Modern audiences may know Roscoe Ates best as the stuttering husband of one of the Hilton Sisters in the movie Freaks.
The stuttering wasn’t just some bizarre character choice — it was his vaudeville shtick. As a child in rural Mississippi Ates had had a horrible, natural stutter, which he later overcame. He first went into vaudeville as a concert violinist, and also played as an accompanist in silent movie theatres. He eventually learned that there was more money in being a stuttering comedian. For a time he was part of a comedy team called Ates and Darling. Then, as a solo act, he headlined on the Orpheum Circuit for over a decade.
Ates went into movies just as talkies were coming in, and found plenty of work, mostly in westerns, such as Billy the Kid (1930), Cimarron (1931), Rancho Grande (1940) and Bad Men of Missouri (1941). For many years, he was the comical sidekick to a singing cowboy named Eddie Dean. You can also see him in comedies and other classics, such as Soup to Nuts (1930) with Ted Healy and The Three Stooges, The Champ (1931) with Wallace Beery, Hold ‘Em Jail (1932) with Wheeler and Woolsey, What No Beer? (1933) with Buster Keaton and Jimmy Durante, Alice in Wonderland (1933), Gone with the Wind (1939, a small but unmistakable role), Abbott and Costello Meet the Keystone Kops (1955), and The Kettles in the Ozarks (1956). He also starred in 15 comedy shorts between 1931 and 1941, and was later frequently seen on TV shows like Maverick and Lawman. His last screen credit was Jerry Lewis’s The Errand Boy (1961).
To find out more about the history of vaudeville, where Roscoe Ates got his start, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous