06 September 2019

Charles Bickford

Charles Bickford (1891-1967) was an American character actor of gruff voice and appearance. He was nominated three times for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, for The Song of Bernadette (1943), The Farmer's Daughter (1947), and Johnny Belinda (1948). Other notable roles include Anna Christie (1930), Whirlpool (1948), A Star is Born (1954), and The Big Country (1958).

Charles Bickford
German postcard by Ross Verlag, no. 5620/1, 1930-1931. Photo: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Greta Garbo and Charles Bickford in Anna Christie (1930)
German postcard by Ross Verlag, no. 5515/1. Photo: MGM. Greta Garbo and Charles Bickford in Anna Christie (Clarence Brown, 1930).

Tried and acquitted of the attempted murder at age nine

Charles Ambrose Bickford was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, during the first minute of 1891. His parents were Loretus and Mary Ellen Bickford. The fifth of seven children, he was an intelligent but very independent and unruly child. He had a particularly strong relationship with his maternal grandfather, a sea captain who was a powerful influence during his formative years.

At the age of nine, he was tried and acquitted of the attempted murder in the shooting of a trolley motorman who had callously driven over and killed his beloved dog. He attended Foster School and Everett High School. Always more interested in experiencing life than reading about it, Bickford was considered 'the wild rogue' of this family, causing his parents frequent consternation.

In his late teens, he drifted aimlessly around the United States for a time. Bickford had intended to attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to earn an engineering degree, but while wandering around the country, he became friends with the manager of a burlesque show, who convinced Bickford to take a role in the show. He debuted in Oakland, California, in 1911.

Before breaking into acting, he worked as a lumberjack and investment promoter and, for a short time, ran a pest extermination business. He also was a stoker and fireman in the United States Navy. His first entry into acting was on the stage, eventually including Broadway. This venue provided him with an occasional living and served as the principal training ground for developing his acting and vocal talents. Bickford enjoyed himself so much that he abandoned his plans to attend M.I.T.

He made his legitimate stage debut with the John Craig Stock Company at the Castle Square Theatre in Boston in 1912. During World War I, Bickford served as an engineer lieutenant in the United States Army. He eventually joined a road company and travelled throughout the United States for more than a decade, appearing in various productions.

In 1925, while working in a Broadway play called 'Outside Looking In', he and co-star James Cagney (in his first Broadway role) received rave reviews. The play was a smash hit, and Bickford was offered a role in the film Beau Geste (Herbert Brenon, 1926). Anxious not to give up his new found Broadway stardom, he turned it down, a decision he later regretted. Following his appearance in the critically praised but unsuccessful Maxwell Anderson-Harold Hickerson drama about the Sacco and Vanzetti case, 'Gods of the Lightning' (Bickford was the Sacco character), Bickford was contacted by filmmaker Cecil B. DeMille.

He was offered a contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer to star in DeMille's first talking picture, Dynamite (Cecil B. DeMille, 1929), co-starring Conrad Nagel and Kay Johnson. Bickford played a coal miner Hagon Derk, who is sentenced to hang for murder. According to The New York Times reviewer Mordaunt Hall, Bickford gave "a splendid performance". Soon he began working with MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer on a number of projects.

Greta Garbo and Charles Bickford in Anna Christie, 1930
German postcard by Ross Verlag, no. 5290/1, 1930-1931. Photo: MGM. Greta Garbo and Charles Bickford in Anna Christie (Clarence Brown, 1930).

Charles Bickford
Belgian postcard by P.I.A. Belga Phot., Bruxelles, no. 60. Photo: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Mauled by a 400-pound lion

Charles Bickford soon became a star after playing Greta Garbo's lover in Anna Christie (Clarence Brown, 1930) but he never developed into a leading man. Always of independent mind, exceptionally strong-willed and quick with his fists, Bickford would frequently argue and nearly come to blows with Mayer and any number of other MGM authority figures during the course of this contract with the studio.

During the production of DeMille's Dynamite, he punched out his director following a string of heated arguments primarily, but not exclusively, related to the interpretation of his character's role. Throughout his early career on both the stage and later films Bickford rejected numerous scripts and made no secret of his disdain for much of the material he was offered.

Not surprisingly, his association with MGM was short-lived, with Bickford asking for and quickly receiving a release from his contract. However, he soon found himself blacklisted at other studios, forcing him to take the highly unusual step (for that era) of becoming an independent actor for several years.

His career took another turn in 1935. While rehearsing a scene for Universal's East of Java (George Melford, 1935), he was mauled by a 400-pound lion on his neck and shoulders, very close to his jugular vein. it required nearly a year for him to recover from the injuries. While he recovered, he lost his contract with Fox as well as his leading-man status owing to extensive neck scarring suffered in the attack coupled with his advancing age.

It was not long, however, before he made a very successful transition to character roles, which he felt offered much greater diversity and allowed him to showcase his talent to better effect. Much preferring the character roles that now became his forte, Bickford appeared in many notable films, including The Farmer's Daughter (H.C. Potter, 1947) with Loretta Young, Johnny Belinda (Jean Negulesco, 1948) starring Jane Wyman, A Star is Born (George Cukor, 1954) starring Judy Garland and James Mason, and Not As a Stranger (Stanley Kramer, 1955), starring Olivia de Havilland, Robert Mitchum, and Frank Sinatra.

Greta Garbo in Anna Christie (1930)
Swiss postcard by News Productions, Baulmes, no. 56490. Photo: Cinémathèque Suisse / Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.  Greta Garbo and Charles Bickford in Anna Christie (Clarence Brown, 1930). Design: Clarence Sinclair Bull, 1930.

Bulls Balls Bicycles & Actors

Finding great success playing an array of character roles in films and later in television, Charles Bickford quickly became highly sought after. His burly frame and craggy, intense features, coupled with a gruff, powerful voice lent themselves to a wide variety of roles. Most often he played lovable father figures, stern businessmen, heavies, ship captains or authority figures of some sort.

During the 1940s, he was nominated three times for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, for The Song of Bernadette (Henry King, 1943) featuring Jennifer Jones, The Farmer's Daughter (H.C. Potter, 1947), and Johnny Belinda (Jean Negulesco, 1948).

In the 1950s, he served as host of the television series The Man Behind the Badge (1955). Bickford continued to act in generally prestigious projects right up to his death. He guest-starred on TV series like The Islanders (1960), The Barbara Stanwyck Show (1960), and The Eleventh Hour (1963).

In his final years, Bickford played rancher John Grainger, owner of the Shiloh Ranch, on the Western series The Virginian (1962-1968) with Doug McClure. Two of the actor's most memorable late-career big-screen roles were a wealthy and ruthless rancher in the Western The Big Country (William Wyler, 1958) starring Gregory Peck and Jean Simmons, and the forlorn father of an alcoholic (played by Lee Remick) in the drama Days of Wine and Roses (Blake Edwards, 1962).

In 1965, Bickford published his autobiography, 'Bulls Balls Bicycles & Actors'. In 1967, Charles Bickford died in Los Angeles of pneumonia and a blood infection at the age of 76. Jennifer Jones, who was a close friend of Bickford, attempted suicide on the day of his death, but it is not clear if Bickford's death had anything to do with the attempt. Since 1916, he had been married to Beatrice Loring. They had a son, Rex, and a daughter, Doris.

Charles Bickford
British postcard in the Picturegoer Series, London, no. 744. Photo: United Artists / Columbia.

Charles Bickford
British postcard in the Picturegoer Series, London, no. 744a. Photo: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM).

Charles Bickford
British postcard in the Picturegoer Series, London, no. 744b. Photo: Paramount.

Sources: Jim Beaver (IMDb), Mordaunt Hall (New York Times),  Wikipedia and IMDb.

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