Family & Companions
Best remembered for the scandal surrounding the death of an aspiring actress that ended his career, Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle was actually one of early Hollywood's biggest stars even before the likes of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton earned a similar stature. After receiving his start in vaudeville, Arbuckle began making movies like "Ben's Kid" (1909) and went on to become first a bit player, then the main attraction in Mack Sennett's Keystone Kops series. Even though he was a large man, Arbuckle was surprisingly light on his feet and was capable of pulling off acrobatics that even a thin man would have difficulty with. His association with the Keystone Kops helped turn him into a star and in 1914 he began earning an unprecedented $1,000 a day. During this period, Arbuckle turned out his finest work, particularly with "Fatty and Mabel Adrift" (1916), "Out West" (1918) and "The Round-Up" (1920), the last of which was one of his first feature-length pictures. But at the height of his popularity, Arbuckle was rocked by scandal and never recovered. In 1921, he was accused of raping actress Virginia Rappe, the alleged violence of which led to her death from a ruptured bladder days later. Dragged through the mud by William Randolph Hearst and lambasted by the public, Arbuckle suffered through three manslaughter trials - the first two ended with a hung jury - before finally being acquitted. Though found not guilty, Arbuckle was banned from making movies while exhibitors refused to release any picture with his name on it. With his personal and professional lives in tatters, he struggled through the decade in uncredited appearances while directing under the pseudonym William Goodrich until his death in 1933. Because of the trumped up charges, Arbuckle endured unwarranted public scorn born of a lynch mob mentality and never found redemption during his lifetime. While history has managed to clear his name somewhat, Arbuckle nonetheless remained a controversial but important figure from early Hollywood.
Born on March 24, 1887 in Smith Center, KS, Arbuckle was raised one of nine children by his father, William, and his mother, Mollie. Because of his sizeable weight even at birth - he was 13 pounds at birth - his father thought he might have been someone else's illegitimate child, and proceeded to name him after politician and notorious womanizer, Roscoe Conkling, whom he despised. Thanks to possessing a beautiful singing voice, Arbuckle was encouraged by his mother to perform in theaters. But when he was 12 years old, his mother died in part from lingering complications due to his birth. Meanwhile, his father refused to support him, which led Arbuckle to make his own living by working odd jobs at a hotel. It was there that he was first discovered when a customer heard him singing and encouraged him to enter a talent show. After singing and dancing his way through a routine, Arbuckle failed to impress the audience and was about to get the hook, when he jumped into the orchestra pit to the delight of the crowd.
Like many entertainers of his day, Arbuckle began his career in vaudeville. He was chosen by Sid Grauman to sing at the Unique Theater in San Francisco and soon toured with the Pantages Theatre Group. In 1906, Arbuckle was the main performer in Leon Errol's Orpheum Theater, and later toured China and Japan with the Morosco Burbank Stock Company. Meanwhile, he married his first wife, Minta Durfee, in 1908; both husband and wife appeared in several silent comedies together early in Arbuckle's career. He made his movie debut in the comedy "Ben's Kid" (1909) and soon appeared in shorts like "Making It Pheasant for Him" (1909), "The Sanitarium" (1910) and "A Voice from the Deep" (1912). Though an exceedingly large man, Arbuckle was surprisingly quick and agile, a combination that made him perfect for physical comedy. Both corpulent and baby-faced, Arbuckle joined Mack Sennett's Keystone Studios in 1913 and began starring in a number of his famed Keystone Kops movies, including "The Gangsters" (1913), "In the Clutches of the Gang" (1914) and "Wished on Mabel" (1915).
Because of his association with Sennett's popular incompetent cops, Arbuckle's star began to rise. He also began writing, producing and directing a host of short films, some of which featured later silent film stars like Charlie Chaplin in "Tango Tangles" (1914) and "The Rounders" (1914), and Buster Keaton in "The Butcher Boy" (1917) and "Fatty at Coney Island" (1917). But his most popular and enduring partner proved to be Mabel Normand, with whom he made a series of films in the latter half of the decade. In 1914, Arbuckle was making an unprecedented $1,000 a day and a healthy percentage of the profits from his popular shorts in which he sometimes appeared as a woman, as he did in "Miss Fatty's Seaside Lovers" (1915). With "Fatty and Mabel Adrift" (1916), which also featured his frequent co-star, nephew Al St. John, Arbuckle delivered what some historians later dubbed his finest work. But as he was rising in popularity, Arbuckle suffered from serious health complications due to his weight and propensity for drink, and in 1916 was close to losing his leg to amputation from an infected abscess. Though he lost a considerable amount of weight from the ordeal, Arbuckle emerged from his health scare addicted to morphine after the narcotic was administered to manage pain.
Toward the end of the decade, Arbuckle reached the height of his popularity, which rivaled the two comics whom he helped first catch a break: Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. He starred in such notable shorts as "Out West" (1918) and "Back Stage" (1919), the latter of which was one of the last movies he appeared in with Keaton. In the next decade, Arbuckle began making feature films - which at the time typically ran for 60 minutes - and had one of his biggest hits with "The Round-Up" (1920), a Western that cast him as a rather unconventional cowboy. The following year, he starred in "Brewster's Millions" (1921), the second film to be made from George Barr McCutcheon's 1902 novel, and followed with other features like "Traveling Salesman" (1921), "Gasoline Gus" (1921) and "Crazy to Marry" (1921). But just when Arbuckle had become one of Hollywood's biggest stars, his entire world came crashing down around him, leading to a steep personal and professional fall from which he would never recover.
On Sept. 5, 1921, Arbuckle and two friends traveled to San Francisco for a weekend of drink and general revelry that ended in tragedy when one of their female guests at the St. Francis Hotel, aspiring actress Virginia Rappe, died from a ruptured bladder days after falling ill in their room. Though Rappe was known for both her promiscuity and for falling ill while drinking due to her recurring bouts of cystitis, Arbuckle was accused of sexual assault due to the testimony of another female guest, Maude Delmont, who claimed that the actor raped Rappe, which seemed to support Rappe's own deathbed admission that Arbuckle had hurt her. With an overzealous D.A. named Matthew Brady, who was at the timing contemplating a run for governor, and the smear-happy newspapers owned by William Randolph Hearst - who twisted the story to include a Coca-Cola bottle into the sordid account - Arbuckle was vilified across the country despite an overwhelming lack of evidence that he was guilty. Originally facing murder charges with the death penalty, Arbuckle was soon tried three times for manslaughter, since the first two trials ended with a hung jury. Eventually, he was acquitted of the charges after his third trial, with the jury deliberating for a mere six minutes before delivering a not guilty verdict and issuing a formal apology. But both the personal and professional damage had been done - Arbuckle, once Hollywood's top star, found himself banned from appearing in movies while the ones he had in the can, like "Leap Year" (1921) and "The Fast Freight" (1921), were denied U.S. theatrical release.
Because of the scandals that permeated Hollywood in the 1920s, with Arbuckle's being the most pernicious, Hollywood established the Hays Office to self-censor itself and protect its image, while requiring studios to include morality clauses in their contracts. Meanwhile, Arbuckle suffered a devastating blow in his personal and professional life. In 1923, his estranged wife, Minta Durfee, filed for divorce, even though she had loyally remained by his side throughout the ordeal. Though banned for a short time by the Hays Office, Arbuckle was allowed to make movies again, though he found that the studios did not want to work with him. It was through the generosity of his friend, Buster Keaton, that Arbuckle received any roles at all, most of which were small and uncredited. He appeared briefly in movies like "Go West" (1925) and "Listen Lena" (1927), while writing and directing under the pseudonym William Goodrich, including the Marion Davies feature "The Red Mill" (1924). The following year, he married Doris Deane, only to divorce four years later.
In 1932, he married a third time to Addie Oakley Dukes McPhail, while seeing something of a career resurgence. After returning to the stage with "Baby Mine" (1927), he made several vaudeville appearances in an unsuccessful European tour. By this time, Arbuckle had found his only solace inside a bottle, though he did manage to poise himself for a comeback when Warner Bros. signed him to a contract. His first film for the studio was "Hey, Pop!" (1932), and he went on to star alongside Shemp Howard of the Three Stooges fame in the two-reel comedy "In the Dough" (1932). He made his last films the following year, which included "Buzzin' Around" (1933), "How've You Bean?" (1933) and "Close Relations" (1933). But just when Arbuckle was ready to make his first feature-length movie for Warner Bros., he died on June 29, 1933 of a heart attack in his sleep. He was 46. Arbuckle remained a vilified figure up until his death and never managed to find the redemption - both personally and professionally - that he deserved. Though history later rectified his image somewhat, Arbuckle was still often associated with a crime he did not commit. But his comedic genius would go on to influence other comics in the years to come, including similarly rotund comedians like John Candy, John Belushi and Chris Farley, the latter of whom was planning to star as Arbuckle in a proposed biopic before his 1997 overdose death.
Director (Feature Film)
Cast (Feature Film)
Writer (Feature Film)
Family moved to California
Hired to work the Pantages vaudeville circuit
First appearance in film as an extra in one-reel comedies for Selig Polyscope Company
First film appearance in "Ben's Kid"
Joined Keystone; first film as actor (Keystone Cop) in "In the Clutches of the Gang"
Feature film acting debut, "Passions He Had Three"
Directed first feature, "Barnyard Flirtations"
Teamed with Mabel Normand for a series of films
Established own film company, Comique, in partnership with Joseph M Schenck; films released through Famous Players Lasky; hired Buster Keaton as a writer
Signed with Paramount; made nine films in an eighteen month period
Arrested and charged with manslaughter in the death of Virginia Rappe
Began directing films under the pseudonym William B Goodrich
Returned to stage in "Baby Mine"
Opened restaurant, The Plantation Cafe (closed 1930)
Made several vaudeville appearances and an unsuccessful European tour
Had just completed four comedy shorts for Warner Bros. at the time of death; died of heart attack after celebrating his first wedding anniversary with third wife