One of the artistic drawbacks, it seems, of being a “character actor” in Hollywood’s 1930s and ’40s studio heyday was that performers would often get typecast into similar roles in film after film. The best of these supporting stars were, of course, able to rise to the challenge and make each portrayal unique. Audiences didn’t get bored with seeing Edward Arnold as a cold-hearted businessman, Pat O’Brien as an Irish-American priest, Edna May Oliver as a flinty old maid, or S.Z. Sakall as an easily-flustered immigrant. And no one minded when the gruff, wisecracking police inspector on the screen turned out to be hard-boiled Brooklynite James Gleason.
Born in the Big Apple in May of 1882 to theatre parents, Gleason said that he made his acting debut when he was brought on stage one night, at the tender age of two months. With show business in his blood, it’s not surprising that as a boy James had regular acting roles and other odd jobs before he enlisted in the Army at 16 and served in the Philippines during the Spanish-American War. After the war he rejoined his mother and father, who by then were running the Liberty Theatre in Oakland. While there Gleason met a young actress named Lucille Webster, and the two would marry in 1905. James and his wife went up the Pacific coast and joined a stock company in Portland, then hit the rails to work in touring road shows. His Broadway break, such as it was, came in a 1914 flop entitled Pretty Mrs. Smith. More stage work followed (interrupted by a second Army stint in World War I), along with a screen debut in a 1922 Constance Talmadge comedy, Polly of the Follies.
By the mid-’20s the Gleasons were New York stage regulars, but James decided to try his hand at writing plays as well. Along with fellow actor/scribe Richard Taber, he authored and appeared in Is Zat So?, a farcical tale about a boxing manager and his new protégé who wind up in the employ of a young Manhattan socialite, helping expose the man’s thieving brother-in-law. The play, which ran for over 600 performances on Broadway and was twice made into a movie (neither with Gleason), also featured future King Kong co-star Robert Armstrong, marking the start of a lifelong collaboration between the two men that would see them work together on the stage, in films, and even on radio and, eventually, television. After Is Zat So?, Gleason penned The Shannons of Broadway, in which he and wife Lucille played a married Vaudeville duo who are stranded in a small town and become owners of a run-down local hotel. The comedy’s success attracted the interest of Universal Pictures, and the Gleasons joined the westward migration of New York-to-Hollywood performers in 1929 to appear in the film version. Before The Shannons of Broadway went before the cameras, however, James would again play a boxer’s manager in a minor Universal effort, 1928′s The Count of Ten. He also would contribute dialogue to the second movie to win the Best Picture Academy Award. MGM’s The Broadway Melody (1929), and made an unbilled appearance in the film as a music publisher.
As the 1920s segued into the ’30s, Gleason co-wrote and had small roles in such pictures as Puttin’ on the Ritz (1930) with Joan Bennett, the Marion Davies comedy It’s a Wise Child (1931), and the WWI drama Beyond Victory (also ’31), co-starring ZaSu Pitts and a pre-Hopalong Cassidy William Boyd. At the same time, James and Lucille were co-starring in two-reel comedies for various studios. Jimmy also teamed with old Broadway pal Armstrong to play a pair of vagabonds alongside Pitts (more about her in a minute) in a 1929 Pathé feature, Oh, Yeah!, and Boyd joined the fellas as a trio of sailors battling German subs in 1931′s Suicide Fleet, co-starring a young Ginger Rogers. Gleason and Armstrong would later turn up on the airwaves, playing itinerant pals similar to their Oh, Yeah! roles, in a short-lived 1932 radio series that was known as both Knights of the Road and (not surprisingly) The Gleason and Armstrong Show.
A key supporting role for Gleason found him playing alcoholic lawyer Lionel Barrymore’s right-hand man in the 1931 courtroom drama A Free Soul, which earned Barrymore his Best Actor Academy Award, followed by turns alongside Davies (Blondie of the Follies, a 1932 comedy) and Pitts (the 1932 mystery The Crooked Circle). RKO then hired the actor for what would become a five-year gig when he was cast as crusty New York City police inspector Oscar Piper–whose investigation of a homicide at a city aquarium becomes a competition to solve the crime before a witness, iron-willed schoolteacher Miss Hildegarde Withers (Edna May Oliver), beats him to it–in 1932′s Penguin Pool Murder. Based on the first in a series of popular whodunits by author Stuart Palmer, Penguin Pool Murder showcased how the battle of wills between the flinty Piper and the just-as-stubborn Withers turned into mutual attraction (with the lawman proposing marriage to her once the case is closed), and the on-screen chemistry between Gleason and the redoubtable Oliver was popular enough with audiences for RKO to reunite them in two follow-ups, Murder on the Blackboard (1934) and Murder on a Honeymoon (1935). And no, the honeymoon mentioned in the last title wasn’t for Hildegarde and Oscar; even after Oliver left the studio and Gleason reprised his role in Murder on a Bridle Path (1937), with Helen Broderick as Miss Withers, and with longtime co-star ZaSu Pitts stepping in for The Plot Thickens (1936) and Forty Naughty Girls (1937), the schoolmarm and the cop never made it to the altar on the big screen.
The 1930s also found Gleason working with silent screen siren Clara Bow in her final film, the carnival-based drama Hoop-La (1933); playing an American movie producer trying to shot his latest project on a British army base in the English comedy Orders Is Orders (1934); and returning to writing to co-script the ’34 romance Change of Heart, starring Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell (and making an unbilled cameo as a hot dog vendor). He was once again seen as a put-upon police inspector, this time trying to solve a murder with the unsolicited help of mystery writer Jean Arthur and her former husband, doctor William Powell, in RKO’s witty, Thin Man-like thriller The Ex-Mrs. Bradford (1936); and the next year was part of an eclectic cast that included Gene Autry, Cab Calloway, Leo Carrillo, and Joe DiMaggio in Republic’s musical revue Manhattan Merry-Go-Round.
Republic Pictures was also where James and wife Lucille were joined by their son Russell, whose own acting career was highlighted by a role in the Oscar-winning 1930 WWI drama All Quiet on the Western Front, in 1938′s The Higgins Family. The ”B” domestic comedy, in which James was advertising executive and harried dad Joe Higgins, proved to be a success with moviegoers, and the studio brought the Gleasons back for six more Higgins programmers over the next three years (Roscoe Karns and Ruth Donnelly took over the leads for two final films after that).
1941 would offer Gleason two of his most memorable roles. Director Frank Capra cast him as a big city newspaperman in Meet John Doe. It’s Gleason’s cynical editor who runs columnist Barbara Stanwyck’s articles, supposedly penned by “average American” Gary Cooper, as a circulation stunt, then has a Capraesque change of heart once it’s revealed how Fascist-minded publisher Edward Arnold plans to use the nationwide movement the pieces spawned to put himself in the White House. Later that year, James was fight manager Max Corkle, whose prize boxer Joe Pendleton Robert Montgomery) dies prematurely in a plane crash, in the “heavenly” comedy Here Comes Mr. Jordan. A delight as the exasperated ring man who has his hands full trying to get Joe (his soul placed by angelic caseworker Claude Rains in a murdered millionaire’s body) back into shape, James received his first and only Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor. He would ultimately lose to Donald Crisp for How Green Was My Valley, but Gleason would get the chance to play Corkle again in another fantasy tale from Columbia, 1947′s Down to Earth, with Rita Hayworth, Larry Parks and Mr. Jordan co-star Edward Everett Horton.
It was back to the police beat for Gleason when he played Inspector O’Hara opposite George Sanders’ sophisticated sleuth in a pair of 1942 Falcon mysteries, A Date with the Falcon and The Falcon Takes Over, while the following year found him as WWII pilot Spencer Tracy’s commanding officer in the fantasy/romance A Guy Named Joe and taking to the high seas in the Tyrone Power submarine drama Crash Dive. A pair of offbeat 1944 comedies paired James with Cary Grant; Gleason was a police lieutenant in Capra’s murderous romp Arsenic and Old Lace, and Once Upon a Time featured him as the sidekick to con man Grant, who tries to swindle a kid out of his trained dancing caterpillar (don’t ask!).
While the remainder of the ’40s meant steady supporting roles for Gleason–the bartender in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945); a milkman in the Judy Garland/Robert Walker romance The Clock (also ’45); a cab driver in The Bishop’s Wife (1947), starring Grant; and title lug William Bendix’s buddy Gillis in The Life of Riley (1949), among others–it was also a time of personal tragedy. First, son Russell was killed the day after Christmas in 1945, shortly before he was to be sent to Europe for Army duty, after falling from a Manhattan hotel window. Then, Lucille Gleason died at age 59 of a heart attack a year and a half later, in May of 1947.
Perhaps finding solace in work, Gleason stayed active during the ’50s in both movie and the new medium of television. He took over the role of ring manager Knobby Walsh from rubber-legged funnyman Leon Errol in the final two entries in Monogram’s Joe Palooka series, Joe Palooka in the Squared Circle (1950) and Joe Palooka in Triple Cross (1951), with Joe Kirkwood, Jr. as the comic-strip pugilist. Along with turns in such films as The Jackpot (1950) with James Stewart, We’re Not Married (1952) with Ginger Rogers and Marilyn Monroe, What Price Glory (also ’52) with James Cagney, the 1957 Elvis Presley vehicle Loving You (1957), and the Jerry Lewis comedy Rock-a-Bye Baby (1958), he had key parts of two classic mid-’50s suspensers: as “Pop” Benson, whose home is taken over by would-be presidential assassin Frank Sinatra, in 1954′s Suddenly, and the following year as “Uncle” Birdie, the drunken wharf rat who tries to protect siblings Billy Chapin and Sarah Jane Bruce from homicidal “preacher” Robert Mitchum in The Night of the Hunter. On the small screen, James could be seen on such diverse series as The Life of Riley (this time playing Pa Riley), Cheyenne (in an episode also featuring his old co-star Robert Armstrong), Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Leave It to Beaver, and as the honoree in a 1958 episode of This Is Your Life.
Complications from a chronic asthma condition contributed to Gleason’s death in April of 1959, just a few weeks shy of his 77th birthday. The following year, the actor received a posthumous star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, an accomplishment to which he probably would have said, in his best Brooklyn wise guy delivery, “Is zat so?”.