- Jul 8, 1889
It's a source of amazement to those filmgoers born after 1915 -- which is to say, most of us in the early 21st century -- that rotund, frog-voiced, barrel-shaped Eugene Pallette started out in movies as a rough-and-tumble stuntman and graduated to romantic leading man, all in his first five years in pictures. Indeed, Pallette led enough differing career… More Bio:
It's a source of amazement to those filmgoers born after 1915 -- which is to say, most of us in the early 21st century -- that rotund, frog-voiced, barrel-shaped Eugene Pallette started out in movies as a rough-and-tumble stuntman and graduated to romantic leading man, all in his first five years in pictures. Indeed, Pallette led enough differing career phases and pursued enough activities outside of performing to have made himself a good subject for an adventure story or a screen bio, à la Diamond Jim Brady, except that nobody would have believed it. He was born into an acting family in Winfield, KS, in the summer of 1889; his parents were performing together in a stage production of East Lynne when he came into the world. He grew up on the road, moving from town to town and never really putting down roots until he entered a military academy to complete high school -- which he apparently never quite managed to do.
By his teens, Pallette, who was slender and athletic, was working as a jockey and had a winning record, too. Before long, he was part of a stage act involving riding, in a three-horse routine that proved extremely popular. He began acting on the stage as well, and was scraping out a living in the Midwest and West Coast, hoping to make it to New York. At one point, he was allowing a company manager in whose troupe he was working to pocket a major part of his earnings in anticipation of using the sum to finance a trip to New York, only to see the man abscond with the cash and leave him stranded.
Pallette turned to movies when he arrived in Los Angeles looking for stage work and found that there was nothing for him. He headed to a nearby studio, where he was told they were looking for riders and took a job as a stuntman for $1.50 a day. He quickly realized that there was a need -- and much more money offered -- for leading men, and he was able to put himself forward in that role. In a matter of a few days, Pallette had managed to make the jump from bit player to lead, and by 1914, he was working opposite the likes of Dorothy Gish. Such was his range that he was just as capable of playing convincingly menacing villains as romantic leads and dashing heroes. He was in D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation in a small role as a wounded soldier. That same year, he played starring roles in three movies by director Tod Browning -- The Spell of the Poppy, The Story of a Story, and The Highbinders -- as, respectively, a drug-addicted pianist, a writer struggling with his conscience, and an abusive Chinese husband of a white woman. In Griffith's Intolerance, he had a much bigger heroic part in that movie's French sequences, while in Going Straight, also made in 1916, he gave a memorable performance as a sadistic villain.
Pallette's career was interrupted by the American entry into the First World War, for which he joined the flying corps and served stateside. When he returned to acting in 1919, he discovered that he had to restart his career virtually from square one -- a new generation of leading men had come along during his two years away. He'd also begun putting on weight while in uniform and, with his now bland-seeming features, found that only supporting parts were open to him -- and that's what he got, including an important role in Douglas Fairbanks' 1921 adaptation of The Three Musketeers. For a time, he even gave up acting, pulling his available funds together and heading to the oil fields of Texas, where he made what was then a substantial fortune -- 140,000 dollars in less than a year -- only to see it disappear in a single bad investment. Pallette spent an extended period in seclusion, hospitalized with what would now be diagnosed as severe depression, and then turned back to acting. He reestablished himself during the late silent era in character roles, built on his newly rotund physique and a persona that was just as good at being comical as menacing.
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