Born in London, England, and baptized as Augustus George Andrews but commonly listed as George Augustus Andrews, his relatives referred to him as Uncle Gus. Arliss was educated at Harrow, he started work in his father's publishing office, but left age eighteen to go on the stage. He began his acting career on the stage in the English provinces in 1887. By 1900, he was playing London's West End in supporting roles. He embarked for a tour of America in 1901 in Mrs Patrick Campbell's troupe. Intending to remain in the U.S. only for the length of the tour, Arliss stayed for twenty years, eventually becoming a star in 1908 in The Devil. Producer George Tyler commissioned Louis Napoleon Parker in 1911 to write a play specifically tailored for Arliss and the actor toured in Disraeli for five years, eventually becoming closely identified with the 19th century British prime minister.
He began his film career with The Devil (1921), followed by Disraeli and four other silent films. Today, only The Devil, $20 a Week and The Green Goddess (1923), based on the hit stage play in which he had starred, are known to have survived. He remade Disraeli (1929) in sound (and won the Academy Award for Best Actor), converting successfully at the age of 61 from a star of the legitimate theatre, then silent films, to the talkies.
Arliss made ten sound films exclusively for Warner Bros. under a contract that gave the star an unusual amount of creative control over his films. Curiously, his casting of actors and rewriting of scripts were privileges granted him by the studio that are not even mentioned in his contract. One of these films, The Man Who Played God (1932), was Bette Davis' first leading role. Until the end of Davis' life, she would credit Arliss for personally insisting upon her as his leading lady and giving her a chance to show her mettle. The two also co-starred in The Working Man in 1933.
Arliss built a production unit at Warners' both in front of and behind the cameras. His stage manager, Maude Howell, became an assistant producer and was one of the few female film executives in Hollywood at that time. After his first three films, Arliss approved an undistinguished director, John Adolfi, to direct each of his films from that point on. Adolfi soon found himself regarded as a successful director of the critically and financially acclaimed Arliss films. Arliss preferred to use the same reliable actors from film to film such as Ivan Simpson (who was also a sculptor) and Charles Evans. Yet Arliss had an eye for discovering unknown newcomers, such as James Cagney, Randolph Scott and Dick Powell, among others. Despite his extensive involvement in the planning and production of his films, Arliss claimed credit only for acting.
Working closely with Warners' production chief, Darryl F. Zanuck, Arliss left the studio when Zanuck resigned in April 1933. Zanuck quickly signed Arliss to make new films at Zanuck's fledgling studio, 20th Century Pictures, prompting Warners to bitterly complain to the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences that Zanuck had "stolen" their star. Arliss is remembered primarily for his witty series of historical biographies such as Alexander Hamilton, Voltaire, The House of Rothschild, The Iron Duke, and Cardinal Richelieu.
However, he had a second string to his bow, a series of domestic comedies such as The Millionaire, A Successful Calamity, The Working Man, and The Last Gentleman, among others.
He often appeared with his wife, Florence Arliss (1871–1950), to whom he was married from 16 September 1899 until his death. They had no children, although Leslie Arliss, who became a prolific producer-director for Gainsborough Pictures, is erroneously referred to as their son in some reference works. Florence (or "Flo," as George called her) starred both on stage and in films (both silent and sound) with her husband and almost always played his character's spouse. However, that did not prevent Arliss from using another actress when Flo was not right for a role. Also, Flo turned down roles that George wanted her to play in films.
In 1934 British filmgoers named Arliss their favourite male star.
Arliss was approaching 70 when he completed the British-made Doctor Syn in 1937. He and Flo returned to America later that year to visit old friends, including famed astronomer Edwin Hubble in California. Producer-director Cecil B. DeMille arranged for the Arlisses to re-enact their roles in Disraeli on DeMille's popular radio show, Lux Radio Theater, in January 1938. The occasion was heralded as "a new page in radio history". George and Flo subsequently appeared on Lux in radio adaptations of The Man Who Played God in March 1938, and in Cardinal Richelieu in January 1939, which was apparently their final dramatic appearance anywhere. Returning to their home in London in April 1939, the onset of World War II prevented their return to America during Arliss's remaining years. The only taint of scandal involved charges by the British Government in September 1941 that Arliss had not complied with a recent requirement to report bank accounts he maintained in the U.S. and Canada. (Similar charges were also brought against actor-playwright Noël Coward a few weeks later.) Both men claimed ignorance of the new law, but were fined and publicly humiliated by the experience.
Last years and death
Arliss settled at Pangbourne in Berkshire. Film producer Darryl F. Zanuck tried to interest Arliss in returning to Hollywood to star in The Pied Piper in 1942. Braving the Luftwaffe's Blitz on London throughout the war, Arliss remained in his native city, where he died of a bronchial ailment on 5 February 1946, aged 77. His gravestone does not refer to his success in the performing arts, but recites the one achievement of which he was apparently most proud: an honorary Masters of Arts degree he received from Columbia University in 1919.