Dick Purcell: The Original Captain America

A brief patriotic cheer for Dick Purcell (1905-1938), best remembered as the screen’s original Captain America.

Originally from Greenwich, CT, Purcell attended Fordham University in the Bronx, which put him in the geographic vicinity of the New York theatre scene. He appeared in the original productions of Sidney Kingsley’s Men in White (1933) and Sidney Howard’s Paths of Glory (1935, based on the same novel as the 1957 Kubrick film). While he’d had a couple of bit film roles prior to this, the stage roles brought him to the attention of film scouts and he began appearing regularly on screens in 1936. He amassed over 70 screen credits, mostly in B pictures. A couple of his films from the early ’40s though, have stood the test of time: he has roles in W.C. Fields’ The Bank Dick (1940) and the horror classic King of the Zombies (1941). In 1942 he was briefly married to stage and screen actress Ethelind Terry.

In 1944 Republic Studios hired Purcell to play Cap, in the very first screen adaptation of any Marvel superhero (though it was then known as Timely Comics). Columbia had released DC’s Batman the previous year; Republic had been the home of Captain Marvel, Dick Tracy, The Lone Ranger, et al. Captain America was Republic’s most expensive serial ever, and their last one starring a superhero. It was to be a big hit, but Purcell wouldn’t be around to enjoy it. He died of heart failure prior to its release at the young age of 38. The next Marvel hero adapted for live action was Spiderman, on The Electric Company in 1974 — 30 years later.

In 1990 Matt Salinger, son of J.D. Salinger, and co-star of Revenge of the Nerds, played Cap in the first American feature adaptation of the comic. Chris Evans has played the character in the MCU films since 2011.