The bit-player and union activist's journey from Toronto to Broadway and Hollywood.
Throughout the 1930s, character actor Berton Churchill was always in demand in Hollywood. Whenever the Toronto-born performer arrived home from the set, he was greeted by the pile of new scripts and offers delivered that day. “Often it meant I had to stay up long after midnight,” Churchill recalled, as recorded in Charles Foster’s Once Upon a Time in Paradise (Dundurn, 2003), “learning my dialogue for a scene in a film I had never, until that moment, heard about but which was to be shot the next morning.” With his imposing physique and commanding voice making him a favourite to play pompous judges, self-righteous preachers, small-town big-shots, and blustering businessmen, Churchill was highly respected within the industry but never recognized as a star by the cinema-going public.
Churchill was born in Toronto on December 9, 1876, and moved to Newark, New Jersey, during high school so his father could accept a position in the real estate industry. That’s where he was first exposed to theatre: as a teenager in 1893–1894, he collected autographs of the famous Broadway stars whose shows previewed there before opening in New York City.
Although he distinguished himself as a student in high school, Churchill turned down the prospect of college in favour of commuting across the river each day to work as a typesetter at the Daily News and other New York newspapers.
(Left: a young Berton Churchill, in an undated image from the Billy Rose Theatre Collection at the New York Public Library Digital Gallery .)
Discerning that he and his colleagues in the pressroom and others throughout the newspaper’s operation were underpaid, Churchill became involved in union organizing. When the newspaper tired of his demands for better wages and working conditions, its management hoped promoting him to foreman would silence him. It didn’t. Within three weeks of the promotion, Churchill quit the job, moved to another printing company and resumed his union activities.
With a friend, Churchill joined the William J. Florence Dramatic Society in New Jersey, and began appearing in plays in Newark and Jersey City. In 1896, Churchill later recalled, the greenhorn actor was noticed by the critics for the first time. He quoted from a local newspaper clipping: “The play is awful, and should be allowed to die,” a clipping from the local newspaper read. “One of the actors, Berton Churchill, a young man of twenty, should be nurtured into the stardom he will surely one day attain.” Achieving a measure of success, Churchill quit his typesetting job. With occasional help from his parents, and the odd shift as a carnival barker—where he discovered the particular gift of his booming/grandious/grandiloquent voice—to make ends meet, Churchill dedicated himself to acting full-time in New York City. With the parts small and the plays little noticed, Churchill’s efforts were far from lucrative.
When, after muffing his single line, Churchill was fired on-stage in the middle of a performance, a producer in the audience who felt the young actor had been treated unfairly hired him immediately to join a repertory company. Appearing in touring productions across the country and summer stock performances in Rhode Island over the next few years, Churchill slowly built his reputation. At the age of 32, in 1908, he finally made his Broadway premiere in a play produced by stage star (and the best man at Churchill’s 1908 wedding) William Faversham.
For the next decade, Churchill was a bona fide Broadway star, in demand as a versatile leading man and making more money than he’d ever dreamed possible. Churchill returned to Toronto as part of a lavish, star-studded production of Julius Caesar at the Royal Alexandra Theatre in October 1912, a staging of Irish playwrights W.D. Hepenstall and Whitford Kane’s Dark Rosaleen at the Majestic Theatre in February 1919, and at least several other productions. While his mother and sister were alive, an obituary in the Toronto Star (October 10, 1940) states, the actor visited Toronto at least once a year.
Despite his critical and financial success, Churchill later reminisced to reporters, “I still couldn’t forget how small were the salaries being paid to other bit part actors in the production.” He remembered stories, heard at union-organizing meetings during his newspaper days, of chorus girls scrapping by on poverty wages while stage stars lived in luxury. Now, he regularly invited bit-players and less-established co-stars to board in his family’s luxurious downtown apartment free of charge. And he took an active role in the establishment and growth of Actors’ Equity.
In 1919 the theatrical union, seeking to negotiate better terms of work from theatrical management, called a strike that affected every American professional theatre from coast to coast. As a member of Equity’s executive, Churchill took a leading role. In Chicago, he even convinced railroad workers to misplace a freight car full of stage sets and costumes to ensure that a rogue production could not break the actors’ unified front. Years later, Churchill would regard his role in the strike as his proudest achievement. But in the immediate aftermath, New York theatre managers refused to hire him for several years. Churchill and his family were able to survive his blacklisting on the strength of their savings, and a handful of out-of-town engagements. He also appeared in a few silent pictures, like Six Cylinder Love (1923) and Tongues of Flame (1924), but he didn’t enjoy the absence of the audience.
In November 1925, a producer broke the blacklist by offering Churchill the lead role of a card shark in Alias the Deacon, which was a huge Broadway hit that ran for 236 performances and inspired three Hollywood film adaptations. Of Churchill, Theatre Magazine raved: “Rarely has a more insinuating and preposterously engaging performance been given.” Once again, Berton was in-demand as an actor, now playing older, more rotund characters.
Churchill decided to return to Hollywood in late 1929 after seeing a talkie for the first time and recognizing the new potential of film. Upon his arrival, he asked one of his few connections in the movie industry, his friend William Faversham, to spread the word that he was looking for work. Offers flooded in, leading to steadily increasing work including appearances in 30 films in 1932 alone. “I took any role offered me if I liked it,” he said, as quoted by Foster. “I shocked my agent and directors on many occasions by turning down parts, good as they might be, in films I didn’t think would be successful”—including the role of the wizard in The Wizard of Oz (1939).
(Berton Churchill in an undated photo from the Billy Rose Theatre Collection at the New York Public Library Digital Gallery (504365).
Directors and producers respected Churchill. He was versatile and his presence all but guaranteed a good performance. He often helped elevate minor scenes and roles into memorable ones. Most frequently cast as stern, self-important authority figures and villains—frequently unlikeable characters—Churchill’s only opportunities to star came in “B” movies like The Dark Hour (1936). His defining role was undoubtedly that of Henry Gatewood, the crooked banker who feels morally superior to all his fellow passengers in John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939).
On set, Churchill was the opposite of his gruff screen characters. He was beloved by co-stars for his professionalism and the acting advice he offered. Clark Gable said that Churchill “was the real star” of one film they did together, Parnell (1937). Shirley Temple, Churchill’s Dimples (1936) co-star, recalled the jokes he shared with her: “I was very young but I recognized him as a kindly gentleman and a fine actor.” A young Bette Davis became infatuated with her married co-star on the set of Cabin in the Cotton (1932), but her affections were gently rebuffed. Ronald Reagan claimed while they were filming Wide Open Faces (1938) that Churchill’s acting was so impressive that he was bound to become a star soon. “My friend I am not star material,” Churchill replied, according to Foster. “I like what I am now. I’ll bet you’ll be president of the United States before I ever become a star.” Several actors, including Tyrone Power, John Wayne, and John Garfield eventually insisted that Churchill also be cast in a good role in any film project they accepted. With Churchill’s permission, radio comedian Harold Peary based his iconic character, Throckmorton Philharmonic Gildersleeve, a pretentious blow-hard on the Fibber McGee and Molly and The Great Gildersleeve radio programs, on Churchill’s film roles.
Throughout his career in Hollywood, Churchill once again became involved in labour unionism. When, in 1933, film studios unilaterally decided to cut the salaries of all actors under contract, Churchill was among a half-dozen who met to discuss the formation of a film actors union. Mobilizing their co-stars through hushed conversations on movie sets during the coming weeks, the efforts of these six led to the incorporation of the Screen Actors Guild in June 1933. Unlike his time with Actors’ Equity, Churchill did not take on a formal leadership role within the new union.
(Left: article from Toronto Star; October 16, 1940.)
By the summer of 1940, Churchill was looking for a break from Hollywood, and accepted a part in the George Kaufman and Moss Hart–penned play, George Washington Slept Here at New York’s Lyceum Theatre that autumn. “After the machinery of movie making,” the Toronto Star reported on September 14, 1940, “Mr. Churchill thinks, it will be good to have stageboards under-foot again. His last Manhattan appearance was in ‘Five Star Final’ in 1930.”
During rehearsals for the stage production, Churchill was found unconscious in his hotel suite and later pronounced dead at hospital of a kidney condition. He was buried in Glendale, California.
In a final twist, the producers of George Washington Slept Here, faced with the difficult task of recasting the featured role just weeks before opening, tried to invoke an “Act of God” clause in their actors’ contracts, which would allow them to avoid paying the rest of the cast during the interim. Actors’ Equity denied the producers’ request and ensured the players received their wages despite production delays. It is a fitting denouement that Churchill’s castmates were protected by the very legacy of fair dealing between actors and producers he helped enshrine through a career of union activism.
Other sources consulted: Anne Edwards, Early Reagan: The Rise to Power (Taylor Trade Publishing, 1987); Alfred Harding, The Revolt of the Actors (William Morrow & Company, 1929); Amnon Kabatchnik, Blood on the Stage, 1925-1950 (Scarecrow Press, 2009); Benjamin McArthur, Actors and American Culture: 1880-1920 (University of Iowa Press, 2000); Alfred E. Twomey and Arthur F. McClure, The Versatiles: A Study of Supporting Character Actors and Actresses in the American Motion Picture, 1930-1955 (Castle Books, 1969); and articles from the Toronto Globe (July 31, 1912; & February 8, 1919); the Globe and Mail (October 11, 1940); and Toronto Star (October 16, 1940).