Tough Talker – Charles Bickford (1891 – 1967)

Posted in Rewind by - February 18, 2014
Tough Talker – Charles Bickford (1891 – 1967)

Rugged, gruff-voiced character actor Charles Bickford, was a towering talent and one of the greatest supporting actors of his time. Serious looking and often imposing, he supported some of the biggest stars of the day, often in award winning movies.

Born in Massachusetts, on New Years Day 1891, Charles Bickford gave up a dream of becoming an engineer, to tour in a burlesque show. He spent over a decade in theatre touring groups, and was eventually discovered by legendary director Cecil B. DeMille, who offered Bickford a contract at MGM. Bickford had an early romantic role opposite Greta Garbo in ‘Anna Christie’ (’30), and played a gangster in the Shirley Temple drama ‘Little Miss Marker’ (’34). The following year he supported Henry Fonda, in Fonda’s Hollywood debut; ‘The Farmer Takes a Wife’ (’35). Next was a good Gary Cooper western ‘The Plainsman’ (’36), where he was villainous gun-runner; John Lattimer.

1939 saw Charles excel in the role of Slim, in the John Steinbeck masterpiece ‘Of Mice and Men’. Then he was Buck Rand, the greedy circus owner who takes Tarzan’s adopted son to New York to be a novelty circus act, in ‘Tarzan’s New York Adventure’ (’42). Bickford’s first of three Supporting Actor nominations came in 1943, when he played Father Peyramale, in Henry King’s miracle drama ‘The Song of Bernadette’, opposite Jennifer Jones. After playing a cop in the solid noir ‘Fallen Angel’ (’45), he was with Jennifer Jones again for the 1946 technicolor western ‘Duel in the Sun’.

In 1947 Bickford received another Oscar nomination as Joseph Clancy in ‘The Farmer’s Daughter’, which won its star Loretta Young the Academy Award. That same year he shone as a seasoned inmate in the tough prison movie; ‘Brute Force’, then received a well deserved third and final Oscar nomination in 1948, for the excellent rural melodrama ‘Johnny Belinda’, as deaf mute Jane Wyman’s hard working father. Wyman won a well deserved Oscar, and Bickford showed genuine warmth and humanity in one of his best performances.

The 1950 drama ‘Guilty of Treason’ had Bickford in a rare lead role, playing tortured Hungarian Joszef Mindszenty, a Roman Catholic priest speaking out about the Russian Occupation of Hungary during World War II. After playing Burt Lancaster’s athletics coach ‘Pop’ Warner in the 1951 biopic ‘Jim Thorpe – All American’, Charles had a good role as studio head Oliver Niles, in the Judy Garland musical drama; ‘A Star is Born’ (’54). In 1955 he supported Gary Cooper again, in ‘The Court-martial of Billy Mitchell’, and aided Robert Mitchum in Stanley Kramer’s medical drama ‘Not as a Stranger’ (also ’55). Another strong part came in William Wyler’s 1958 all-star western; ‘The Big Country’, as Carroll Baker’s feuding father Major Terrill, trading gunfire with Burl Ives’ struggling ranch owner.

1960 began with another western, ‘The Unforgiven’, as rancher Zeb Rawlins, then he played Lee Remick’s father in the acclaimed alcoholic drama ‘Days of Wine and Roses’. Bickford’s last screen role would turn out to be one his most enjoyable, as woman-hating undertaker Benson Tropp, in 1967’s ‘Big Hand for the Little Lady’, he almost stole the show.

Married for over 50 years, with two children, Charles Bickford died of a blood infection on November 9th 1967, aged 76. A hard-drinking, tough talking scoundrel, Charles rose from nowhere to become one of Hollywood’s most cherished and well-loved character actors.

Favourite Movie: Johnny Belinda
Favourite Performance: A Big Hand for the Little Lady

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