William Farnum: The Original Ben-Hur

Actor William Farnum (1876-1963) was a movie man in the middle: a middle brother (between actor Dustin and director Marshall), and a middle generation (his parents were actors; his daughter Dorothy was a screenwriter). Born 100 years to the day after the Declaration of Independence, Farnum had more reason than even George M. Cohan to crow about his birthday. He was also the longest-lived of the three Farnum brothers, living to the ripe old age of — wait for it — 76. That’s the Spirit: 76!

Born in Boston, raised in Maine, Farnum’s theatrical debut came at age 10 in Edwin Booth’s production of Julius Caesar in Richmond, Virginia. For a time he did a tumbling act in vaudeville with Dustin. In 1900 he rang in the new century in the best way possible by starring on Broadway as the title character in the original production of Ben Hur. He was to star on new York stages a dozen times. Two notable shows included The Littlest Rebel (1911) and Arizona (1913), in which Dustin also appeared.

The 1914 version of The Spoilers launched a screen career that would include nearly 150 films. He would go on to appear in the 1930 and 1942 versions of The Spoilers, as well. Other silent vehicles included The Sign of the Cross (1914), Samson (1915), A Tale of Two Cities (1917), Les Miserables (1917), Riders of the Purple Sage (1918), and The Gunfighter (1923). His last silent was Tropical Nights (1928) with Patsy Ruth Miller. Movies from Farnum’s talkie period include The Painted Desert (1931), Ten Nights in a Bar-Room (1931), A Connecticut Yankee (1931, with Will Rogers), Mr. Robinson Crusoe (1932), The Count of Monte Cristo (1934), The Crusades (1935), The Lone Ranger (1938), Shine on Harvest Moon (1938), Adventures of Red Ryder (1940), Kit Carson (1940), Tennessee Johnson (1942), The Mummy’s Curse (1944), Captain Kidd (1945), and Samson and Delilah (1949). His last film was Abbott and Costello’s Jack and the Beanstalk (1952), in which he played The King.

To find out more about  the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on early screen history check out Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.