with Alicia Mayer

Charles Bickford: Acquitted of attempted murder at nine, nearly killed by a lion, and three times Oscar nominee

“It’s appropriate that I should have come in on the wings of a blizzard. I’ve been blowing up a storm ever since.” Charlie Bickford

jan-1-charles-bickford-watermark

Inscribed: “To Mitzi, Keep me in those eyes. Most Sincerely, Charlie Bickford”

This fantastic publicity photo of actor Charles Bickford isn’t dated, but I am fairly sure that it’s pre-1935 when he was still contracted to MGM and causing hell for my great uncle, Louis B. Mayer. If there was an Oscar for hotheadedness, both of them would have won it.

ofmice-andmen

Charles Bickford as ‘Slim’ in Of Mice and Men (1939).

The signs Charles Bickford would be a tough customer began with his birth, the fifth of seven children, a minute past midnight on the 1st of January, 1891, in the midst of a howling snow storm in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The gusts of turmoil pretty much rolled on in his life in the same fashion from there on in, including being tried at just nine years old for attacking a trolley driver in a fit of rage for running over and killing his dog!

Thankfully he was acquitted of attempted murder but I can imagine a tiny tough guy sitting on a chair in the witness box with his legs swinging, too small to reach the court floor. Perhaps, when asked by the judge why he tried to kill the man who ran over his beloved pet, young Bickford answered, “Because he earnt it, sir! He earnt a walloping!”

I can just see him staring at the poor trolley driver, narrowing his eyes, jutting out his chin, and punching his own fist. Had he been sent to prison I think he would have been anointed the tiny ‘King of the Thugs,’ serving up knuckle sandwiches for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

With a background as rich in drama as Bickford’s, and carrying his dark times as an ever-growing chip on his shoulder, Hollywood made perfect sense. For his first Metro-Goldyn-Mayer picture, the aptly named Dynamite, Bickford evidently knocked film director Cecil B. DeMille’s lights out during a disagreement. And he wasn’t exactly a sweetheart elsewhere around the studio.

Maybe realizing he was close to being kicked out and hoping to control his own destiny in a town where that was extremely unlikely, Bickford asked to be released from his contract. But in the film business everyone knows your reputation before you do, and his made him a pariah. No studio would have him. For years he worked as a freelancer until finally Fox offered him a contract – it would be a lifeline that would nearly kill him.

o_east-of-java-1935-charles-bickford-frank-albertson-57fdcWhile filming the last scene in East of Java in 1935, Bickford was told to battle with a real lion, which immediately attacked him and went straight for his neck, ripping it open and nearly severing his jugular vein. The entire horrific encounter was caught on camera (the Library of Congress has some of the footage) and if that wasn’t enough, it was actually used in the film. Still, the producers had the unbelievable chutzpah to replace Bickford with another actor.

Despite being heavily bandaged and in terrible pain, Bickford bravely (or insanely) came back to the set to finish the film. Fear of death was far less of concern than the fear of losing his livelihood, which already hung by a string. He didn’t last long, becoming delirious and collapsing with a high fever. The director sent him back to the hospital where he remained for ten months, which makes the fact that he stumbled back on set right after the attack seem particularly desperate. (Read this account in The Milwaukee Journal from June 24, 1943.)

To no one’s surprise, Charles Bickford lost his contract. But if he had met his match in Louis B. Mayer and this didn’t kill him, and an actual lion couldn’t finish him off, everything else was survivable.

250px-charles_bickford_in_johnny_belinda_trailerAfter healing from his wounds, the external and internal ones, Charles Bickford completed dozens of films, including The Farmer’s Daughter, Johnny Belinda, Of Mice and Men, A Star is Born, The Big Country, This Day and Age, River’s End, and Not As a Stranger, and secured his place in the Classic Hollywood canon over many decades as a hard-working and respected character actor. Directors and audiences alike loved his glowering look, manly frame and gruff, powerful voice.

All of these characteristics, including his tremendous intensity, pulse out of this publicity photograph like a mysterious stranger who you instinctively feel you shouldn’t lock eyes with. Signed to my grandmother Mitzi, this is a portrait of a man you are afraid to love but cannot help yourself. Still waters run deep…

charles-bickford-08Bickford was nominated for three Academy Awards for supporting roles, including for the much-loved The Song of Bernadette (1943). Interestingly, his female co-stars nominated in their category won every time.

After a long successful career and having made millions in shrewd real estate investments, Charles Bickford died in Los Angeles in 1967 of a blood infection at the age of 76 – days after filming an episode of The Virginian. His wife Beatrice died the same year. They had a son, Rex, and a daughter, Doris.

Postscript: Charles Bickford’s son, Rex, has been noted in several websites as having died in 1960. However, in a newspaper article at the time of his father’s death in 1967, Rex Bickford is described as 42 and married. There are two relatively recent and certain mentions of Rex Bickford online – one for a Rex Bickford Properties in Hawaii, and a private pilot who escaped without injury from crashing his plane, just short of his private runway in Maine.

When Charles Bickford died, thanks to his real estate portfolio, he was worth many millions.

END

Connect with Alicia Mayer on Facebook and Twitter.

Copyright Alicia Mayer 2012.

Resources:

You can watch Dynamite here.

Charles Bickford’s memoir:
Bulls Balls Bicycles & Actors

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8 Responses to “Charles Bickford: Acquitted of attempted murder at nine, nearly killed by a lion, and three times Oscar nominee”

  1. Paul Bradley

    This is such an interesting story about a great Hollywood character actor in films such as ‘Of Mice and men’ (1939), ‘The Song of Bernadette’ (1943) and ‘The Big Country’ (1958). He played craggy independent characters with immense intensity and intelligence. Thank you Alicia.

  2. paolobradley1

    This is such an interesting account about one of Hollywood’s great supporting actors. Famous for roles in such films as ‘Of Mice and Men’ (1939), ‘The Song of Bernadette’ (1944) and ‘The Big Country’ (1958), Charles Bickford added a unique intensity, intelligence and cragginess to his performances. It is great to read about his own personal life and relationship with MGM. Thank you Alicia.

  3. vp19

    Was never aware of Bickford’s past. Saw him in “White Woman” with Carole Lombard and Charles Laughton.

  4. Phil Swan

    Charles ‘Charlie’ Ambrose Bickford was my 6th cousin….owing to the fact that we both come from the same American immigrant to Oyster River, NH, John Bickford b. 1603 Rattery, Devon, England, but we branch off and become distant cousins. I am preparing my book, ‘My Bickford Family With Allied Families In England And New England’ for its third printing and have documented our lineage to John Bickford b.13 May 1416 in Bovey Tracey, Devon, England.

    Incidentally, Rex Bickford did die as follows and I have communicated often with Charlie’s grandson who confirms same.

    Rex A Bickford
    in the California, Death Index, 1940-1997
    Name:
    Rex A Bickford
    Gender:
    Male
    Birth Date:
    22 Apr 1924
    Birth Place:
    Massachusetts
    Death Date:
    12 May 1960
    Death Place:
    Los Angeles
    Mother’s Maiden Name:
    Allen….as in, Beatrice Loring Allen

    For more information, write to my email address: philswan192@gmail.com

  5. Melissa Bickford-Castle

    Thank you for that story. Charlie is my great-uncle. My grandpa, Bill Bickford, who also worked in Hollywood, (along with my Dad, John Bickford) at MovieLab and Technicolor, told me many stories about Charlie and had many framed pictures of him on sets of different movies. I currently possess all of his movies, including a pilot shot with Joan Crawford that never aired.
    I actually learned something new in your story! Thank you for not painting him as a villain, especially with the feud between him and your great-uncle! I definitely heard stories about that and how your great-uncle, Mayer, told him, “You will never work in this town again!”. A famous line that was actually used!

  6. Alicia Mayer

    Great to hear from you, Melissa! Yes they were two stubborn individuals your great-uncle and mine! But also both gifts to the film industry. My Charles Bickford story is one of the most popular stories on my website. And you’re welcome – my view is to celebrate their lives and legacy.

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