True film fans out there know how, during the Golden Age of Hollywood, aspiring screen stars often had their names changed by studio moguls looking to cultivate a performer’s on-screen image. Back then, the prevailing wisdom went, movie audiences may be less inclined to, say, swoon over a romantic idol named Archie Leach, copy the distinctive hairdo of a leading lady named Constance Ockleman, or root for a cowboy hero named Leonard Slye. One well-known character actor from that era who never had to worry about altering his moniker was Donald Meek, who crafted a 25-year career mostly out of portraying timid and tremulous souls, but with a depth that allowed him to easily switch from comedic to dramatic roles.
Born in Glasgow, Scotland in the summer of 1878 (1880 in some sources), Meek was bitten by the acting bug at a young age and by his teens had joined a stage acrobatic company. When the troupe’s itinerary eventually brought them across the Atlantic, Donald remained in the U.S. and wound up in the military. It was during his service in the Spanish-American War that Meek contracted yellow fever that cost him most of his hair. Resuming a stage career that took him to England and Australia, Meek finally settled in America in 1912 and landed roles on the New York stage and with touring productions. He made his cinematic debut in a 1923 Fox comedy, Six Cylinder Love, which also marked the first screen appearance of fellow “screen stealer” Thomas Mitchell. Live performing took precedence over movies for the next several years, however, until 1931, when Warner Bros. cast him as amateur sleuth Dr. Crabtree (a creation of Philo Vance author S.S. Van Dine) in The Cole Case, the first in a series of 11 short whodunits.
Like other East Coast artists, Meek joined the westward migration to Hollywood in 1933 and quickly found supporting player work–usually as a doctor, teacher, or valet–with Warner and other studios, appearing in films alongside Dick Powell (1933′s College Coach), George Arliss (The Last Gentleman from 1934), and Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald (1934′s The Merry Widow). He was the long-lost Mr. Wiggs in the 1935 W.C. Fields/Zasu Pitts comedy Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch (Fields and Meek would reunite five years later–more on that to come). and played a doctor in two other, very dissimilar pictures that same year: director Tod Browning’s eerie thriller Mark of the Vampire and the Errol Flynn swashbuckler Captain Blood.
Throughout the late 1930s and early ’40s Donald was getting considerably more screen time. He played a kindly grandfather aided by ex-con Bing Crosby in Pennies from Heaven (1936); real-life 19th-century financier Daniel Drew in The Toast of New York (1937) with Cary Grant and Frances Farmer; and the brother of theatrical boardinghouse owner Edna May Oliver in the Shirley Temple melodrama Little Miss Broadway (1938). Meek was a flighty beekeeper who aids title sleuth Walter Pidgeon in Nick Carter, Master Detective (1939); an uncharacteristically hard-nosed railroad executive in the frontier dramas Jesse James (1939) and The Return of Frank James (1940); and the judge who gets hooked on farm wife Fay Bainter’s “intoxicatingly tasty” mincemeat in the 1945 film version of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s State Fair. His most off-beat turn during this time was as a crazy old man who thinks he’s living during the Civil War in the Bob Hope WWII spy comedy They Got Me Covered (1943).
It was also during this period that the actor received what are probably his three best-known screen roles. In 1938 director Frank Capra cast him as Mr. Poppins, the mild-mannered (of course) bank worker who wants to spend his time making mechanical toys, in the Oscar-winning film version of You Can’t Take It with You. Another iconic filmmaker, John Ford, had used Meek in his 1935 drama The Informer and found room for Donald four years later on board his Stagecoach, where he played Samuel Peacock, the traveling whiskey salesman whose wares catch the eye of fellow passenger Doc Boone (Mitchell). And Meek had another encounter with the Wild West–Mae West, that is– in the 1940 comedy classic My Little Chickadee, where Donald is Amos Budge, a crooked gambler who agrees to pose as a parson and “marry” bad girl Flower Belle Lee (West) to her latest pigeon, notions salesman Cuthbert Twillie (W.C. Fields).
After finding work with all the major–and a few of the minor–studios throughout his career, in the 1940s Meek found a semi-regular home amid the galaxy of stars at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Among the MGM favorites Donald lent support to were Frank Morgan in Hullabaloo (1940) and The Wild Man of Borneo (1941), Wallace Beery and Marjorie Main in Barnacle Bill (1941), Joan Crawford in A Woman’s Face (1941), Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney in Babes on Broadway (1941), Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn in Keeper of the Flame (1942), Laurel and Hardy in Air Raid Wardens (1943), Esther Williams in Bathing Beauty (1944), and William Powell and Myrna Loy in the fifth Thin Man movie, The Thin Man Goes Home (1945).
It was during the filming of Magic Town for RKO that Donald, playing a co-worker of pollster James Stewart, passed away from leukemia in November of 1946. Director William Wellman’s socially-themed comedy, which marked Meek’s screen swan song, was released the year after his death. The endearing little actor and his more than 100 performances weren’t forgotten, though, as he was later awarded a posthumous star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. It’s a shame Donald wasn’t there to give a thank-you speech, but we’re sure, if he had, it would have been a modest, self-effacing one.