money at the box office; his movies were particularly popular in the Southern regions of the United States, especially small towns and cities.

Personal life

20 Mule Team (1940)
The Bad Man (1941)

Beery's first wife was actress Gloria Swanson; the two performed onscreen together. Although Beery had enjoyed popularity with his Sweedie shorts, his career had taken a dip, and during the marriage to Swanson, he relied on her as a breadwinner. According to Swanson's autobiography, Beery raped her on their wedding night, and later tricked her into swallowing an abortifacient when she was pregnant, which caused her to lose their child.[5] Beery's second wife was Rita Gilman. They adopted Carol Ann, daughter of Rita Beery's cousin. Both marriages ended in divorce.

In December 1939, the unmarried Beery adopted a seven-month-old infant girl Phyllis Ann.[6] Phyllis appeared in MGM publicity photos when adopted, but was never mentioned again.[7] Beery told the press he had taken the girl in from a single mother, recently divorced, but filed no official adoption papers.[8]

Brother Noah Beery, Sr. ca. 1920s

Beery was considered misanthropic and difficult to work with by many of his colleagues. Mickey Rooney related in his autobiography that Howard Strickling, MGM's head of publicity, once went to Louis B. Mayer to complain that Beery was stealing props off of the studio's sets. "And that wasn't all," Rooney continued. "He went on for some minutes about the trouble that Beery was always causing him ... Mayer sighed and said, 'Yes, Howard, Beery's a son of a bitch. But he's our son of a bitch.' Strickling got the point. A family has to be tolerant of its black sheep, particularly if they brought a lot of money into the family fold, which Beery certainly did."[9]

Nephew Noah Beery, Jr. ca. 1970s

Child actors, in particular, recalled unpleasant encounters with Beery. Jackie Cooper, who made several films with him early in his career, called him "a big disappointment", and accused him of upstaging, and other attempts to undermine his performances, out of what Cooper presumed was jealousy.[10] He recalled impulsively throwing his arms around Beery after one especially heartfelt scene, only to be gruffly pushed away.[11] Child actress Margaret O'Brien claimed that she had to be protected by crew members from Beery's insistence on constantly pinching her.[12]

Rooney remained an exception to the general negative attitude among child actors. In his memoir he described Beery as "... a lovable, shambling kind of guy who never seemed to know that his shirttail belonged inside his pants, but always knew when a little kid actor needed a smile and a wink or a word of encouragement." He did concede that "not everyone loved [Beery] as much as I did."[13] Beery, by contrast, described Rooney as a "brat", but a "fine actor".[14]

Beery owned and flew his own planes,[15] one a Howard DGA-11. On April 15, 1933 he was commissioned a Lieutenant Commander in the United States Navy Reserve at NRAB Long Beach.[16] One of his proudest achievements was catching the largest black sea bass in the world off Santa Catalina Island in 1916, a record that stood for 35 years.

A noteworthy episode in Beery's life is chronicled in the 5th episode of Ken Burns' documentary The National Parks: America's Best Idea: In 1943, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an executive order creating Jackson Hole National Monument to protect the land adjoining the Grand Tetons in Wyoming. Local ranchers, outraged at the loss of grazing lands, compared FDR's action to Hitler's taking of Austria. Led by an aging Beery, they protested by herding 500 cattle across the monument lands without a permit.[17]


Grave at Forest Lawn Glendale

Wallace Beery died at his Beverly Hills, California, home of a heart attack on April 15, 1949. He was interred at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California. The inscription on his grave reads, "NO MAN IS INDISPENSABLE BUT SOME ARE IRREPLACEABLE." When Mickey Rooney's father died less than a year later, Rooney arranged to have him buried next to his old friend. "I thought it was fitting that these two comedians should rest in peace, side by side," he wrote.[18]

For his contributions to the film industry, Wallace Beery was given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 7001 Hollywood Boulevard.


Beery is mentioned in the film Barton Fink, the lead character has been hired to write a wrestling screenplay to star Beery.[19]

Selected filmography

Hell Divers (1931)
The Bowery (1933)
China Seas (1935)
Barnacle Bill (1941)

Awards and nominations

Year Award Film Result
1930 Academy Award for Best Actor The Big House Nominated
1932 Academy Award for Best Actor The Champ Won ("Tied" with Fredric March for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde although in reality March received one more vote than Beery.)
1934 Venice Film Festival Award for Best Actor Viva Villa! Won


  1. ^ Obituary Variety, April 20, 1949.
  2. ^ a b Dictionary of Missouri Biography, Lawrence O. Christensen, University of Missouri Press, 1999.
  3. ^ William C. Beery;
  4. ^ History of the Academy Awards: The Fifth Academy Awards, 1931/32. archive. Retrieved April 2, 2015.
  5. ^
  6. ^ Milestones, Dec. 4, 1939,
  7. ^ A Certain Cinema,
  8. ^ Beery Will Add To Adopted Family, Google News
  9. ^ Rooney, M. Life is Too Short. Villard Books (1991), p. 77. ISBN 0679401954.
  10. ^ Cooper, Jackie. Please Don't Shoot My Dog. Morrow, 1980, pp. 54-61. ISBN 0-688-03659-7
  11. ^ Bergan, R (May 5, 2011). Jackie Cooper Obituary. archiveThe Guardian. Retrieved August 20, 2012.
  12. ^ Private Screenings: Child Stars|date=March 2009
  13. ^ Rooney, M. Life is Too Short. Villard Books (1991), pp. 76-7. ISBN 0679401954.
  14. ^ Marx, A. The Nine Lives of Mickey Rooney. Stein and Day (1986), p. 68. ISBN 0812830563.
  15. ^
  16. ^ Heiser, Wayne H., "U.S. Naval and Marine Corps Reserve Aviation V. I, 1916–1942." p.78.
  17. ^ Episode Five: 1933–1945 Great Nature
  18. ^ Rooney, M. Life is Too Short. Villard Books (1991), p. 239. ISBN 0679401954.
  19. ^

Further reading

  • Wise, James. Stars in Blue: Movie Actors in America's Sea Services. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1997. ISBN 1557509379 OCLC 36824724

External links

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