Know Your Character Actor – Gene Lockhart

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December 30, 2015 by smumcounty

GeneLockhart

Eugene Lockhart was born in London, Ontario on July 18th, 1891. Gene displayed an interest in performing at an early age. At the age of seven, he danced a Highland fling for the 48th Highlanders’ Regimental Band. Shortly after that, his father joined the band as a Scottish tenor and his family accompanied him on their tour of England. Gene took this opportunity to study with the London Oratory School, a school known for its choral and instrumental music instruction. When the family returned to Canada, Gene began singing on stage often on the same bill as Beatrice Lillie, a popular Canadian singer and comedic performer. Gene’s mother encouraged his performing career and suggested he try to get a part on Broadway. At the age of 25, Gene came to America and landed the role of Gustave in the Broadway musical “The Riviera Girl” in 1916. Not content to sit around and wait for parts to come up for him, Gene wrote the book and music for the musical “The Pierrot Players” which toured Canada and in which he also performed. This musical introduced the song “The World Is Waiting for the Sunrise” for which Gene wrote the lyrics along with composer Ernest Seitz who wrote the music. More than 100 commercial recordings of the song have been made including versions by Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, The Beatles, and Willie Nelson and a version in 1951 by Les Paul and Mary Ford which sold over a million copies. The musical “Heigh-Ho” followed in 1920 also with book, lyrics, and performance by Gene and a score by Deems Taylor.

June Lockhart

June Lockhart

Gene’s first big break came in 1923 when he played the role of Bud, a mountaineer moonshiner in Lula Vollmer’s “Sun Up” presented by The Players, a theatrical company who performed the play in a small Greenwich Village theater. After positive reviews, it moved to a larger theater for a two year run. During this engagement, at the age of 33, Gene married English actress Kathleen Arthur. Two years later, their daughter June was born. June would go on to have a film and television career in her own right. Today she is best known for her roles as two television mothers: in “Lassie” and in “Lost in Space”.

Gene and George M. Cohan in "Ah, Wilderness"

Gene and George M. Cohan in “Ah, Wilderness”

Gene’s work schedule became very hectic at this time. He appeared in a series of small plays put on by The Players but he also wrote articles for dramatic magazines including a weekly column for a Canadian publication. On top of this he taught acting at the New York Junior League and the Julliard School of Music. In 1926, he directed and performed in the Broadway musical revue “Bunk of 1926” for which he also wrote the book and music. When did this man ever sleep? In 1933, Gene originated the part of drunken Uncle Sid in the Broadway production of Eugene O’Neill’s “Ah, Wilderness” starring George M. Cohan. This role brought Gene to the attention of Hollywood and resulted in a contract with MGM.

Kathleen and Gene in "A Christmas Carol" (1938)

Kathleen and Gene in “A Christmas Carol” (1938)

Gene appeared in a handful of shorts in 1933 and 1934 but his first appearance in a feature film was in “By Your Leave” (1934) for RKO in which he played playboy Skeets. From this point, until his death in 1957, Gene would appear in more than 300 films making multiple screen appearances per year. He always seemed to be in great demand working for a variety of studios. Gene’s appearance, plump and jowly, caused him to often be cast as authority figures, judges, politicians, and businessmen. He could play amiable protagonists but some of his most memorable appearances were as sniveling, cowardly villains who get their just deserts in the end, such as the informant Regis in 1938’s “Algiers” which earned him an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor. Gene’s kindly side could be seen that same year in MGM’s version of “A Christmas Carol” in which he played Bob Cratchit. In that film, his wife Kathleen played Mrs. Cratchit and his daughter June played one of the Cratchit children, her film debut.

Rosalind Russell and Gene in "His Girl Friday" (1940)

Rosalind Russell and Gene in “His Girl Friday” (1940)

For me, Gene has the kind of face that is instantly forgettable. It wasn’t until I started researching this post that I realized he played the sheriff in “His Girl Friday” (1940) or the judge who declares that Edmund Gwenn is the real Santa Claus in “Miracle on 34th Street” (1947). Other notable roles were as Stephen Douglas in “Abe Lincoln in Illinois” (1940) in which Raymond Massey plays the old rail splitter and as Mayor Lovett in Frank Capra’s “Meet John Doe” (1941). 1941 also saw him appear in “The Sea Wolf” with Edward G. Robinson and John Garfield, “Billy the Kidd” starring Robert Taylor, “The Devil and Daniel Webster” and “They Died with Their Boots On” a highly fictionalized account of the life of Custer starring Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland.

Getting his just deserts in "Hangmen Also Die" (1943) -- photograph by Ned Scott

Getting his just deserts in “Hangmen Also Die” (1943) — photograph by Ned Scott

When anti-Nazi movies began appearing in 1943, Gene’s villainous side made the perfect collaborator in “Hangmen Also Die” (1943) and “Northern Pursuit” (1943). He subsequently redeemed himself with the role of Tedd Haines Sr. in “Going My Way” (1944). The 40’s also saw appearances in “Leave Her to Heaven” (1945), “Miracle on 34th Street” (1947), “Joan of Arc” (1948), “Madame Bovary” (1949), and “The Inspector General” (1949).

Gene on Broadway as Willy Loman in "Death of a Salesman" (1949)

Gene on Broadway as Willy Loman in “Death of a Salesman” (1949)

Gene never completely left the stage during this time, appearing in a Broadway production every few years in the 40’s. In 1949, he played his biggest role on Broadway when he replaced Lee J. Cobb as Willy Loman in the original Broadway production of “Death of a Salesman”. In the 50’s, with the advent of television, Gene, like many Hollywood actors, began to appear on the small screen as well as the big. Although he never had a recurring role in a series, he did appear in many of the “theater on TV” shows that were popular at the time. Gene worked up until the last days of his life. His final film role was as the Equity Board President in “Jeanne Eagels” (1957). On the night of March 30th, 1957, Gene suffered a heart attack in his sleep. He was taken to the hospital and died the next day at the age of 64.

Trivia

  • Gene’s granddaughter, June’s daughter, was actress Anne Lockhart who is best known for her role as Lieutenant Sheba in the original “Battlestar Galactica” series.
  • June tells the story of how her mother and father were introduced to each other by Thomas Edison.

 

“His Girl Friday” (1940)

“A Scandal in Paris” (1946) with Carol Landis

“Miracle on 34th Street” (1947)

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