Thomas Meighan (1879-1936), though totally forgotten today, was a major star in his time, earning as much as $10,000 a week at his peak. Originally from Pittsburgh, he was a Broadway stage star since shortly after the turn of the 20th century. He was in a show called The College Widow in 1907 and 1908 and that is where he met the actress Frances Ring (Blanche Ring‘s sister), who he married in 1909.
In 1914 Meighan starred in his first film Danny Donovan, The Gentleman Cracksman. Among his early successes was The Trail of the Lonesome PIne (1916), directed by Cecil B. DeMille. That year Meighan was the witness at Olive Thomas and Jack Pickford’s secret wedding in New Jersey. In 1918, he teamed up with Norma Talmadge to make a World War One propaganda film. That same year he co-starred with Mary Pickford, Jack’s sister in M’Liss. In 1919, he was in the screen version of George M. Cohan’s The Miracle Man with Lon Chaney. All told he was in 83 motion pictures, culminating in the 1934 version of Peck’s Bad Boy, starring Jackie Cooper.
By the late teens Meighan’s earnings were so great that he built a massive waterfront estate with its own 40 foot pier in Great Neck, Long Island next door to Ed Wynn’s Wyngate. In the mid ‘20s Meighan also got deeply involved in the Florida land boom that was parodied in the Marx Brothers The Cocoanuts. He invested in a lot of property in the town of New Port Richey, which a local paper reported he hoped to turn into “The Great Neck of the South” . And he got producer Sam Harris and a lot of other Broadway and Hollywood friends to invest down there. But the Depression hit that venture hard. Fortunately, Meighan hung on to his place in Great Neck, where he spent his last years. He died in the house of cancer in 1936. Today his estate is part of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy.
To learn more about show business history, 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.
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