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Wallace Beery (April 1, 1885 – April 15, 1949) was an American actor, known for his portrayal of Bill in Min and Bill opposite Marie Dressler, his titular role in a series of films featuring the character Sweedie, and his titular role in The Champ, for which he won the Academy Award for Best Actor. Beery appeared in 200 movies over a 36-year span.

Early life and career

Beery was born in Kansas Citymarker, Missourimarker to Noah W. and Marguerite (Fitzgerald) Beery. He was a younger brother of actor/film executive William Beery and actor Noah Beery, who also had long careers in the motion picture industry. He was an uncle of actor Noah Beery, Jr.. According to U.S. Census records, all three Beery brothers were born to the same parents, making them full brothers and not half-brothers as many biographies say.

Wallace Beery joined the Ringling Brothers Circus at age sixteen as an assistant elephant trainer. He left two years later, after being clawed by a leopard. Beery found work in New York Citymarker in musical variety and began to appear on Broadwaymarker. In 1913, he moved to Chicago to work for Essanay Studiosmarker, cast as "Sweedie, The Swedish Maid," a masculine character in drag. Later, he worked for the Essanay Studios location in Niles, Californiamarker.

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 Mexicomarker. 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), 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), and Beggars of Life (1928; with Louise Brooks).

Transition to sound

With the transition to sound film Beery was for a time out of work. However, his 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.

Beery appeared 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. He followed with The Champ in 1931, this time winning the Best Actor Oscar, and the role of Long John Silver in Treasure Island (1934). He received a gold medal from the Venice Film Festival for his second performance as Pancho Villa in Viva Villa! (1934) with Fay Wray. (Lee Tracy was originally to appear in the film until he drunkenly urinated off the balcony into a crowd of Mexicans standing below; Tracy's career never recovered from the incident.) Other Beery films include Billy the Kid (1930) with Johnny Mack Brown, The Secret Six (1931) with Jean Harlow and Clark Gable, Hell Divers (1931) with Gable, Grand Hotel (1932) with Joan Crawford, Tugboat Annie (1933) with Dressler, Dinner at Eight (1933) opposite Harlow, The Bowery with George Raft 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, and at one point his contract with MGM stipulated that he be paid $1 more than any other contract player at the studio, making him the highest paid actor in the world.

He starred in several comedies with Marie Dressler and Marjorie Main, but his career began to decline in his last decade. In 1943 his brother Noah Beery 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.

Personal life

Beery's first wife was actress Gloria Swanson; the two performed onscreen together. Beery's second wife was Rita Gilman. They adopted Carol Ann, daughter of Rita Beery's cousin. Like his first, this marriage also ended in divorce.

According to E.J. Fleming's book The Fixers (about MGM's legendary "fixers" Eddie Mannix and Howard Strickling), Beery, gangster Pat DiCicco, and Albert R. "Cubby" Broccoli (who was also DiCicco's cousin and eventual producer of the James Bond films) allegedly beat comedian Ted Healy to death in a brawl. The book claimed that Beery was sent to Europe by the studio for a few months, while a story was concocted that three college students had killed Healy. Immigration records confirm a four-month-long trip to Europe on Beery's part immediately after Healy's death, ending April 17, 1938. A pencil drawing of Beery survives that was done on a film set by Healy, an amateur artist as well as the organizer and original leader of the Three Stooges.

Beery seems to have been somewhat misanthropic and difficult to work with. Jackie Cooper, who worked with Beery in several films, called him in his autobiography "the most sadistic person I have ever known". Child actress Margaret O'Brien also worked with Beery, and she ultimately had to be protected by crew members from Beery's insistence on constantly pinching her.

One of his proudest achievements was catching the largest black sea bass in the world off Santa Catalina Islandmarker in 1916. It was a record that stood for 35 years.

Wallace Beery died at his Beverly Hills, Californiamarker home of a heart attack in 1949. He was interred in the Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemeterymarker, in Glendale, Californiamarker.

For his contributions to the film industry, Wallace Beery has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Famemarker at 7001 Hollywood Blvdmarker.

Selected filmography



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


References

  1. Ile de France passenger list, p. 117, line 9, Microfilm roll T715_6140


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