Having already done more than one post touching on Joe Palooka, it would seem to be redundant to devote an entire post to one of the men who played him, but there are a few meaty things to add about Joe Kirkwood, Jr. (Reginald Thomas Kirkwood, 1920-2006).
The most off-kilter thing about him is that, as closely as he is identified with the sport of boxing, his real life athletic jam was fully on the opposite end of the exertion scale. He was a professional golfer and not just a garden variety one. He was the son of Australia’s premier golf pro, Joe Kirkwood, Sr (1897-1970). The dad interests me as well, for he was a bit of a showman. In addition to winning cups, he was known for his ability to do trick shots, which he displayed in several newsreels (shades of W.C. Fields, eh?). Young Reginald, who excelled in all sports as a youth, took his father’s name when he too became a pro golfer. Thanks to his relatively high profile and handsome good looks, he was signed by Warner Brothers, but only cast as an extra in the Cole Porter bio-pic Night and Day (1946). In the middle of their nationwide search for someone to play Joe Palooka, Monogram Studios snatched him up; Kirkwood was to play the role for nearly a decade, in 11 films (1946-51) and a TV series (1954-55) co-starring his wife at the time, Cathy Downs, whom we wrote about here.
Already bulky and fit, Kirkwood took the role of Joe Palooka very seriously, and trained in the Sweet Science, making a double unnecessary. The role gave him the opportunity to interact with the likes of co-star Leon Errol (a fellow Australian) and real boxers like Joe Louis. He also appeared on TV variety shows like those of Ed Sullivan (a former sports writer and major boxing fan) and Red Skelton (who played a boxing character of his own, Cauliflower McPugg). He only tried acting in a non-Palooka role once, in the 1961 comedy The Marriage-Go-Round, with Susan Hayward, James Mason, and Julie Newmar. He was also one of the correspondents on the NBC radio program Monitor, and hosted a local Los Angeles TV program called Let’s Play Golf. (Throughout his movie career and afterward, Kirkwood maintained his career as a professional golfer.)
When he wasn’t golfing or boxing, Kirkwood was engaged in his other active hobby, flying airplanes. And thereby hangs a sad story. In 1955 his business partner Irving George Meyer took up one of his plays, with two young passengers, both Hollywood actors at the start of their careers, Robert Francis (25) and Anne Russell (24). Francis had only four screen credits, but they are impressive: the all-star ensemble picture The Caine Mutiny (1954) They Rode West (1954, in which he had top billing over Donna Reed), The Bamboo Prison (1954, in which he was billed over Brian Keith), and John Ford’s The Long Gray Line (1955). Unfortunately Meyer let the inexperienced Francis take the controls of the plane, probably to impress his girlfriend, and the machine stalled, crashing into the city streets below, killing all three.
For more on show biz history, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on classic comedy read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.