Wallace Fitzgerald Beery (1885 - 1949)

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Birthdate:
Birthplace: Kansas City, Missouri
Death: Died in Beverly Hills, Calfironia
Cause of death: Heart attack.
Occupation: Actor
Managed by: Ric Dickinson
Last Updated:
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About Wallace Fitzgerald Beery

Wallace Fitzgerald Beery 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 some 250 movies over a 36-year span.

Beery was born on April 1, 1885 in Kansas City, Missouri 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 have claimed.

Wallace Beery ran away from home and 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 City in comic opera as a baritone and began to appear on Broadway. 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), 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.

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.

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.

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 owned and flew his own planes, one a Howard DGA-11. On April 15, 1933 he was commissioned a lieutenant commander in A-V(S), USNR at NRAB Long Beach.

In December, 1939, the unmarried Beery adopted a seventh month old infant girl Phyllis Anne. No further information on the child appears to exist, and she is not mentioned in Beery's obituary.

Beery left an impression of being misanthropic and difficult to work with on many of his colleagues. Jackie Cooper, who made several films as a child with Beery, called Beery "a big disappointment," and accused him of upstaging and other attempts to undermine the boy's performances out of what Cooper presumed was jealousy. 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 Island in 1916. It was 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 loss of lands they wanted to graze and comparing this action of FDR's to Hitler's taking of Austria, were led by the aging Wallace Beery as they protested by herding 500 cattle across the monument lands without a permit.

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

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

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Wallace Beery's Timeline

1885
April 1, 1885
Kansas City, Missouri
1915
March 27, 1915
Age 29
1919
1919
Age 33
1924
August 4, 1924
Age 39
1930
1930
Age 44
1949
April 15, 1949
Age 64
Beverly Hills, Calfironia
19309
May 1, 19309
Age 64
????
????
Glendale, CA, USA