The Charmed Life and Career of Norman Foster

Norman Foster (Norman Foster Hoeffer, 1903-1976) was one of the rare ones who worked in Hollywood as an actor, screenwriter and director — all three — during the talkie era. If that sounds Wellesian, some of Foster’s best known projects were created in collaboration with Welles, though it is illuminating to show those projects in relief to his overall career. Foster worked on stage as well as on radio, film and television, and had two movie star wives.

Foster started out as a reporter at a local paper in his native small town Indiana. Ambition for bigger things drew him to New York, where his good looks found him work as an actor instead. He was 22 when cast in his first Broadway play, Just Life (1926) with Marjorie Rambeau. Then came Sure Fire (1926) with Robert Armstrong and Gene Lockhart, and his first hit, the carnival story The Barker (1927) with Walter Huston and Claudette Colbert, whom he married in London the following year (though it was kept a secret for many years. They divorced in 1935 and Foster married Loretta Young’s sister Sally Blane). Foster was in a half-dozen subsequent Broadway productions including Tin Pan Alley (1928), Carnival (1928-29) and the original production of Kaufman and Lardner’s June Moon (1929-30).

Appropriately enough (given his origins) Gentlemen of the Press (1929) was the first of around 50 Hollywood films Foster appeared in as an actor. He co-starred with Carole Lombard in It Pays to Advertise (1931). Some of his other well-known ones include The Cohens and Kellys in Hollywood (1932), Prosperity (1932) with Marie Dressler and Polly Moran, and the original 1933 version of State Fair. Foster both directed and starred in I Cover Chinatown (1936), and wrote and directed Fair Warning (1937), and this marks his transition into working behind the lens. And he must have really wanted to do it, for he made the switch at a substantial dip in salary. From 1937 through 1939 he is most notable for having written and directed numerous Mr. Moto and Charlie Chan pictures. His short partnership with Orson Welles began after that. He was a second unit director on his aborted Latin American friendship project It’s All True, and was the official director of Mercury’s Journey Into Fear (1943), although input from Welles is believed to have been substantial. The fact that Norman Lloyd also worked with Welles during these years, maybe responsible for a little confusion.

Foster directed several pictures in Mexico from the early to mid-40s, returning to Hollywood to helm the western classic Rachel and the Stranger (1948) starring his sister-in-law Loretta Young, as well as William Holden and Robert Mitchum. He directed and sometimes wrote several additional pictures through the mid 40s, including westerns, noirs, and comedies. In 1954 he began directing episodes of The Magical World of Disney, including the famous Davy Crockett episodes that were cut into theatrical films, Davy Crockett: King of the Wild Frontier (1955) and Davy Crockett and the River Pirates (1956). He also directed over a dozen episodes of Zorro (1957-58), and four dozen of The Loretta Young Show (1956-1963). He directed a half dozen episodes Batman and The Green Hornet, while continuing to write and direct the anomolous small budget late western such as Indian Paint (1965) and Brighty of the Grand Canyon (1966). Late in life, he worked with Welles again on The Other Side of the Wind, playing the part of Billy Boyle.

Foster’s son Robert Foster attained brief fame as the horror host Grimsley on local L.A. TV in the 1970s.