Like fellow Wizard of Oz stars Judy Garland, Jack Haley, Bert Lahr and Ray Bolger (and others connected with the project), Charley Grapewin (Uncle Henry) was a veteran of vaudeville. Born on this day in 1869, Grapewin left home at age ten to join the circus as an acrobat, where he performed on the trapeze, the high wire, and on roller skates. After about a decade, he moved into acting on the melodrama stage and in vaudeville, usually in short plays of his own devising. He was in films as early as the year 1900 (to give you some perspective, the first projected exhibition had been in 1896 — he came along early).
By the twenties, having invested his money wisely (and riding the boom), he became a millionaire and retired. Then he lost everything in the crash, prompting a move back to the screen and an entire second career.
Beloved for his authentic-seeming, folksy quality, Grapewin worked constantly as a character actor in the 30s and 40s in many pictures that have remained classics, not just The Wizard of Oz but Tobacco Road, The Grapes of Wrath, The Petrified Forest, Judge Priest, and scores of others.
Some of his parts veered from the rural stereotype to remind us that he used to be a millionaire. Such opportunities happened in One Frightened Night and Alice Adams. And sometime he deviated wildly, as in The Good Earth, in which he played a Chinese farmer.
Charley Grapewin’s last role was in 1951; he passed away five years later.
To find out more about vaudeville and performers like Charley Grapewin, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous