Cecil Blount DeMille was born in Ashfield, Massachusetts, while his parents were vacationing there, and grew up in Washington, North Carolina. While he is known as DeMille (his nom d'oeuvre), his family name was Dutch and is usually spelled "de Mil". His father, Henry Churchill de Mille (1853–1893), was a North Carolina-born dramatist and lay reader in the Episcopal Church, who had earlier begun a career as a playwright, writing his first play at age 15. His mother was Matilda Beatrice DeMille (née Samuel), whose parents were both of German Jewish heritage. She emigrated from England with her parents in 1871 when she was 18, where they settled in Brooklyn. According to biographer Carol Easton, Beatrice grew up in a middle-class English household.
He had an elder brother William, and a sister, Agnes, who died in childhood. DeMille's niece, who later became a dancer and choreographer, was named after her. He is credited with providing her name.
DeMille's parents met while they were both members of a local music and literary society in New York. She was attracted to Henry, a tall, redheaded student who shared her love of the theater. While he was "slender and mild-mannered", she had dark good looks that "must have seemed to him exotic", writes Easton. She was also intelligent, educated, forthright, and strong-willed, and they were mutually attracted to each other. They were both born in 1853. She would later convert to Henry's faith when they married. Henry worked as a playwright, administrator, and faculty member during the early years of The American Academy of Dramatic Arts, established in New York City in 1884.
They lived in Wayne, New Jersey in a house built by Henry DeMille. The family spent much time in Pompton Lakes, New Jersey, operating a private school in that town and attending Christ Episcopal Church there. Cecil B. DeMille had said that it was while attending that church where he got the idea for The Ten Commandments.
In 1893, at the age of 40, Henry contracted typhoid fever and died, leaving Beatrice with three children, a house, and no savings. Cecil was 11 at the time. Until Henry's sudden death, they had both loved the theater, and she "enthusiastically supported" her husband's theatrical aspirations. Recognizing his love of the theater and his efforts to become a playwright and producer, she wrote at his funeral:
- "May your sons be as fine and as noble and good and honest as you were. May they follow in your steps . . . "
Within eight weeks after his death, to provide an income for the family, Beatrice opened an acting workshop in her home, the Henry C. De Mille School for Girls. She would later become one of the few successful women theater promoters on Broadway. DeMille attended Pennsylvania Military College in Chester, Pennsylvania from the age of 15. Both he (Class of 1900) and his brother William (Class of 1901) also attended and graduated from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, which they attended on scholarship. The Academy later honored DeMille with an Alumni Achievement Award.
DeMille began his career as an actor on the Broadway stage in the theatrical company of Charles Frohman in 1900. His brother William was already establishing himself as a playwright and sometimes worked in collaboration with Cecil. DeMille co-starred with some of the men and women whom he would later direct in films (i.e. Charlotte Walker, Mary Pickford, and Pedro de Cordoba, among others). DeMille also served as producer and/or director for many plays. De Mille found success in the spring of 1913 producing Reckless Age by Lee Wilson. The story about a high society girl wrongly accused of manslaughter starred Frederick Burton and Sydney Shields. Some of these plays were later adapted into silent and sound films. DeMille and his brother occasionally worked with David Belasco. Belasco was legendary for the way he lit his stage scenes, as well as creating a lurid atmosphere. In 1911, Belasco premiered a play titled The Return of Peter Grimm. DeMille claimed he wrote the play and that Belasco had plagiarized DeMille's work without compensation. DeMille later adopted many of Belasco's stage lighting and atmospheric techniques in such films as The Cheat, a move some saw as revenge against Belasco.
DeMille entered films in 1913. He directed dozens of silent films, including Paramount Pictures' first production, The Squaw Man (1914), which was co-directed by Oscar Apfel, before coming into huge popularity during the late 1910s and early 1920s, when he reached the apex of his popularity with such films as Don't Change Your Husband (1919), The Ten Commandments (1923), andThe King of Kings (1927). A few of his silent films featured scenes in two-color Technicolor.
DeMille remade his early hit The Squaw Man twice, once as a silent film The Squaw Man (1918) and then as a sound film The Squaw Man (1931). All three were based on a hit play The Squaw Man about a wrongly disgraced British aristocrat who settles in the Wild West.
Cecil B. DeMille was known for being an instrumental catalyst for the rising status of many a struggling or unknown actor. Actor Richard Dix's best-remembered early role was in the silent version of DeMille's The Ten Commandments. Richard Cromwell owed his 1930s movie fame in part to being personally selected by DeMille for the role as the leader of the youth gang in DeMille's poignant, now cult-favorite, This Day and Age (1933). To ensure that Cromwell's character used current slang, DeMille asked Horace Hahn to read the script and comment (at the time, Hahn was senior class president at Los Angeles High School).
DeMille displayed a loyalty to certain supporting performers, casting them repeatedly in his pictures. They included Henry Wilcoxon, Julia Faye, Joseph Schildkraut, Ian Keith, Charles Bickford, Theodore Roberts, Akim Tamiroff and William Boyd. He also cast leading actors such as Claudette Colbert,Gloria Swanson, Gary Cooper, Jetta Goudal, Robert Preston, Paulette Goddard and Charlton Heston in multiple pictures. He was not known as a particularly good director of actors, often hiring actors whom he relied on to develop their own characters and act accordingly.
DeMille had a reputation for tyrannical behavior on the set, and he despised actors who were unwilling to take physical risks. Such was the case with Victor Mature in Samson and Delilah, when Mature refused to wrestle the lion, though the lion was tame and toothless. (DeMille remarked that Mature was "100% yellow").Paulette Goddard's refusal to risk personal injury in a scene involving fire in Unconquered cost her DeMille's favor and probably a role in The Greatest Show on Earth. DeMille was, however, adept at directing "thousands of extras", and many of his pictures included spectacular set pieces, such as the parting of theRed Sea in both versions of The Ten Commandments, the toppling of the pagan temple in Samson and Delilah, train wrecks in The Road to Yesterday,Union Pacific and The Greatest Show on Earth, and the destruction of a zeppelin in Madame Satan.
DeMille was one of the first directors in Hollywood to become a celebrity in his own right. From 1936 to 1944, DeMille hosted and acted as pitchman for Cecil B. DeMille's Lux Radio Theater, a popular dramatic radio show of the time. Gloria Swanson immortalized DeMille with the oft-repeated line, "All right, Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up" in Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard, wherein DeMille played himself. DeMille also appeared as himself in Paramount's 1947 all-star musical comedy Variety Girl and he narrated many of his later films, as well as appearing on screen in the introduction to The Ten Commandments.
DeMille first used three-strip Technicolor in Northwest Mounted Police (1940). Following the favorable response to the vivid color photography, shot partly on location in the Canadian Rockies, DeMille decided to always use Technicolor in his films.
While he continued to be prolific throughout the 1930s and 1940s, he is probably best known for his 1956 film The Ten Commandments (which is very different from his 1923 film of the same title). Also representative of his penchant for the spectacular was the 1952 production of The Greatest Show on Earth which gave DeMille an Oscar for best picture and a nomination for best director.
In 1949 or 1950, DeMille was recruited by Allen Dulles and Frank Wisner to serve on the board of the anti-communist National Committee for a Free Europe, the public face of the organization that oversaw the Radio Free Europe service. In 1954, Secretary of the Air Force Harold E. Talbott sought out DeMille for help in designing the cadet uniforms at the newly established United States Air Force Academy. DeMille's designs—most notably his design of the distinctive cadet parade uniform—won praise from Air Force and Academy leadership, were ultimately adopted, and are worn by cadets today.
Near the end of his life, DeMille began pre-production work on a film biography of Robert Baden-Powell, 1st Baron Baden-Powell, the founder of theScout Movement and had asked David Niven to star in the film, which was never made. Because of illness, he asked his son-in-law, actor Anthony Quinn, to direct a remake of his 1938 film The Buccaneer; although DeMille served as executive producer, he was unhappy with Quinn's work and tried unsuccessfully to remedy the situation. Despite a cast led by Charlton Heston and Yul Brynner and some impressive battle scenes, the film was considered a disappointment by many.
Though DeMille was respected by his peers, his individual films were often criticized by them. "Directorially, I think his pictures were the most horrible things I've ever seen in my life", said directorWilliam Wellman. "But he put on pictures that made a fortune. In that respect, he was better than any of us." Critic Pauline Kael called De Mille "a sanctimonious manipulator - [he] used to satisfy the voyeuristic needs of the God-abiding by showing them what they were missing by being good and then soothe them by showing them the terrible punishments they escaped by being good."
DeMille married Constance Adams on August 16, 1902 and had one child, Cecilia. They also adopted two sons, John and Richard, the latter of whom became a notable filmmaker, author, and psychologist. The couple also adopted Katherine Lester in the early 1920s; her father had been killed in World War I and her mother had died of tuberculosis. Katherine married Anthony Quinn.
DeMille was a highly active Republican. In 1944, he was the master of ceremonies at the massive rally organized by David O. Selznick in the Los Angeles Coliseum in support of the Dewey-Bricker ticket as well as Governor Earl Warren of California, who would become Dewey's running mate in 1948 and later theChief Justice of the United States. The gathering drew 93,000, with short speeches by Hedda Hopper and Walt Disney. Among those in attendance were Ann Sothern, Ginger Rogers, Randolph Scott, Adolphe Menjou, Gary Cooper, and Walter Pidgeon.
During on-location filming in Egypt of the Exodus sequence for 1956's The Ten Commandments, the then-75-year-old DeMille climbed a 107-foot ladder to the top of the massive Per Rameses set and suffered a near-fatal heart attack. Against his doctor's orders, DeMille was back directing the film within a week.
Though DeMille completed the film, it proved to be his last for he never fully recovered. His doctor made a house call to him on evening of January 20, 1959 and recommended he go to the hospital, and he replied, "No, I think I'll going to the morgue instead," and again did not follow his doctor's orders. He died on January 21, 1959 of a heart ailment. DeMille's funeral was held on January 23 at St. Stephen's Episcopal Church. He was entombed in Hollywood Memorial Cemetery (now known as Hollywood Forever Cemetery). At the time of his death, he was planning to direct a movie about space travel. He also wanted to do a film on the biblical Book of Revelation.