Today is the birthday of the great stage and screen actor Walter Hampden (Walter Hampden Dougherty, 1879-1955).
For better or worse, Hampden is probably best known today for the meta, self-referential in-joke that begins All About Eve (1950) — he is the long-winded, aging thespian who presents Anne Baxter her award. Well over a half century later Hampden (a star in his own day) is sadly obscure in our time, just the sort of character we take pleasure in bringing back out into the light.
In New York’s Players Club, there is an enormous portrait of Hampden as Cyrano. When I first started researching No Applause about 15 years ago, I (rightly) appalled the club’s curator by having only the sketchiest notion of whom Hampden was. I am a creature of the television age. But in the theatre, Hampden was BEYOND somebody. He was president of the Players Club for 27 years. He is depicted as Cyrano in his portrait because he had played the character of Broadway FIVE TIMES; he was the American actor most closely identified with the role prior to Jose Ferrer. He played Hamlet on Broadway THREE times (he’s second only to John Barrymore as Broadway’s most notable American Hamlet). In 1920 he began producing and directing most of the plays in which he starred. In 1925 he acquired one of New York’s most important vaudeville houses, the Colonial Theatre, and operated it for six years as Hampden’s Theatre, presenting several classics by Shakespeare and Ibsen and others, as well as Cyrano. (He’d earned his authority on Ibsen touring with Nazimova early in his career in 1907). Hampden’s last stage role was in the original production of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible in 1953.
There is much more to his stage career– nearly 50 years of legendary performances. But we live in the media age! And unfortunately Hampden came to films late in his career, and played mostly supporting roles, so he is not remembered as the great star that he was. But for those with eyes to see you can check out his work in such classics as The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939), They Died with Their Boots On (1941), Sabrina (1954), and The Silver Chalice (1954).
Hampden was the brother of the painter Paul Dougherty.
For more on show business history, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.