Robert Hilliard: Handsome Bob

Robert C. Hilliard (1957-1927) commenced his working life as a clerk on Wall Street, but the good-looking, fashionably attired gent got much positive reinforcement regarding his appearance. He began acting in amateur theatricals, finally going professional in a Brooklyn production called False Shame in 1886. His Broadway debut was in Steele Mackaye’s Paul Kauvar (1887) with Sidney Drew and Wilton Lackaye. Such a sensation did Hilliard cause with his dashing appearance and natty attire that in 1888 the press pitted him in a “Battle of the Dudes” against legendary dandy Evander Berry Wall. Wall walked off with the title “King of the Dudes” however, and Hillard became known simply as “Handsome Bob”.

In 1890 Hilliard starred in the melodrama Blue Jeans at the Fourteenth Street Theatre, a play best known today for bequeathing to stage and screen the hair-raising trope of a bound hero being slowly moved by a villain toward a buzz saw. In 1891 he starred in an English adaptation of Ibsen’s Pillars of Society, Another dozen Broadway productions followed through 1917, most notably the original production of Belasco’s The Girl of the Golden West (1905), as well as A Fool There Was (1909) and The Argyll Case (1912).

Robert C. Hilliard in later years

Hilliard was also a playwright. As was common at the time he toured vaudeville in his own one-act plays when he wasn’t otherwise booked. Two silent films were adapted from his plays, The Ex-Convict (1904, directed by Edwin S. Porter and adapted from Number 973) and The Avalanche (1915). He appeared himself in only one film, Artistic Interference (1916), an IMP release. There is also a 1911 sound recording of him reciting from A Fool There Was, which is available to play on Youtube. It is extremely well preserved!

To learn more about vaudeville, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on silent film, please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.