The great stage actor Otis Skinner (1858-1942) was a proud son of New England. The son of Universalist minister Charles Skinner, he grew up in Cambridge and Hartford, and was clearly raised to appreciate culture, for his older brother Charles Montgomery Skinner became a noted writer, and his younger brother William Skinner, a painter. When Otis resolved on a career in the theatre, his father secured a letter of introduction from P.T. Barnum which secured him a place with William Pleater Davidge’s company, and he was on his way, initially gaining experience in a wide variety of touring stock companies. He also appeared in one act plays in vaudeville.
Over the years he played Shylock, Falstaff, Hamlet, Richard III, and Romeo, and collaborated with the top stage talent of the day including Augustin Daly, Edwin Booth, Helena Modjeska, and Joseph Jefferson. In 1895 he married Maud Durbin, afterwards a.k.a. Mrs. Otis Skinner, a fellow member of the Booth-Modjeska company. Their daughter, the equally famous Cornelia Otis Skinner, was born in 1899. She will get her own post here in due course!
In 1900, Otis Skinner wrote, produced, and starred in Prince Otto, adapted from the Robert Louis Stevenson novel, the first of over two dozen Broadway credits. The role of Hajj in Kismet (1911) became the one he was most associated with, playing the part in revivals for over 20 years, and reprising it in two screen adaptations in 1920 and 1930. With the exception of a couple of other anomalous little films, these were his only movie appearances, although he was in the original stage version of Blood and Sand (1921), which was made into a film starring Valentino the following year. His last role was the title character in a 1933 revival of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. His last professional engagement was reciting an introduction in a 1935 revival of George M. Cohan’s Seven Keys to Baldpate. Mrs. Otis Skinner passed away the following year. Skinner himself lasted another half dozen years beyond that. Both are buried in Woodstock, Vermont, where the couple had a summer home.
For more on vaudeville and early stage history, please get No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous