Charles Bickford: Began in Burlesque

Macho character actor Charles Bickford (1891-1967) was a bit of a loose cannon and rough-neck in real life; but his his dangerous, edgy quality did nothing but enhance his screen appearances.

At the age of nine, the Cambridge, Mass. native attacked a trolley driver who had run over his dog. For this crime, he was tried and acquitted for attempted murder. (Sounds like the motorman was a nasty piece of work for not dropping the charges under the circumstances!) Influenced by his sea captain grandfather, he became a drifter as a teenager, working as a lumberjack and a sailor before giving burlesque a whirl in 1911.

By burlesque, I naturally don’t mean Bickford worked as a stripper. They didn’t have those yet in burlesque, anyway. The burlesque of 1911 consisted mostly of book musicals with leggy female dance choruses. Bickford enjoyed acting in burlesque so much that he began working with stock companies, barnstorming around the U.S. before cracking Broadway in 1919, remaining there for the better part of a decade. Notable plays he appeared in included Outside Looking In (1925) with James Cagney, the original Broadway (non-musical) version of Chicago (1926-27); and Maxwell Anderson’s Gods of the Lightning (1928).

Bickford made the jump to films just as sound was coming in. His first screen role, a sea captain in Allan Dwan’s South Sea Rose (1929) was typical of the parts he would be associated with over the next four decades. Next came Cecil B. DeMille’s first talkie Dynamite (1929), a shoot so contentious that Bickford and the director came to blows. Despite this, he later went on to appear in DeMille’s 1931 remake of The Squaw Man.

Other notable stuff (out of 114 screen credits) included Eugene O’Neill’s Anna Christie (1930), David Belasco’s Rose of the Rancho (1936), The Plainsman (1936), Of Mice and Men (1939), Reap the Wild Wind (1942), The Song of Bernadette (1943), Duel in the Sun (1946), The Farmer’s Daughter (1947), Johnny Belinda (1948), Whirlpool (1949), Riding High (1950), Jim Thorpe All American (1951), A Star is Born (1954), The Court-martial of Billy Mitchell (1955), The Big Country (1958), Days of Wine and Roses (1962), and A Big Hand for the Little Lady (1965). Westerns had always been a major component of Bickford’s screen work, so it was fitting that his last professional credit was his regular role on the tv series The Virginian (1962-68).

Bickford’s memoir, published in 1965, was titled Bulls, Balls, Bicycles and Actors. 

To learn more about vaudeville and burlesque, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous.