Lionel Barrymore Is Dead at 76
Actor's Career Spanned 61 Years; Veteran Screen and Stage
Star Also Gained Fame as Scrooge on Radio
New York Times, November 16, 1954
LOS ANGELES, Nov. 15--Lionel Barrymore died tonight at
Valley Hospital in Van Nuys. He was 76 years old. His physician, John Paul
Ewing, attributed his death to a heart ailment.
actor was stricken last night at the home of Mrs. J. E. Wheeler. He had
resided with Mrs. Wheeler and her two daughters, Miss Benson Wheeler and
Miss Florence Wheeler, for the last eighteen years.
Mr. Barrymore was taken to the hospital and placed in an
oxygen tent. Dr. Ewing said he lapsed into unconsciousness about midnight
and failed to respond to treatment.
Lionel Barrymore once estimated that members of his famous
family of the Drews and the Barrymores had appeared on the stage for 200
continuous years. He, himself, despite his protests that his interest in
acting had arisen only from a necessity to eat, accounted for 61 of these
Mr. Barrymore, although he would have preferred to be an
artist and composer, became an outstanding success of stage, screen and
radio. His yearly radio interpretation of Scrooge in Dickens' "Christmas
Carol" became traditional. In his later years when a hip injury confined him
to a wheelchair, it was a tribute to his popularity and ability that parts
were written around him and audiences never questioned the appearance of an
actor in a wheelchair. Born in Philadelphia April 28, 1878, he was the
eldest of the three children of Maurice (Blythe) and Georgie (Drew)
Barrymore. He was also later to be known as the quietest of the triumvirate
of Lionel, Ethel and John, born in that order.
His reluctant stage debut came at the age of 6 when the
Barrymores were on tour. He was pressed into action when a child actor
became ill. When he followed up his cue with a good cry instead of his
lines, he was retired from the stage by his famous parents until he was 15.
At that time another of his family, his grandmother, the
prominent Louisa (Mrs. John) Drew, ventured on the stage with him in "The
Rivals." His debut with the famous Mrs. Malaprop of her time was apparently
successful, for he next appeared with her in "The Road to Ruin."
Took to Painting
Mr. Barrymore, who was already proclaiming his desire not
to act, then left the stage to study painting for three years. The attempt
was not outstanding and he returned to acting, appearing in "Squire Kate,"
"Cumberland '61" and several plays with Nance O'Neil's company.
He toured with the late J. A. Herne in "Sag Harbor," was
cast with his uncle, John Drew, in "Second in Command," and by 1904 had
appeared in many more works and was counted as a star.
In 1904, having married Doris Rankin, the young sister of
his uncle Sidney Drew's wife, Mr. Barrymore, still determined to become an
artist, went to Paris with his bride where he continued his painting studies
for several years.
Returning to New York and still plagued with the need to
earn a living, he heard of D. W. Griffith's movie-making enterprise in the
Biograph Studios on Fourteenth Street. He asked for a job. Disclaiming an
interest in "stars" Mr. Griffith, according to Mr. Barrymore's account of
the incident, reluctantly hired the six-foot, dark-haired young man at $10 a
One of the first pictures made by Mr. Barrymore in those
early days of silent movies was "The New York Hat," with a young actress,
Mary Pickford. The script, her first, was written by Anita Loos. Others of
his co-workers were Mabel Norman, Lillian and Dorothy Gish, Mack Sennett and
James Kirkwood. Many of the scripts of the first two-reelers were written by
actors. Mr. Barrymore himself admitted to having written "dozens" at $25
When, as he said, he was brought "kicking and protesting
back to the stage," it was one of his most famous roles, that of Colonel
Ibbetson in "Peter Ibbetson," in 1917. The next year he was persuaded to
leave the play for the role of Milt Shanks in "The Copperhead," described by
the late Heywood Broun as "the best piece of acting I ever saw."
It was to see Lionel in this part that
John Barrymore, the
incorrigible brother, bought out the whole house of his own play, "Peter
Ibbetson," in which he was appearing in Hartford. It developed later that
John's boss, Lee Shubert, had refused to let
John pay for the expensive
$3,000 ticket to his brother's opening night.
Lionel followed up this success in 1921 with "Macbeth,"
described as the hit of the season. The same year, starring in "The Claw,"
Mr. Barrymore met Irene Fenwick, who became his second wife July 14, 1923,
after his divorce from Doris Rankin. The marriage was known as a happy one.
Mrs. Barrymore retired from the stage soon after the marriage. She died
Christmas Eve in 1936.
Before he "escaped permanently to California" in 1925, he
had also played in "Laugh, Clown, Laugh," "The Piker" and "Man or Devil." In
the movies he made what was known as "quickies" until the Thirties, when he
again became a star in that medium.
"Free Soul," in which he portrayed a drunkard lawyer
defending his daughter against a murder charge, won him an Academy Award for
the best performance of the year in 1931. From then on, his movies, made
with some of the biggest stars in Hollywood, included "Grand Hotel,"
"Reunion in Vienna," "Dinner at Eight," "Treasure Island" and "David
Three Appear in 'Rasputin'
The three Barrymores appeared together in "Rasputin and
the Empress." It was Lionel and Ethel's first appearance together since
Ethel staged a production of "Camille" when she was 10. That early
performance, with Lionel starred as Armand, also marked his first and last
appearance in a romantic role. He declined to be cast in such a part after
In 1938, "Young Dr. Kildaire," the first in the well-known
series, appeared. This was the year that Lionel, after several years' in and
out of his wheelchair with a hip injury had the final accident that confined
him to the chair for the rest of his career.
While he was gaining his reputation on the stage, screen
and in radio, he also received recognition for his artistic and musical
achievements. Several of his etchings were grouped with the "Hundred Prints
of the Year," and he was elected to the Society of American Etchers.
In the summer of 1944, his symphony, "Partita," was
performed at Lewisohn Stadium by Fabien Sevitzky. "In Memoriam," a tone poem
in memory of his brother, John, who had died in 1942, was performed by the
Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy. "Tableau Russe," another of his
compositions, was presented in the Hollywood Bowl. The theme song for the
"Mayor of the Town" radio feature, in which he played the sage and samaritan
mayor, was also his composition.
As recently as 1952 another of his compositions was
presented on records. This was a musical setting of "Ali Baba and the Forty
Thieves" with the composer as the narrator.
Narrator for Record Album
He was narrator for an album of records made during World
War II by the Armed Forces Radio service, entitled "Great Music." He was
active in community affairs, often appearing in benefits for special civic
causes. At one time he was chairman of the national board of sponsors of the
National Arthritis Research Foundation.
Mr. Barrymore's political activity in behalf of Governor
Dewey during the 1944 Presidential campaign was reported to have brought a
protest from the Roosevelt family when Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer announced him
for the role of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the film "The Beginning of the
End," in 1946. He was withdrawn from the picture.
In May, 1951, Mr. Barrymore added writing to his creative
achievements. His book, "We Barrymores," written with Cameron Shipp, was
published by Appleton-Century-Crofts, Inc.
Mr. Barrymore also wrote a novel, "Mr. Cantonwine: A Moral
Tale," published by Little, Brown & Co. The story was about a snake-oil
Last March, he was one of a group of motion-picture stars
who received Treasury Department citations for cooperation in helping to
promote investment in United States Savings Bonds.
His sister, Ethel, survives.
© 1954 New York Times