Joe E. Brown (July 28, 1891 – July 6, 1973) was an American actor and comedian, remembered for his amiable screen persona, comic timing, and enormous smile. He was one of the most popular American Comedians in the 1930s and 1940s with successful films like Earthworm Tractors. In his later career Brown starred in Some Like It Hot as Osgood Fielding III.
Brown was born on July 28, 1891, in Holgate, Ohio, near Toledo. He spent most of his childhood in Toledo. In 1902, at the age of nine, he joined a troupe of circus tumblers known as the Five Marvelous Ashtons who toured the country on both the circus and vaudeville circuits. Later he became a professional baseball player. He was skilled baseball player and declined an opportunity to sign with the New York Yankees to pursue his career as an entertainer. After three seasons he returned to the circus, then went into Vaudeville and finally starred on Broadway. He gradually added comedy into his act and transformed himself into a comedian. He moved to Broadway in the 1920s first appearing in the musical comedy Jim Jam Jems.
In late 1928, Brown began making films, starting the next year with Warner Bros.. He quickly shot to stardom after appearing in the first all-color all-talking musical comedy On with the Show (1929). He starred in a number of lavish Technicolor Warner Brothers musical comedies including: Sally (1929), Hold Everything (1930), and Song of the West (1930),"Going Wild (1930)". By 1931, Joe E. Brown had become such a star that his name began to appear alone above the title of the movies in which he appeared.
He followed in Fireman, Save My Child (1932), a comedy in which he played a member of the St. Louis Cardinals, with Elmer, the Great(1933) with Patricia Ellis and Claire Dodd, and Alibi Ike (1935) with Olivia de Havilland, in both of which he portrayed ballplayers with theChicago Cubs.
In 1933 he starred in Son of a Sailor with Jean Muir and Thelma Todd. In 1934, Brown starred in A Very Honorable Guy with Alice Whiteand Robert Barrat, and in The Circus Clown again with Patricia Ellis and with Dorothy Burgess and with Maxine Doyle in Six-Day Bike Rider. Brown was one of the few vaudeville comedians to appear in a Shakespeare film; he played Francis Flute in the Max Reinhardt/William Dieterle film version of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream (1935), and was highly praised for his performance. He starred in Polo Joe (1936) with Carol Hughes and Richard "Skeets" Gallagher, and Sons O' Guns. In 1933 and 1936, he became one of the top ten earners in films. He was sufficiently well known internationally by this point to be depicted in comic strips in the British comic Film Fun for twenty years from 1933.
He left Warner Brothers to work for producer David L. Loew, starring in When's Your Birthday? (1937). In 1938, he starred in The Gladiator, a loose film-adaptation of Philip Gordon Wylie's 1930 novel Gladiator, which influenced the creation of Superman. He gradually switched to making "B" pictures.
World War II
Joe E. Brown and
Irving Leroy Ress
(right) c. 1950
In 1939, Brown testified before the House Immigration Committee in support of a bill that would allow 20,000 German Jewish refugee children into the US, and he later adopted two refugee children. In 1942 Brown's son, Captain Don E. Brown, was killed when his military plane crashed nearPalm Springs, California. During WWII, he spent a great deal of time entertaining troops, spending many nights working and meeting servicemen at the Hollywood Canteen. He wrote of his experiences entertaining the troops in his book Your Kids and Mine.
Joe E. Brown's own two sons were in the military service. At 50, he was too old to enlist. Likable and gregarious, Brown traveled thousands of miles at his own expense to entertain American troops. He was the first to do so, traveling to both the Caribbean and Alaska before Bob Hope or the USO were organized.
"While big USO names like Bob Hope did not visit the Leyte, Philippine area my father was in (housing was not good), Leyte received any number of entertainers during the war. Dad said the entertainers were all just a bunch of nice people. One group in particular was the top actors from a very popular and large musical of the times. Dad and a few of his buddies would walk back to the tents that housed the USO performers and would visit with them. Mostly, the USO performers were curious about the events on the islands and how the men were handling things. One performer, a “wonderful comedian” named Joe E. Brown, would commandeer a military vehicle and be driven around the island. The entertainer would stop military pedestrians, “ream” them for some inconsequential matter, start laughing, then invite them into the cab so they could be driven to their destinations. Joe E. Brown was greatly appreciated." (Memories of Capt. Donald Courtright, told to his daughter Mary in 2011.)
On his return to the States he brought sacks of letters, making sure they were delivered by the Post Office Department. He gave shows in all weather conditions, many in hospitals, sometimes doing his entire show for a single dying soldier. He would sign autographs for everyone. Brown was one of only two civilians to be awarded the Bronze Star in WWII.
In 1948, he was awarded a Special Tony Award for his work in the touring company of Harvey.
He had a cameo appearance in Around the World in 80 Days (1956), as a stationmaster talking to Fogg (David Niven) and his entourage in a small town in Nebraska. In the similarly epic film It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963), he cameoed as a union official giving a speech at a construction site in the climactic scene. He was the Mystery Guest on What's My Line? during the January 11, 1953 episode.
His best known postwar role was that of aging millionaire Osgood Fielding III in Some Like It Hot (1959), the comedy directed by Billy Wilder. Fielding falls for Daphne (Jerry), played by Jack Lemmon in drag, and gets to say one of the most celebrated punchlines in film history. Another of his notable postwar roles was that of "Cap'n Andy Hawkes" inMGM's 1951 remake of Show Boat, a role that he reprised onstage in the 1961 New York City Center revival of the musical, and on tour. The musical film version included such prominent costars as Ava Gardner, Howard Keel and Kathryn Grayson. Brown performed several dance routines in the film, and famed choreographer Gower Champion appeared along with first wife Marge.
in the "Journey to Ninevah" episode ofRoute 66
Brown was a sports enthusiast, both in film and personally. Some of his best films were the "baseball trilogy" which consisted of Fireman, Save My Child (1932), Elmer the Great (1933) and Alibi Ike (1935). He was also a television and radio broadcaster for the New York Yankees in 1953. His son, Joe L. Brown, inherited an interest in baseball, becoming the general manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates for more than twenty years. Brown also spent Ty Cobb's last days with him before he died, discussing his life.
Brown's sports enthusiasm also led to him becoming the first president of PONY Baseball and Softball (at the time named Pony League) when the organization was incorporated in 1953. He continued in the post until late 1964 when he retired. Later he traveled additional thousands of miles telling the story of PONY League, hoping to interest adults in organizing baseball programs for young people. He was also a fan ofThoroughbred horse racing, a regular at Del Mar Racetrack and the races at Santa Anita.
In popular culture
He was caricatured in the Disney cartoons Mickey's Gala Premiere (1933), Mother Goose Goes Hollywood (1938), and The Autograph Hound(1939). All of them contain a scene in which he is seen laughing so loud that his mouth opens extremely wide. According to the official autobiography Daws Butler: Characters Actor, Daws Butler used Joe E. Brown as inspiration for the voices of two Hanna-Barbera cartoon characters: Lippy the Lion (1962) and Peter Potamus (1963–1966).
Later life, family, and legacy
Brown had four children: two sons, Don Evan Brown (December 25, 1916 – October 8, 1942; Captain in the United States Army Air Force who was killed during pilot training) andJoe LeRoy "Joe L." Brown (September 1, 1918 – August 15, 2010), and two daughters, Mary Katherine Ann (b. 1930) and Kathryn Francis (b. 1934). Both daughters were adopted as infants.
Joe L. Brown shared his father's love of baseball, serving as general manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates from 1955 to 1976 and briefly in 1985, and building the 1960 and 1971 World Series champions. Brown's '71 Pirates featured baseball's first all-black starting nine. Brown's final film appearance was in The Comedy of Terrors (1964). Weeks earlier, he had appeared as Diamond "Dimey" Vine in an episode of Jack Palance's ABC circus drama The Greatest Show on Earth.
Brown died from arteriosclerosis on July 6, 1973, at his home in Brentwood, Los Angeles. He began having heart problems in 1968 after suffering a severe heart attack and underwent cardiac surgery. Bowling Green State University dedicated one of its three theaters to him (the one in which he appeared in Harvey in the 1950s) as the Joe E. Brown Theatre. He also has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 1680 Vine Street.