The Warp and Woof of Richard Whorf

I first became interested in Richard Whorf (1906-66) when I noticed he was one of the few principals I didn’t know and hadn’t written about in the film Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942). He was entertaining as George M. Cohan’s partner Sam Harris in that film. Yankee Doodle Dandy was one of Whorf’s first film, and he switched to directing just a few years later, which is why he may have evaded attention. But his career is interesting and rates notice.

Whorf grew up in the Boston area, in a Massachusetts family that dates back to the mid 17th century. His father Harry Church Whorf (1874-1934) had been a theatrical designer and aspiring playwright but eventually settled into commercial illustration. (Harry has been credited with designing the famous logos for Dutch Cleanser and Sherman-Williams Paints). It was an artistic household. Of the three Whorf sons, Benjamin (1897-1941) became a noted linguist and a scholar of the Hopi language; John (1903-1959) became a painter of local fame; and Richard went into the theatre. Fresh from high school, Richard acted with Boston stock companies. His first Broadway credit, at age 21 was in The Banshee (1927). Whorf was pretty much a constant presence on Broadway stages through the 1950s, keeping his stage career going even in the thick of his screen work. Many or most of his early roles seem to have been with the Theatre Guild. He he was Christopher Sly in The Taming of the Shrew (1935-36) and in the original productions of Robert Sherwood’s Idiots Delight (1936) and S.N. Behrman’s Amphitryon 38 (1938, an adaptation of the Giradoux play).

The long-running 1940 production of Sherwood’s There Shall Be No Night, which Whorf both designed and acted in, seems to have been what made Hollywood come calling in earnest, although he had had a supporting role in one earlier film, Midnight in 1934. Blues in the Night (1941) with Priscilla Lane touched off this new period, followed by Yankee Doodle Dandy. Whorf appeared in several other films through 1944, usually around third in the billing, including such things as Keeper of the Flame (1943) with Tracy and Hepburn, and the deceptively titled noir Christmas Holiday (1944) with Gene Kelly and Deanna Durbin.

In 1944 he pivoted to director. After helming the Broadway play But Not Goodbye, he directed the movie Blonde Fever with Philip Dorn, Mary Astor, Felix Bressart and Gloria Grahame. There followed another half dozen or so films with Whorf as director including The Sailor Takes a Wife (1945) with Robert Walker and June Allyson; portions of Til the Clouds Roll By (1946), It Happened in Brooklyn (1947) with Frank Sinatra and Kathryn Grayson. After Luxury Liner (1948), he returned to Broadway to star in his own productions of Volpone (1948) and Richard III (1949). Then it was back to Hollywood to directed Champagne for Caesar (1950) with Ronald Colman and Celeste Holm and The Groom Wore Spurs (1951) with Jack Carson and Ginger Rogers. 

Then, while continuing to act, direct and design for Broadway, he became a prolific TV director. He directed 67 episodes of The Beverly Hillbillies, 37 of My Three Sons, 23 of Mona McClusky (starring Juliet Prowse), 18 of Gunsmoke, and numerous other programs such as The Ann Sothern Show, and Mickey Rooney’s sitcom Mickey.

Whorf also dabbled in in producing film and television. he has a producer credit on three films, The Burning Hills (1956), Shoot Out at Medicine Bend (1957), and Bombers B52 (1957). He also had numerous credits both as director and producer on The Tammy Grimes Show and Blake Edwards’ show Richard Diamond, Private Detective.

As we have seen happen more than once, all of this hopping between different hats probably hampered Whorf’s career momentum in any particular field, which is why, talented though he must have been, he seems to have flown a bit under the radar. This, coupled with his relatively early death at age 60.

To learn more about Whorf and his fascinating family, check out this very thorough article created by folks in his hometown of Winthrop, Mass.