Sidney Toler: Before Charlie Chan

Today, Sidney Toler (Hooper G. Toler Jr., 1874-1947) is almost exclusively known for replacing Warner Oland as the title character in the sensitivity-challenged Charlie Chan mysteries, covering the years 1938-46. That this should be so is an indictment of how the industry works and has always worked. For Toler was an almost unbelievably accomplished man of the theatre prior to going in to films.

The son of a Missouri horse breeder, Toler made his stage debut at age seven in an adaptation of Tom Sawyer. After a brief stint at the University of Kansas he became a full time professional actor in the 1890s, amassing nearly four decades of incredible credits before donning yellowface as Charlie Chan. He toured with the Corse Payton Company for four years, and with Julia Marlowe for two. He was based in Brooklyn for a while, working at the Lee Avenue Academy, the Columbia Theatre Stock Company, and the Orpheum Theatre operatic stock company (he was also a strong singer). For nine years he starred in his own traveling troupe, and had stock companies in Portland Maine and Halifax Nova Scotia. He also wrote over 70 plays, two of which (The Tiger Lady and Agatha’s Aunt) were made into silent films and four of which made it to Broadway: The Golden Days (1921, starring Helen Hayes), The Exile (1923), Bye Bye Barbara (1924) and Ritzy (1930). He also acted in 15 Broadway plays, 1904-1930, frequently in productions of David Belasco.

When talkies arrived, Toler went to the west coast, where he played supporting roles for a decade prior to the Charlie Chan films. Some of his non-Chan pictures included Madame X (1929), Strictly Dishonorable (1931, an adaptation of a Preston Sturges play), Speak Easily (1932) with Buster Keaton and Jimmy Durante, Blonde Venus (1932) with Marlene Dietrich, The Phantom President (1932) with George M. Cohan, Three Godfathers (1936), Our Relations (1936) with Laurel and Hardy, and It’s in the Bag (1945) with Fred Allen. Sidney Toler played 50 roles outside the confines of the Chan-o-sphere.

As for the rightness or wrongness, or the excellence or otherwise of the Charlie Chan films and similar fare, that’s a topic for another day. It seemed to me a more proper tribute would look at the big picture of the man’s accomplishments. Broadway star! he wrote 70 plays! I mean, come on!