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Boasting a cadaverous countenance and a mesmeric gaze, John Carradine seemed born to star in horror films, but his roots were in Shakespeare, whose tragedies and histories he memorized as a schoolboy. Hitchhiking west to break into films, Carradine wrestled a contract out of 20th Century Fox but did his best work for other studios, notably with director John Ford in "Stagecoach" (1939), "Drums Along the Mohawk" (1940), and the Academy Award-winning "The Grapes of Wrath" (1940). A free agent during World War II, Carradine played Nazi thugs and mad scientists with equal aplomb while inheriting the Dracula cape from Bela Lugosi for "House of Frankenstein" (1944) and "House of Dracula" (1945), cementing a lifelong association with fright films. Marrying often, often unwisely, Carradine was plagued for decades by alimony, child support and IRS debts, forcing him to work indiscriminately in such dreck as "The Black Sleep" (1956), "Billy the Kid vs. Dracula" (1966), and "Blood of Dracula's Castle" (1969) while he provided for a veritable acting dynasty that included sons David, Keith, and Robert Carradine. Hobbled by arthritis in old age, Carradine labored exhaustively with few quality films to his credit,...
Boasting a cadaverous countenance and a mesmeric gaze, John Carradine seemed born to star in horror films, but his roots were in Shakespeare, whose tragedies and histories he memorized as a schoolboy. Hitchhiking west to break into films, Carradine wrestled a contract out of 20th Century Fox but did his best work for other studios, notably with director John Ford in "Stagecoach" (1939), "Drums Along the Mohawk" (1940), and the Academy Award-winning "The Grapes of Wrath" (1940). A free agent during World War II, Carradine played Nazi thugs and mad scientists with equal aplomb while inheriting the Dracula cape from Bela Lugosi for "House of Frankenstein" (1944) and "House of Dracula" (1945), cementing a lifelong association with fright films. Marrying often, often unwisely, Carradine was plagued for decades by alimony, child support and IRS debts, forcing him to work indiscriminately in such dreck as "The Black Sleep" (1956), "Billy the Kid vs. Dracula" (1966), and "Blood of Dracula's Castle" (1969) while he provided for a veritable acting dynasty that included sons David, Keith, and Robert Carradine. Hobbled by arthritis in old age, Carradine labored exhaustively with few quality films to his credit, with the exceptions being Joe Dante's whip-smart horror satire "The Howling" (1981) and Francis Ford Coppola's lyrical "Peggy Sue Got Married" (1986). At the time of his death in 1988, Carradine was effectively homeless and forgotten by Hollywood, but had long been immortalized in the hearts of horror film fans for making light of humanity's dark side.
Richmond Reed Carradine was born in New York City on Feb. 5, 1906. Scion of an affluent and accomplished family and son of Associated Press writer William Reed Carradine, young Peter, as he was called by his mother, Genevieve Winifred Richmond, grew up believing the roots of his family tree extended to Spain and one San Pedro Carradegna, purported patron saint of Barcelona, but these claims reflected less true lineage than a familial penchant for emphasizing the colorful over the factual. Raised in upstate New York after the death of his father, Carradine was educated at the private Christ Church School in Kingston and the Episcopal Academy of Philadelphia. Though he entertained the notion of becoming a lawyer, and enjoyed classroom debate and oratory, Carradine's life was changed forever when he saw a stage production of Shakespeare's "The Merchant of Venice," starring theatre and silent film actor Robert B. Mantell. Studying Shakespeare's collected works and committing to memory many of the Bard's great speeches, the 16-year-old Carradine also attended multiple performances of John Barrymore's "Hamlet" in 1922.
Following up his formal education with jobs as a summer camp counselor, as an assistant at the New York Public Library, and as an apprentice to sculptor Daniel Chester French, Carradine hit the road in search of experience, pointing himself ultimately to the port city of New Orleans, LA. Putting aside his ambitions as a painter and sculptor, he made his stage debut in 1925 at the St. Charles Theatre, in a production of "Camille," adapted from the novel by Émile Zola. Billing himself initially as Peter Richmond or John Peter Richmond, Carradine affixed himself to a local Shakespeare troupe, playing roles in repertory while supporting himself as a cafe portraitist in the French Quarter. Encouraged by his fellow actors to try his luck in Hollywood, Carradine struck out for the West Coast, hitchhiking most of the way and feeding himself with handouts from church groups, for whom he sang, and by sketching caricatures for businessman in office buildings. The fledgling film actor eventually made his way to Hollywood as a member of the crew of a freight train bearing bananas to the City of Angels.
Arriving in Hollywood on April 1, 1927, Carradine found employment with film director Cecil B. DeMille, who utilized the newcomer's artistic abilities as a scenic designer. Fired from his first industry job after only two weeks, Carradine created a small buzz around himself by strolling Hollywood Boulevard in a slouch hat and cape, reciting Shakespeare's monologues to anyone within earshot, and billing himself as the Bard of the Boulevard. With paying work not immediately forthcoming, Carradine kept his acting skills sharpened by projecting dramatic speeches in the empty Hollywood Bowl during off-hours until a local resident grew tired of the distraction and summoned the police; the angry homeowner turned out to be film director, John Ford, who would later retain Carradine as a member of his repertory. Carradine eventually found acting work with The Vine Street Theatre and Egan Theatre, and played Judas in the 1930 Hollywood Pilgrimage Play. During this time Carradine also formed his own Shakespearean company and befriended idol John Barrymore.
Through the intercession of his landlady, whose son-in-law was film director John Blystone, Carradine made his film debut in "Tol'able David" (1930), a remake of the 1921 silent classic, in which he billed himself as Peter Richmond to play heinous hillbilly Buzzard Hatburn. Inking a contract with Universal Pictures, Carradine continued in minor roles, playing another hayseed in "Heaven on Earth" (1931) and appearing in multiple roles in "Sign of the Cross" (1932), directed by former boss Cecil B. DeMille. The maverick filmmaker kept Carradine on the payroll, plugging him into "This Day and Age" (1933) and "Cleopatra" (1934), while director James Whale cast him as an English villager bedeviled by Claude Rains in "The Invisible Man" (1933). Carradine's cadaverous countenance was also put to good use by Edgar G. Ulmer, who cast him as a Satanist in "The Black Cat" (1934), starring Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. Carradine enjoyed better billing as Shakespeare's "King John" at the Pasadena Playhouse in 1933 and in various roles in a pageant of Shakespeare's historical plays in 1935.
That same year, the itinerant actor formally adopted the stage name John Carradine, by which he billed himself to play a rebel leader in "Les Misérables" (1935), starring Charles Laughton and Fredric March. He popped up in an unbilled bit as a hunter in James Whale's "Bride of Frankenstein" (1935) and provided the voice of Leopold of Austria in DeMille's "The Crusades" (1935). Appearing in 10 films that year, Carradine also married for the first time, wedding single mother Ardanelle McCool Cosner and adopting her two year-old son Bruce. As if repaying the actor for once having had him arrested, John Ford gave Carradine a plum role as a merciless Tortugan prison screw making life difficult for convict Warner Baxter in "The Prisoner of Shark Island" (1936). Attending a Hollywood showing of the film with his new bride, Carradine was booed by the ticket buyers who identified him with his unpalatable character. A new contract with Fox kept him busy but a punishing schedule wreaked havoc on his home life.
After playing heavies in "White Fang" (1936) and the Technicolor "Ramona" (1936), Carradine went on loan to RKO to play Katharine Hepburn's balladeer aid-de-camp in John Ford's "Mary of Scotland" (1936) and a Tory dastard in "Daniel Boone" (1936), for which he was third-billed behind leads George O'Brien and Heather Angel. In December 1936, Carradine fathered a son, John Arthur Carradine, who would follow his father into the actor's trade, billing himself as David Carradine. On loan to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Carradine played sailor Spencer Tracy's shipboard antagonist Long Jack in Victor Fleming's "Captains Courageous" (1937), which also offered him a paying vacation on Catalina Island. MGM kept the jobbing thespian around long enough to play Abraham Lincoln in "Of Human Hearts" (1938), for which Films in Review averred he stole the film from co-stars James Stewart, Walter Huston and Charles Coburn. Returning to Fox, Carradine was the cowardly Bob Ford, assassin of Tyrone Power's "Jesse James" (1939).
Called back to duty for John Ford, Carradine brought elegance and vainglory to his role as a displaced Southern gentleman banished to the western frontier in "Stagecoach" (1939) and raised gooseflesh as a one-eyed Tory insurgent in "Drums Along the Mohawk" (1939). Critical kudos for his work as a Dustbowl preacher in Ford's "The Grapes of Wrath" (1940) raised the actor's stock at Fox, who decided to stop loaning the actor out - but not before Carradine played a consumptive Botany Bay convict for Hal Roach in the swashbuckler "Captain Fury" (1939) and a city lawman who loses his cool in the jungle Hell of "Five Came Back" (1939) for RKO. Offered a better variety of roles at Fox, Carradine reprised his Bob Ford character for Fritz Lang's "The Return of Frank James" (1940), earning a well-deserved comeuppance in the gun fight of Henry Fonda's vengeful Frank James. Carradine was cast in support of Fonda again in Henry King's "Chad Hanna" (1941) and in Lang's Technicolor "Blood and Sand" (1941) he enjoyed an atypically tender role as the naïf-like friend of bullfighter Tyrone Power.
During World War II, Carradine performed for the troops and played a success of Nazi rats in Lang's "Man Hunt" (1941), Harold Young's "I Escaped from the Gestapo" (1941), and Douglas Sirk's "Hitler's Madman" (1943). Having satisfied his contract with Fox, he went free agent, commanding $2,500 per week for his services. He played mad scientists in "Captive Wild Woman" (1943) and "Revenge of the Zombies" (1943), marking the start of his long association with the horror genre. Carradine stepped into Bela Lugosi's cutaway coat and opera cape to play Bram Stoker's natty revenant in "House of Frankenstein" (1944) and "House of Dracula" (1945), imbuing his performance with a mesmeric quality that would have an impact on his future film assignments. Returning to the stage to play a succession of Shakespeare's tragic heroes and villains, Carradine fell in love with his 21-year-old "Hamlet" costar Sonia Sorel, divorcing his wife to marry her in Las Vegas in August 1944.
Striking a Faustian divorce agreement with his first wife forced Carradine to work exhaustively through the ensuing years, accepting work in regional theatre, on the radio, and in films. He was an evil Egyptian priest in "The Mummy's Ghost" (1944) but had the flashier role of the wife strangler "Bluebeard" (1945) for Edgar Ulmer. Unable to pay back alimony, the actor fled California ahead of a bench warrant, settling in New York's Greenwich Village and performing in both stage plays and on early live television. He made his Broadway debut as The Cardinal in George Rylands' revival of "The Duchess of Malfi" in 1946, and the following year was Ebenezer Scrooge in the DuMont Television Network's adaptation of "A Christmas Carol," which marked the professional debut of actress Eva Marie Saint. Carradine would father three more children with his second wife before their 1957 divorce, among them future actors Keith and Robert Carradine.
Despite his demanding work schedule, Carradine's life descended into a rut of penury, aggravated by IRS and alimony debts, from which he never fully escaped. He traveled widely and indiscriminately for work of greatly varying quality, standing tall among the ensemble casts of Nicholas Ray's "Johnny Guitar" (1954), Cecil B. DeMille's "The Ten Commandments" (1956), and John Ford's "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" (1962), but humbling himself for the hackwork of Reginald Le Borg's "The Black Sleep" (1956), Boris Petroff's "The Unearthly" (1957) and Edward L. Cahn's "Invisible Invaders" (1959). The American distributors of Ishiro Honda's Abominable Snowman romp "Half Human" (1958) cut Carradine into the action in new footage, as Raymond Burr had been insinuated into the U.S. release of Honda's "Godzilla" (1954). Carradine reprised the character of Dracula on the small screen for a 1956 broadcast of "Matinee Theater" (NBC, 1955-58) directed by Lamont Johnson, and at age 60, played the character again in William Beaudine's progressively inept "Billy the Kid vs. Dracula" (1966).
Increasingly hobbled by arthritis, which left his fingers and toes curled like driftwood, Carradine was often trucked into low budget horror films for shock value that evoked his past work experience as a sub-specialist in the horror genre. He played his most unambitious mad scientist yet in "Hillbillies in a Haunted House" (1967), a down-market Devil in the Mexican "Autopsy of a Ghost" (1968), an electronic necromancer in "The Astro-Zombies" (1968), and Dracula's butler in Al Adamson's grade-Z shocker "Blood of Dracula's Castle" (1969). He had a minor role in Burt Kennedy's "The Good Guys and the Bad Guys" (1969), which featured son David as a villainous young gun, and played unorthodox surgeons in "Myra Breckinridge" (1970) and "Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask)" (1972). He co-starred with son David again in Martin Scorsese's "Boxcar Bertha" (1972) but his scenes were removed from "Hex" (1973), which provided Keith Carradine with an early starring role.
Carradine's tempestuous third marriage to actress Doris Rich ended with her death in a fire in 1971. A fourth marriage was short-lived and the actor lost all of his possessions and mementos in a 1978 apartment fire. Used as little more than a special effect as a blind priest in Michael Winner's "The Sentinel" (1977), Carradine brought true pathos to the mostly comic relief role of an elderly werewolf in Joe Dante's "The Howling" (1981) and enjoyed a spirited cameo as a Shriner with seemingly metaphysical abilities in Francis Ford Coppola's "Peggy Sue Got Married" (1986). His 1985 Daytime Emmy Award for the youth-oriented telefilm "Umbrella Jack" (1984) would be Hollywood's only official recognition for a job well done. Suffering from leukemia and rendered effectively homeless, John Carradine died in Italy, in the pauper's ward of Milan's Fatebenefratelli Hospital, on Nov. 27, 1988.
By Richard Harland Smith
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