Red haired tough guy Charles Bickford was lured to Hollywood by an industry that wanted to mold him into a conventional leading man, but his pride and stubbornness ultimately forged a new course and he instead became one of cinema's most dependable supporting players. He received his motion picture break in Cecil B. DeMille's "Dynamite" (1929), but soon rebelled against the system and went from prestigious MGM movies to minor programmers from independent producers, the only people who would hire a man that had dared to offend MGM head Louis B. Mayer. Bickford's obvious talent usually kept him in demand, but when he was mutilated and almost killed by a lion during the making of "East of Java" (1935), he was no longer considered a viable leading man. Regardless, he soldiered on, enlivening many a lesser movie with the force of his persona, and became highly valued by casting directors in the process. Industry wide respect finally came in 1943 with "The Song of Bernadette" and the first of three Academy Award nominations the actor received. Off-screen, the strong voiced Irishman was as blunt as the characters he often played, sometimes even coming to blows with his directors. Although his various business ventures served him well financially, Bickford maintained a strong work ethic throughout his four-decade film and television career, and that dedication was evident in the consistently strong quality of work that put him in the top rank of old-school character actors.
Charles Ambrose Bickford was born in Cambridge, MA on New Year's Day 1891 and his history revealed a hard-nosed persona present right from childhood. Charged with attempted murder at age nine when he assaulted a rail man who had run over his dog, Bickford hit the road during his teens with no clear aim in mind for his life. He eventually decided on engineering as a possibility, but kept himself fed with stints as an exterminator, a carnival barker, a lumberjack, and a coal stoker on the Great White Fleet. However, his life took a major turn when a friend goaded the then 20-year-old Bickford into trying his hand at vaudeville. Bickford found that he not only enjoyed acting, but was also good at it and spent the next decade performing in various comedy reviews and summer stock. Bickford eventually made it to Broadway in a handful of short-lived productions like "Outside Looking In" (1925), "Glory Hallelujah" (1926) and "Gods of the Lightning" (1928). The latter generated good reviews, particularly for Bickford, and he accepted a three-year contract offer from MGM, which commenced with a lead part in Cecil B. DeMille's "Dynamite" (1929). Although he and the director initially clashed, both verbally and physically, a mutual respect eventually developed and they went on to work together again on several more occasions.
Although Bickford's temper was often in evidence, his time at MGM was initially fruitful and he scored well with audiences opposite Greta Garbo in the historical drama "Anna Christie" (1930). However, the actor frequently disagreed with studio head Louis B. Mayer and refused many of the parts he was assigned. After much clashing on the lot and in the press, Bickford demanded to be let out of his contract and got his wish, only to find that his attitude had closed a lot of doors. He found work as a freelancer in largely minor productions. Tragedy struck on the set of one such low-budget effort. During the shooting of the shipwreck drama "East of Java" (1935), Bickford agreed to fight with what he was assured was a tame lion. However, the animal viciously attacked the actor and almost severed his jugular vein. The accident was especially tragic as Bickford was on the verge of signing a contract with 20th Century Fox and was scheduled to co-star in the studio's latest Shirley Temple picture. Only a few days after surviving the incident, Bickford stubbornly insisted on reporting to the studio for the assignment, only to end up back in hospital. Badly scarred on his neck, Bickford's days as a leading man were over. Aside from an effectively villainous turn in the DeMille Western "The Plainsman" (1936), Bickford toiled in a series of forgettable B-pictures for studios like Republic and Monogram. After a decade's absence, he made one final return to Broadway in the title role of "Casey Jones" (1938), but the play was not a success.
Quality movies and interesting roles still came his way, however, and he made the most of supporting parts in the acclaimed movie adaptation of John Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men" (1939) and DeMille's rousing Technicolor epic "Reap the Wild Wind" (1942). For the first time since his Fox contract was scuttled, Bickford went back to the studio and received a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his strong performance as a skeptical clergyman opposite Jennifer Jones in "The Song of Bernadette" (1943). In the aftermath of this newfound critical adulation, Bickford was brought on board for such major releases as Otto Preminger's film noir "Fallen Angel" (1945), the campy Technicolor Western "Duel in the Sun" (1946), and the prison thriller "Brute Force" (1947). He earned a second Oscar nomination for his offbeat turn as a butler in the Loretta Young comedy hit "The Farmer's Daughter" (1947) and a third nomination for the drama "Johnny Belinda" (1948), where he was especially strong as the insensitive father of a deaf-mute woman (Jane Wyman).
Bickford provided excellent support for Clark Gable and Walter Pidgeon as a sceptical war correspondent in MGM's superb World War II strategy thriller "Command Decision" (1948) and was appropriately authoritative as renowned real-life coach Glenn S. "Pop" Warner in "Jim Thorpe - All American" (1950). After his clashes with Mayer 25 years earlier, Bickford must have relished the chance to play a movie studio boss in George Cukor's superb Technicolor remake of "A Star is Born" (1954) and loomed large opposite Gary Cooper as a vindictive general opposed to the funding of the air force in "The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell" (1955). During that period, Bickford also made occasional guest appearances on programs like "Schlitz Playhouse of the Stars" (CBS, 1951-59), "The Ford Television Theatre" (NBC/ABC, 1952-57), and "Playhouse 90" (CBS, 1956-1961). He also graced the Western epics "The Big Country" (1958) and "The Unforgiven" (1960), and received stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame the year of the latter's release for his motion picture and television work.
When he first entered Hollywood, Bickford felt secure in telling studio heads where to go, as he had business interests on the side, including a pair of whaling ships and a chicken farm. Bickford continued with that shrewd practice throughout his career and by the 1960s, he was a full-fledged millionaire with varied interests that included ranching and furniture manufacturing. Although he had the means to retire, Bickford continued to rack up credits. He had one of best late-career parts in "Days of Wine Roses" (1962), as a father who witnesses his daughter gradually succumbing to alcoholism. Bickford had done such a good job with the character in a 1958 "Playhouse 90" episode, he was the only cast member invited back for the big screen version. In 1965, Bickford penned his autobiography Bulls Balls Bicycles & Actors and appeared as a misogynistic undertaker in the Western farce "A Big Hand for the Little Lady" (1966), which turned out to be his final film. Among Bickford's early '60s TV credits was a 1962 guest appearance in the first season of the series "The Virginian" (NBC, 1962-71). Four years later, he joined the cast of the popular show as the owner of the Shiloh Ranch, replacing Lee J. Cobb. During production on his second season with the program, Bickford underwent treatment for emphysema. During the summer of 1967, he developed pneumonia, followed by a blood infection a few months later, and died on Nov. 9, 1967.
By John Charles
Cast (Feature Film)
Debut as burlesque performer
Stage acting debut
First film as actor