Dennis Hoey: A Closer Inspection

HOEY, DENNIS 2“Why, if it isn’t Mr. ‘Olmes!”

You may know him by his real name, but more than likely you just call out “Lestrade!” when you see him on film. Although Dennis Hoey has become forever associated with his role as Inspector Lestrade in the Universal Sherlock Holmes series, he was a character actor like no other; a competent actor who appeared in nearly 75 films with that burly mug of his that is instantly recognizable.

Samuel David Hyams was born in London in 1892 to Russian immigrants who operated a bed and breakfast in Brighton. While attending Brighton College, the young lad considered entering the teaching profession, but Word War I intervened and–while fighting overseas for the home island–he found out what jolly fun it was singing for his fellow soldiers. This led to Hyams deciding that becoming a musical performer might be a very entertaining business. Once back on British soil, he joined up with an acting company and made his first stage appearance in 1919 at London’s Drury Lane Theatre. He landed a plumb part as Ali Ben Ali in the London production of The Desert Song, which ran for over 400 performances, and for the next decade exercised his dramatic skills while touring with Godfrey Tearle’s Shakespearean repertory company.

Early in his stage career, Hyams changed his name to Hoey, most likely to link his name with that of Iris Hoey, a very popular musical comedy star at the turn of the 29th century. He crossed the Atlantic to appear in a few stage productions in New York, notably Katja ( 1926 ), before heading back to England to wed and to dip his toes in that refreshing new pond of opportunity – talking pictures.

Hoey had a number of juicy film parts during the early 1930s, including Baroud (a 1933 Rex Ingram film, also known as Love in Morocco); The Good Companions (also ’33) starring Jessie Matthews; the unforgettably titled Chu-Chin-Chow (1934) with Anna May Wong; I Spy (also ’34) with Sally Eilers; and the first sound version of Brewster’s Millions (1935), featuring Jack Buchanan. Hoey also performed in several Stanley Lupino (Ida Lupino’s father) comedy films before taking time off to return to the stage and star in light operas.

In 1937, Hoey moved his family (which included a son, Michael) to the states and for the next five years kept active in the theatre performing in Pygmalion (as Colonel Pickering), Jane Eyre (as Mr. Rochester, touring with Katharine Hepburn), and Virginia along with future Holmes co-star Nigel Bruce. When World War II broke out in Europe, Hoey packed up his family once again and headed west to the land of movie stars in the hopes of finding regular film work. Which he did.

HOEY. DENNIS 5Within three years Hoey appeared in 11 films for 20th Century-Fox, demonstrating his flexibility in roles ranging from lords to intelligence officers and detectives. The 6’2″ actor exuded an authoritative presence which made him perfect for these kind of roles. It was most likely his performance as Colonel Woodhue, head of the British secret service, in the 1942 spy comedy Cairo that led to Hoey being cast later that year as Inspector Lestrade opposite Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce in Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon.

The Sherlock Holmes series became so popular that Hoey was naturally called back to Universal Studios, where he was under a non-exclusive contract, to revive his role in 1943’s Sherlock Holmes Faces Death. He would go on to make four more Holmes films for the studio and was pigeon-holed in similar “inspector” roles in the horror classics Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943) and She-Wolf of London (1946).

Hoey was really marvelous as the affable Lestrade. He gave substance to a character that was barely sketched out by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and made him a favorite fixture of the series. He brought to the character a proper air of diplomacy in spite of his utter lack of efficiency and was truly a beloved bumbler. Hoey enjoyed portraying Lestrade and even wrote a script for a Sherlock Holmes installment, in which the sleuth attempts to solve a mystery surrounding the famous ghost of the Drury Lane Theatre. It is a shame this script never was produced, for it would have been a good addition to the series.

Once back at 20th Century-Fox he was able to portray a wide variety of characters in films throughout the mid-1940s. Some of the films he made during this period include  National Velvet at MGM; as an Arabian sultan and his evil twin in A Thousand and One Nights; The Keys of the Kingdom with Gregory Peck; alongside Paulette Goddard in Kitty, The Crimson Key; as a Gestapo officer in Golden Earrings opposite Marlene Dietrich; and The Foxes of Harrow. Like Foxes, 1946’s Anna and the King of Siam offered him the chance to play alongside his real-life friend, Rex Harrison. Here, he was cast as a nobleman but, unfortunately, most of his part wound up on the cutting room floor.

In the late 1940s, Hoey continued to stretch his acting muscles in minor roles in adventure and dramatic pictures such as If Winter Comes (1947), Joan of Arc (1948) with Ingrid Bergman, Wake of the Red Witch (1948) with John Wayne, and The Secret Garden (1949), and he also did a number of radio spots, including playing Lestrade alongside Rathbone and Bruce.

HOEY, DENNIS 3By the early 1950s, however, Hoey’s career was on the wane and he turned his attention to the newest medium of wonder, television. Ironically, one of Hoey’s last performances was as none other than Arthur Conan Doyle in an 1956 episode of Omnibus .

In his final years, Hoey remained in Tampa, Florida with his second wife, basking in the sun and enjoying retirement until his death at age 67 in 1960. He was estranged from his son Michael, who later went on to become a successful producer and director.

Constance Metzinger is a blogger who runs the website Silver Scenes, “a blog for classic film lovers.”