James Kirkwood, Père et Fils

Today, two generations of James Kirkwoods. The father (1876-1963) was a prolific actor and director of the stage and screen who enjoyed his greatest success in the silent movie days. A stage actor from Grand Rapids, Michigan, he made it to the Broadway in the original 1905 production of Belasco’s The Girl of the Golden West, the first of over a dozen Broadway turns. Kirkwood broke in to films at Biograph under D.W. Griffith in 1909. He was in scores of films in that first year alone, things like A Corner in Wheat, Pippa Passes, and In Old Kentucky. From 1911 through 1919, he was also an important director, turning in 80 films over the decade, including 9 with Mary Pickford, such as Cinderella and Fanchon the Cricket. At the time she declared Kirkwood to be her favorite director. During this period (1916-1923) he was married to actress Gertrude Robinson and had an affair with the emphatically underaged Mary Miles Minter.

By 1920 Kirkwood was back to strictly acting, which he was to stick with until the end of his life, appearing in nearly 250 films. Starring movies of the silent era included A Wise Fool (1921), Under Two Flags (1922), and That Royle Girl (1925). He was married to Lila Lee from 1923 to 1931; she was to be the mother of James Kirkwood Jr. The talking era was in full swing at the time Lee left Kirkwood, by that time he was busted down to supporting player, usually in B movies or independents. In 1934 he returned to Broadway for a few years, appearing in House of Remsen (1934), George M. Cohan’s Seven Keys to Baldpate (1935), Langston Hughes’ Mulatto (1935-36), Three Wise Fools (1935), and George Ade’s The County Chairman (1936). He returned to Hollywood in 1940 as a bit player and extra. His last film was John Ford’s Two Rode Together (1961).

James Kirkwood Jr (1924-1989) was mostly known as a writer. He won numerous awards for co-scripting the book to the 1976 musical A Chorus Line. He also wrote a touring show called Legends that starred Mary Martin and Carol Channing. The experience of the tour became the book Diary of a Mad Playwright (1989). His first nonfiction book was American Grotesque (1970) about the trial of Clay Shaw, a suspected conspirator in the JFK assassination. Two of his novels were adapted into films: P.S. Your Cat is Dead (1972, also a Broadway play), and Some Kind of Hero (1975). Kirkwood the Younger was also an actor. He appeared on the soap opera Valiant Lady from 1953 through 1957, was on episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and One Step Beyond, and had bit roles in Oh God Book II (1980) and Mommie Dearest (1981).

For more on silent film please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube,