Family & Companions
Hard-drinking, fast-talking character actor legend Broderick Crawford received his start on stage and gained significant attention via his performance as the mentally challenged Lennie in a theatrical production of "Of Mice and Men" (1937-38). Motion picture roles followed, but he would not attain genuine notoriety in that medium until 1949, thanks to a bravura, Oscar-winning turn as corrupt politician Willy Stark in "All the King's Men" (1949). Crawford was soon also able to display rarely showcased comedic talent as the gangster antagonist of the smash Judy Holliday vehicle "Born Yesterday" (1950). With his roughhewn features and gravelly voice, Crawford made for an offbeat leading man in superior, small-scale productions like "The Mob" (1951) and "Scandal Sheet" (1952), but his most popular credit of the time was the hit television series "Highway Patrol" (syndicated, 1955-59). He continued to score roles right into his seventies and was rarely off the mark. While there were no shortage of tough guys in Golden Age Hollywood, Crawford had remarkable presence that he could augment with a tangible intelligence when portraying both violent underworld thugs and esteemed authority figures.
William Broderick Crawford was born in Philadelphia, PA on Dec. 9, 1911 and his name was partially derived from his parents, performers Helen Broderick and Lester Crawford. With that pedigree, it was perhaps inevitable that Crawford would take an interest in acting. However, aside from occasionally joining them on stage as a child, Crawford did not really pursue the profession for some time. Upon finishing at Dean Academy, he spent a mere three weeks as a student at Harvard University before deciding to pursue a blue-collar existence in a series of jobs. Acting became part of his life again during this time and Crawford appeared in Noel Coward's "Port Valaine" (1935) before making his Broadway debut in the comedy "Sweet Mystery of Life" (1935). That production proved to be short-lived, but "Of Mice and Men" (1937-38) made Crawford's theater career. Burly and imposing, he proved a perfect choice to play simple-minded but powerful Lennie in George S. Kaufman's popular adaptation of the John Steinbeck novel. The notice he gained for the play led to movie offers, which Crawford quickly accepted.
His first motion picture was the Miriam Hopkins comic romance "Woman Chases Man" (1937) and Crawford continued on in a series of mostly unremarkable action and Western titles for the next few years. Unfortunately for him, Lon Chaney, Jr. took over the role of Lennie for the "Of Mice and Men" (1939) film incarnation, though there were no hard feelings and the two men remained loyal friends and drinking buddies for years to come. In 1940, Crawford married his first wife, actress Kay Griffith, and the couple had two children during the 18 years they were together. He took a break from performing in 1943 to serve with the United States Army and was stationed overseas, where his duties included being a host on the Armed Forces Network. While he had appeared in few truly noteworthy movies up to that point, Crawford was rarely at a loss for work and quality efforts like "Black Angel" (1946) and "The Time of Your Life" (1948) helped offset the formula genre fare that made up the bulk of his paychecks. However, he made a spectacular jump to leading man with "All the King's Men" (1949) and his turn as crooked politico Willy Stark, who was based on notorious Louisiana governor Huey Long. The highly popular screen version of Robert Penn Warren's novel benefitted enormously from Crawford's imposing performance as the power-mad figure and his peers rewarded him with the Best Actor Academy Award over several major stars.
He also had a perfect vehicle for his comedic talents with "Born Yesterday" (1950), where he was a riot as the uncouth tycoon boyfriend of dim-witted Judy Holliday. To his credit, Crawford also did an effective job of maintaining audience sympathy for the character during the sequences where he mistreated her. Crawford's look and physique were more suited to supporting parts than leads, but the quality of his acting kept him top-billed for a time in such superior B-movies as "The Mob" (1951), "Scandal Sheet" (1952), and "Down Three Dark Streets" (1954). He also found ample acting opportunities on television and it would be this small screen work that kept his popularity thriving. Following guest spots on various dramatic programs, Crawford was tapped to star in "Highway Patrol" (syndicated, 1955-59), where he played fast-talking, hardboiled police chief Dan Matthews. The program was a hit and while the personality and presence Crawford brought to the role was a major component, he also ended being a major liability. The actor's increasing alcoholism led to a number of problems and embarrassments, including real-life arrests for drunk driving and, finally, a suspended license. The pace of production eventually wore Crawford down and he declined to return for a fifth season.
In between his "Highway Patrol" obligations, Crawford continued to undertake familiar assignments in films like "Big House, U.S.A." (1955) and "The Fastest Gun Alive" (1956), and began the 1960s with a pair of stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for his movie and television work. He was lured back to the small screen with the promise of a new series. "King of Diamonds" (syndicated, 1961-62) cast him as the security chief of the world's diamond industry, but it failed to duplicate the success of "Highway Patrol" and was discontinued after one season. By this time, he had separated from Griffith and married a second actress, Joan Tabor. Additional character parts followed and Crawford was a frequent guest star on various primetime programs. He also often headed overseas for roles, including a pair of minor spaghetti Westerns, "Mutiny at Fort Sharp" (1966) and "The Texican" (1966), and the silly horror outing "The Vulture" (1967). Such fare was increasingly common for the actor as he trudged his way through one schlocky B-picture after another. The low-budget spy thriller "The Fakers" (1967) ended up being re-edited with a biker subplot and released as "Hell's Bloody Devils" (1970), while further European ventures like "Guerilla Strike Force" (1970) and "How Did a Nice Girl Like You Get Into This Business?" (1970) gave Crawford a paid vacation, but precious little else.
He made one final return to series television as a regular on "The Interns" (CBS, 1970-71), but the show disappeared from the air after only a few months. Further guest assignments - including an unexpected hosting stint on an episode of "Saturday Night Live" (NBC, 1975- ) that included a send-up of "Highway Patrol" - and a handful of made-for-TV features followed. He also joined about half of the remaining show business old-timers in the dire satire "Won Ton Ton: The Dog Who Saved Hollywood" (1976). Crawford was married to his third wife, Mary Moore, by that point and it was the relationship that lasted the remainder of his life. The actor enjoyed one of his better late career outings in "The Private Life of J. Edgar Hoover" (1977). Like much of writer-director Larry Cohen's output, the filmmaking was often unpolished, but the script offered much to think about and Crawford gave an inspired portrayal of the infamous F.B.I. director. The youth drama "Liar's Moon" (1982) turned out to be Crawford's final picture. Years of heavy drinking and unhealthy eating finally took its toll and he suffered a series of strokes that led to his passing on April 26, 1986.
By John Charles
Cast (Feature Film)
Misc. Crew (Feature Film)
London stage debut as football player in "She Loves Me Not"
Broadway debut in "Point Valaine" starring Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne
Film debut, "Woman Chases Man"
Left Hollywood for stage; starred on Broadway as Lennie in "Of Mice and Men"
Joined Army Air Force and served overseas for 18 months, fighting in the Battle of the Bulge
TV debut on Video Theatre's "Hunt the Man Down"
TV series debut as Chief Dan Matthews on "Highway Patrol"