If ever an actor was closely identified with one role, it?s Monty Woolley for playing Sheridan Whiteside, the irascible and overbearing house guest who refuses to go away in The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942). Playwrights George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart had modeled the character of ?Sherry? after their close friend, theater critic and radio personality Alexander Woolcott, and had imagined him playing the role when the stage comedy debuted on Broadway in 1939. But Woolcott?s busy schedule meant that Woolley stepped into the play for its initial run of 783 performances, then sealed his identification with the role by repeating it in the film version and, eventually, on television.
Woolley?s two Oscar nominations came for other roles ? as Best Actor for The Pied Piper (1942) and Best Supporting Actor for Since You Went Away (1944). He also won a Best Actor award from the National Board of Review for Pied Piper. But the actor fondly known as ?The Beard? for his immaculately groomed white whiskers, will always be remembered by audiences as the acid-tongued, wheelchair-bound Whiteside.
Edgar Montillion Woolley was born into a socially prominent family on August 17, 1888, in Manhattan. He received degrees from both Yale and Harvard and taught English and drama at Yale, where his students included Stephen Vincent Benét and Thornton Wilder. He served in the U.S. Army during World War I. His close friendship with composer/songwriter Cole Porter led him into the theatrical life in New York City, where he directed musicals and revues, many in association with Porter.
At age 47 Woolley gave up the academic life altogether to pursue a career as a performer, making his Broadway debut in the hit musical On Your Toes (1936). That same year he made his movie debut with an uncredited bit for 20th Century Fox in Ladies in Love. Then he settled in at MGM to play a series of doctors, lawyers and professors in such movies as Everybody Sing (1938), The Girl of the Golden West (1938), Lord Jeff (1938) and Dancing Co-Ed (1939).
The Pied Piper is a drama set during World War II, with Woolley in his Oscar-nominated role as a cantankerous Englishman on holiday in France when the Nazis invade. Reluctantly, he agrees to transport a group of French children into England. In another WWII outing, David O. Selznick?s Since You Went Away, Woolley is a jaded but sympathetic boarder in Claudette Colbert?s home while her husband is at war.
Woolley must have been amused by the antiseptic portrait drawn of his friend, the high-living Cole Porter, in the Warner Bros. biopic Night and Day (1946), with Cary Grant as Porter and Woolley playing himself. Woolley took the top-billed lead in the musical Irish Eyes Are Smiling (1944), playing an irascible Broadway producer with a more-than-passing resemblance to Sheridan Whiteside.
Woolley starred with British comedienne Gracie Field in two films, Holy Matrimony (1943) and Molly and Me (1945). He reunited with Cary Grant in the delightful comedy The Bishop?s Wife (1947), playing an atheist professor who is nonetheless charmed by guardian angel Cary. Woolley had another lead (with Marilyn Monroe in support!) in As Young as You Feel (1951), a comedy about a man who fights back when he?s forced to retire. Woolley returned to MGM for his final film, a version of the operetta Kismet (1955) in which he plays an unaccustomedly agreeable Omar.
Woolley, a part of the theatrical gay underground from the Roaring ?20s, never married and died in Albany, NY, in 1963.
Cast (Feature Film)
Broadway acting debut
First film role in "Live, Love and Learn"