Charles Bickford

Charles Bickford


Birth Place
Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA
January 01, 1889
November 09, 1967
Cause of Death
Blood Infection


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 we...


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)

A Big Hand for the Little Lady (1966)
Benson Tropp
Days of Wine and Roses (1962)
Ellis Arnesen
The Unforgiven (1960)
Zeb Rawlins
The Big Country (1958)
Maj. Henry Terrill
Mister Cory (1957)
[Jeremiah] Biloxi [also known as Caldwell]
You Can't Run Away From It (1956)
A. A. Andrews
Not As a Stranger (1955)
Dr. [David W.] Runkleman
Prince of Players (1955)
Dave Prescott
The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell (1955)
Gen. Guthrie
A Star Is Born (1954)
Oliver Niles
The Last Posse (1953)
Sampson Drune
Branded (1951)
Mr. [Richard] Lavery
The Raging Tide (1951)
Hamil Linder
Jim Thorpe--All-American (1951)
[Glenn S.] Pop Warner
Elopement (1951)
Tom Reagan
Guilty of Treason (1950)
Josef, Cardinal Mindszenty
Riding High (1950)
J. L. Higgins
Roseanna McCoy (1949)
Devil Anse Hatfield
Whirlpool (1949)
Lieutenant James Colton
Command Decision (1949)
Elmer ["Brocky"] Brockhurst
Johnny Belinda (1948)
Black McDonald
Four Faces West (1948)
Pat Garrett
The Babe Ruth Story (1948)
Brother Matthias
Duel in the Sun (1947)
Sam Pierce
Brute Force (1947)
The Woman on the Beach (1947)
Tod [Butler]
The Farmer's Daughter (1947)
[Joseph] Clancy
The Song of Bernadette (1945)
Dean Marie Dominique Peyramale
Captain Eddie (1945)
William Rickenbacker
Fallen Angel (1945)
Mark Judd
Wing and a Prayer (1944)
Capt. Waddell
Mr. Lucky (1943)
Hard Swede
Reap the Wild Wind (1942)
Mate of the 'Tyfib'
Tarzan's New York Adventure (1942)
Buck Rand
Burma Convoy (1941)
Cliff Weldon
Riders of Death Valley (1941)
South to Karanga (1940)
Jeff Worthing
Queen of the Yukon (1940)
Ace [Rincon]
Girl from God's Country (1940)
Bill Bogler
Stand Up and Fight (1939)
Our Leading Citizen (1939)
Shep Muir
One Hour to Live (1939)
Inspector Sid Brady
Street of Missing Men (1939)
Cash Darwin
Mutiny in the Big House (1939)
Father Joe [Collins]
Thou Shalt Not Kill (1939)
Reverend Chris Saunders
Romance of the Redwoods (1939)
Steve Blake
Of Mice and Men (1939)
Valley of the Giants (1938)
Howard Fallon
Daughter of Shanghai (1938)
Otto Hartman
Gangs of New York (1938)
"Rocky" Thorpe/John Franklyn
The Storm (1938)
Bob Roberts
High, Wide and Handsome (1937)
Red Scanlon
Thunder Trail (1937)
Lee Tate
Night Club Scandal (1937)
Capt. McKinley
The Plainsman (1937)
John Lattimer
Pride of the Marines (1936)
[Sergeant] Steve [Riley]
Rose of the Rancho (1936)
Joe Kincaid
Under Pressure (1935)
Nipper Moran
East of Java (1935)
Red Bowers
A Notorious Gentleman (1935)
Kirk Arlen
The Farmer Takes a Wife (1935)
Jotham Klore
A Wicked Woman (1934)
[Pat] Naylor
Little Miss Marker (1934)
Big Steve [Halloway]
No Other Woman (1933)
[Big] Jim Stanley
This Day and Age (1933)
Louis Garrett
Song of the Eagle (1933)
[Joe] Nails Anderson
White Woman (1933)
Thunder Below (1932)
Vanity Street (1932)
Brian Murphy
The Last Man (1932)
Scandal for Sale (1932)
Jerry Strong
Panama Flo (1932)
[Dan "Mac"] McTeague
Men in Her Life (1931)
"Flash" Madden
East of Borneo (1931)
Dr. Allan Clark [previously known as Dr. Allan Randolph]
The Pagan Lady (1931)
Dingo Mike
The Squaw Man (1931)
Cash Hawkins
The Sea Bat (1930)
Reverend Sims
River's End (1930)
Anna Christie (1930)
Hell's Heroes (1930)
Bob Sangster
Passion Flower (1930)
Dan Wallace
South Sea Rose (1929)
Captain Briggs
Dynamite (1929)
Hagon Derk

Cast (Special)

The Old Man and the City (1963)
Big Jake Hollander
The Farmer's Daughter (1962)
Winterset (1959)
Judge Gaunt

Life Events


Debut as burlesque performer


Stage acting debut


First film as actor

Photo Collections

Johnny Belinda - Scene Stills
Here are some scene stills from Warner Bros' Johnny Belinda (1948), starring Jane Wyman and Lew Ayres.


Movie Clip

Daughter Of Shanghai (1937) -- (Movie Clip) Let's Have A Look At You Deft enough work by Robert Florey directing for Paramount, as Anna May Wong (as Lan Ying, title character) has made her way to Central America hunting the head of the human-smuggling ring that killed her father back in San Francisco, inveigling Charles Bickford as the proprietor Hartman, Gino Corrado his interpreter, Evelyn Brent his dance wrangler, in Daughter Of Shanghai, 1937.
Of Mice And Men (1939) -- (Movie Clip) Down By The River Ranch-hand George (Burgess Meredith) is making sure slow-witted pal Lenny (Lon Chaney Jr.) doesn't get in trouble with vampy Mae (Betty Field) or her husband Curley (Bob Steele) in Of Mice And Men, 1939, from John Steinbeck's novel.
High, Wide And Handsome (1937) -- (Movie Clip) You Think It's Daffy? Hunky Pennsylvania farmer and aspiring “rock oil” driller Peter (Randolph Scott) and crew (Ben Blue, Stanley Andrews, with Charles Bickford and Billy Bletcher the dimwit neighbors), can’t help noticing Sally (Irene Dunne), a guest with her father after their medicine show wagon burned, is kind of a babe, in Paramount’s High, Wide And Handsome, 1937.
High, Wide And Handsome (1937) -- (Movie Clip) She's Been Kissed Before At the town dance in Titusville, PA, 1859, infatuated Peter (Randolph Scott) with visiting medicine-show performer Sally (Irene Dunne) as his Grandma (Elizabeth Patterson) jousts with stuffy Stark (Irving Pichel) and a scuff-up with Scanlon (Charles Bickford) ensues, in High, Wide And Handsome, 1937.
Big Hand For The Little Lady, A -- (Movie Clip) It Must Be A Good Hand! Mary (Joanne Woodward), trying to play her husband's hand, with gamblers (Kevin McCarthy, Jason Robards Jr., Charles Bickford, Robert Middleton) in tow, makes a pitch to banker Ballinger (Paul Ford) in A Big Hand For The Little Lady, 1966.
Jim Thorpe -- All-American (1951) -- (Movie Clip) Fulfilling That Promise Charles Bickford as coach "Pop" Warner continues narration from a testimonial dinner flashback, first appearance of Burt Lancaster as the grown-up title character, meeting his predecessor as B-M-O-C (Steve Cochran), in Jim Thorpe -- All-American, 1951.
Jim Thorpe -- All-American -- (Movie Clip) Quit Complaining Coach "Pop" Warner (Charles Bickford) continuing his narration, about the time his restless track star Burt Lancaster (title character) hustled his way into the football squad, charming Margaret (Phyllis Thaxter) supporting, in Jim Thorpe -- All-American, 1951.
Jim Thorpe -- All-American (1951) -- (Movie Clip) Thorpe Of Carlisle Story leaps forward, as Burt Lancaster (title character) sweeps his first track meet, then meets Margaret (Phyllis Thaxter), confirming his status as a "Letterman," in Jim Thorpe -- All-American, 1951.
Fallen Angel (1945) -- (Movie Clip) Jumping In Front Of The Flatbush Subway We’ve just met Dana Andrews, thrown off the bus in a California town when his ticket ran out, as Judd (Charles Bickford) is talking to the counter man and a cop (Percy Kilbride, Hal Talieferro) about some missing gal, who turns out to be Linda Darnell, opening Otto Preminger’s Fallen Angel, 1945.
Fallen Angel (1945) -- (Movie Clip) He Knows What You Like Drifter Eric (Dana Andrews), who's promoting the seance tomorrow night, gets a warning from ex-cop Judd (Charles Bickford), then hits on Stella (Linda Darnell), the main attraction in a small town Californa diner, early in Otto Preminger's Fallen Angel, 1945.
Song Of Bernadette, The (1945) -- (Movie Clip) This Girl Is Not Deserving Not bright Bernadette (Jennifer Jones) at school in Lourdes, scolded by her teacher (Gladys Cooper), defended somewhat by her sister (Ermadean Walters), all of them visited by Dean Peymarale (Charles Bickford), early in The Song Of Bernadette, 1945.
Plainsman, The (1936) -- (Movie Clip) Has She Tamed You Yet? We haven’t learned the name yet of Gary Cooper, in St. Louis with a kid (George Ernest), whom he’s shown his watch-case photo of Jean Arthur, and told tales about Buffalo Bill (James Ellison), whom we soon learn is his pal, with his new wife (Helen Burgess), and we meet McCall (Porter Hall), C.B. DeMille at the helm, early in The Plainsman, 1936.