Wallace Fitzgerald Beery (April 1, 1885 – April 15, 1949) was an American actor. He is best known for his portrayal of Bill in Min and Bill oppositeMarie Dressler, as Long John Silver in Treasure Island, as Pancho Villa in Viva Villa!, and his titular role in The Champ, for which he won theAcademy Award for Best Actor. Beery appeared in some 250 movies over a 36-year span. He was the brother of actor Noah Beery, Sr. and uncle of actor Noah Beery, Jr.
Beery was born in Clay County, Missouri near Smithville. The youngest son of Noah Webster Beery and Frances Margaret (Fitzgerald) Beery, he and his brothers William C. Beery and Noah Beery became Hollywood actors. The Beery family left the farm in the 1890s and moved to nearbyKansas City, Missouri where the father was employed as a police officer.
Wallace Beery attended the Chase School in Kansas City and took piano lessons as well, but showed little love for academic matters. He ran away from home twice, the first time returning after a short time, quitting school and working in the Kansas City train yards as an engine wiper. Beery ran away from home a second time at age 16, and joined the Ringling Brothers Circus as an assistant elephant trainer. He left two years later, after being clawed by a leopard.
Wallace Beery joined his brother Noah in New York City in 1904, finding work in comic opera as a baritone and began to appear on Broadway as well as Summer stock theatre. His most notable early role came in 1907 when he starred in The Yankee Tourist to good reviews. In 1913, he moved to Chicago to work for Essanay Studios, cast as Sweedie, The Swedish Maid, a masculine character in drag. Later, he worked for the Essanay Studios location in Niles, California.
In 1915, Beery starred with his wife Gloria Swanson in Sweedie Goes to College. This marriage did not survive his drinking and abuse. Beery began playing villains, and in 1917 portrayed Pancho Villa in Patria at a time when Villa was still active in Mexico. Beery reprised the role seventeen years later in one of MGM's biggest hits.
Wallace Beery's notable silent films include Arthur Conan Doyle's dinosaur epic The Lost World (1925; as Professor Challenger), Robin Hood with Douglas Fairbanks (Beery played King Richard the Lionheart in this film and a sequel the following year called Richard the Lion-Hearted), Last of the Mohicans (1920), The Round-Up (1920; with Roscoe Arbuckle), Old Ironsides (1926), Now We're in the Air (1927), The Usual Way (1913), Casey at the Bat (1927), and Beggars of Life (1928) with Louise Brooks.
Transition to sound
Beery's powerful basso voice and gruff, deliberate drawl soon became assets when Irving Thalberg hired him under contract to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer as a character actor during the dawn of the sound film era.
Beery played the savage convict "Butch", a role originally intended for Lon Chaney, Sr., in the highly successful 1930 prison film The Big House, for which he was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor. The same year, he made Min and Bill (opposite Marie Dressler), the movie that vaulted him into the box office first rank. He followed with The Champ in 1931, this time winning the Best Actor Oscar, and the role of Long John Silver inTreasure Island (1934). He received a gold medal from the Venice Film Festival for his performance as Pancho Villa in Viva Villa! (1934) with Fay Wray. (Lee Tracy was originally to appear in the film until he drunkenly urinated off the balcony into a crowd of Mexicans standing below; Tracy's career never recovered from the incident.) Other Beery films include Billy the Kid (1930) with Johnny Mack Brown, The Secret Six (1931) with Jean Harlow and Clark Gable, Hell Divers (1931) with Gable, Grand Hotel (1932) with Joan Crawford, Tugboat Annie (1933) with Dressler, Dinner at Eight(1933) opposite Harlow, The Bowery with George Raft, Fay Wray, and Pert Kelton that same year, China Seas (1935) with Gable and Harlow, andEugene O'Neill's Ah, Wilderness! (1935) in the role of a drunken uncle later played on Broadway by Jackie Gleason in a musical comedy version. During the 1930s Beery was one of Hollywood's Top 10 box office stars, and at one point his contract with MGM stipulated that he be paid $1 more than any other contract player at the studio, making him the highest paid actor in the world.
With Dressler in Min and Bill
He starred in several comedies with Marie Dressler and Marjorie Main, but his career began to decline in his last decade. In 1943 his brother Noah Beery, Sr. appeared with him in the war-time propaganda film Salute to the Marines, followed by Bad Bascomb (1946) and The Mighty McGurk (1947). He remained top-billed and none of Beery's films during the sound era lost money at the box office; his movies were particularly popular in the Southern regions of the United States, especially small towns and cities.
Beery's first wife was actress Gloria Swanson; the two performed onscreen together. Although Beery had enjoyed popularity with his Sweedie shorts, his career had taken a dip, and during the marriage to Swanson, he relied on her as a breadwinner. According to Swanson's autobiography, Beery tricked her into swallowing an abortifacient when she became pregnant after he raped her on their wedding night, and caused her to lose their child.Beery's second wife was Rita Gilman. They adopted Carol Ann, daughter of Rita Beery's cousin. Both marriages ended in divorce.
Beery owned and flew his own planes, one a Howard DGA-11. On April 15, 1933 he was commissioned a lieutenant commander in A-V(S), USNR at NRAB Long Beach.
In December 1939, the unmarried Beery adopted a seven-month old infant girl Phyllis Ann. Phyllis appeared in MGM publicity photos when adopted, but was never mentioned again. Beery told the press he had taken the girl in from a single mother, recently divorced, but filed no official adoption papers. No further information on the child appears to exist, and she is not mentioned in Beery's obituary.
Beery left an impression of being misanthropic and difficult to work with on many of his colleagues. Jackie Cooper, who made several films as a child with Beery, called Beery "a big disappointment", and accused him of upstaging and other attempts to undermine the boy's performances out of what Cooper presumed was jealousy. Cooper later revealed that Beery was a violent, foul-mouthed drunkard who was disliked by those with whom he worked. Cooper said Beery had been abusive toward him, and was one of the cruelest, most sadistic people he has ever known. Child actressMargaret O'Brien also worked with Beery, and she ultimately had to be protected by crew members from Beery's insistence on constantly pinching her. Mickey Rooney remains an exception to this attitude among child actors, however, and has frequently stated that he enjoyed working with Beery.
One of his proudest achievements was catching the largest black sea bass in the world off Santa Catalina Island in 1916, a record that stood for 35 years.
A noteworthy episode in Beery's life is chronicled in the 5th episode of Ken Burns' documentary The National Parks: America's Best Idea: In 1943, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an executive order creating Jackson Hole National Monument to protect the land adjoining the Grand Tetons in Wyoming. Local ranchers, outraged at loss of lands they wanted to graze and comparing this action of FDR's to Hitler's taking of Austria, were led by the aging Beery as they protested by herding 500 cattle across the monument lands without a permit.
Wallace Beery died at his Beverly Hills, California home of a heart attack, on April 15, 1949. He was interred in the Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery, in Glendale, California.
For his contributions to the film industry, Wallace Beery has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 7001 Hollywood Boulevard.