December 3 is the birthday of an interesting and anomalous Hollywood star Richard Talmadge (1892-1981). Talmadge was a person of so much fluidity and variation, he’s impossible to put in a simple capsule. Sometimes billed as Dick Talmadge, his real name was either Sylvester Metzetti, Ricardo Metzetti, Sylvester Ricardo Metzetti, or Sylvester Alphonse Metz, and he was either Swiss or German, or German born to Italian-Swiss parents, and he worked in Hollywood as an actor, stuntman, stunt coordinator, director and producer! And he’s no relation, obviously, to the Talmadge Sisters.
Talmadge started out in a family trapeze act called the Flying Metzettis, or the Five Metzettis, which played circuses and vaudeville (which is probably what brought them to America). The Metzettis are said to have been the first to perform the quadruple back somersault, which was achieved while they were performing with Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey in 1917.
One of the interesting things about Talmadge’s silent career is that, while he was working as Douglas Fairbanks‘ stunt double on many or most of his major movies of the silent era, he was simultaneously starring in very Fairbanksesque independently made rip-off films with titles like American Manners (1924), The Prince of Pep (1925), and The Cavalier (1928). His career as a stunt man begins in 1920; he began starring in films only one year later. Some of his films were self-produced. No one seemed to care about the derivative nature of his own films, probably because these movies were kind of under-the-radar, doing better in foreign markets than in the States. Despite his heavy accent he managed to continue to star in B movies in serials through the mid-1930s. His last starring vehicle was The Speed Reporter (1936).
Talmadge had several more walk-on credits over the decades, although he didn’t need them. By that point he had diversified tremendously and was able to get jobs in many different capacities. At the peak of his authority, he was writer-producer-director of two films: Jeep-Herders (1945) and Detour to Danger (1946). He also directed the B movies Border Outlaws (1950), Project Moon Base (1953), and I Killed Wild Bill Hickok (1956) and the TV movie El Coyote (1957). (This interesting latter project was a pilot for a series starring former Olympic star Muriel Davis as a Zorro-like female hero. The series wasn’t picked up). Talmadge was either associate director, assistant director, or second unit director of some two dozen films, many of them quite major, including Beau Geste (1939), Prince Valiant (1954), North to Alaska (1960), How the West was Won (1962), The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965), What’s New Pussycat? (1965), and Casino Royale (1967). He kept a hand in performing stunts through the early ’50s, and coordinating stunts through How the West Was Won (1962). His last credit was as a second unit director on a TV movie called The Fantastic Seven in 1979.
Talmadge’s brothers Otto and Victor Metzetti also worked as Hollywood stunt men.
To find out more about the history of vaudeville, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on silent film, read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube,