Henry Wilcoxon

Henry Wilcoxon

as the vicar in The Miniver Story (1950)
Born Harry Frederick Wilcoxon
(1905-09-08)8 September 1905
Roseau, Dominica, British West Indies
Died 6 March 1984(1984-03-06) (aged 78)
Los Angeles, California, U.S.
Cause of death Heart failure and cancer
Other names Harry Wilcoxon
Occupation Actor
Years active 192683
Spouse(s) Sheila (Garrett) Browning (1936-37; divorced)
Joan Woodbury (1938-69; divorced; 3 children)

Henry Wilcoxon (8 September 1905 6 March 1984) was an actor born in Roseau, Dominica, British West Indies, and best known as a leading man in many of Cecil B. DeMille's films, also serving as DeMille's associate producer on his later films.

Early life

Henry Wilcoxon was born Harry Frederick Wilcoxon on 8 September 1905 in Roseau, Dominica. His father was Robert Stanley Wilcoxon (known as "Tan"), manager of the Colonial Bank in Jamaica,[1] and his mother, Lurleene Minuette Núñez de Córdoba, had been an amateur theatre actress.[1][2][3]

The following is a summary of the early childhood of Henry (Harry) and his brother Robert Owen Wilcoxon (Owen), from his autobiography.[4]

"Harry was about eleven months old when his mother Lurleene died suddenly (and, to the children, mysteriously). Tan immediately sent his children off to England in spite of his own mother's refusal to take care of them owing to poor health. Harry was still in diapers (nappies) and his brother Owen was nearly four when their grandmother met them.
"Tan advertised for a foster home and the brothers were sent to the first family that responded. There Harry and Owen were locked in an attic room and fed leftovers while the money and clothing that came with them went to the family's own children. Harry and Owen were kept in appalling conditions, both afflicted with lice, Harry crippled with rickets and Owen developed a lifelong stutter and epileptic fits.
"Even when the abuse was discovered, neither father nor grandmother wanted to take them back; instead the boys were sent to an orphanage and might have remained there if a good foster home not heard of their plight and considered taking them in. The Stewart family (consisting mainly of maiden sisters), with a large house in Acton, accepted the abandoned children. The youngest, Ruth, took special care of Owen. Harry had atrocious behaviour but was taken in hand by an elder sister Sara.[5] The boys had to call each sister “Auntie”, were taught table manners, sent to Sunday school, tutored in school work and Harry's legs fitted with braces.
"After several years Tan Wilcoxon appeared from the West Indies with a new wife Rosamund [née Richards] and it was decided to unite Harry and Owen with their father and new “mother”. Harry was seven and Owen almost ten. Tan took them back to Bridgetown, Barbados. Life with father and “that woman Rosa" was unhappy. Harry was sent to Harrison College, Barbados. At 14 Harry was the underwater swimming champion of Barbados and good enough to become a salvage diver.[2] Then he was sent to Woolmere College in Kingston, Jamaica.[2] With the end of the war in 1918, Tan sent Harry to Ashford Boarding School in Kent,[2] and Owen to sea “to make a man of him”. Harry remained at the school for all his high school years - even on summer holidays, excepting those times he was allowed to visit the Stewart “aunties” for a weekend."

Harry and Owen were known as 'Biff' and 'Bang' to friends and family due to fighting skills gained in amateur boxing.


After completing his education, Wilcoxon was employed by Joseph Rank, the father of J. Arthur Rank, before working for Bond Street tailors Pope and Bradshaw.[2] While working for the tailors, Wilcoxon applied for a visa to work as a chauffeur in the United States, but upon seeing his application refused, turned to boxing and then to acting.[2]


Wilcoxon's first stage performance "was in the E.M. Dell play The 100th Chance," before he joined the Birmingham Repertory Theatre in 1929 and (as Harry Wilcoxon) toured "for several years" playing "all roles that came his way."[2] Among these roles, he found critical success playing Captain Cook in a production of Rudolph Besier's The Barretts of Wimpole Street at the London Queen's Theatre alongside Gwen Ffrangcon-Davies, Scott Sunderland and Cedric Hardwicke.[2] In June 1932, at the Queen's Theatre, he played Donald Gage alongside Edith Evans as Irela in Sir Barry Jackson's production of Beverley Nichols' novel Evensong.[6]

Early screen work

Henry Wilcoxon and Claudette Colbert in Cleopatra (1934)
Henry Wilcoxon, Colin Tapley and C.V. France in If I Were King (1938)

In 1931, Wilcoxon made his screen debut appearing as "Larry Tindale" in The Perfect Lady, swiftly followed by a role opposite Heather Angel in Self Made Lady, alongside Louis Hayward and others.[2] In 1932, he appeared in a remake of the 1929 film The Flying Squad (based on the novel by Edgar Wallace), reprising the role originated by future-Hitchcock regular John Longden.[2] Altogether he made eight films in Britain prior to 1934.

Also in 1933, "while acting on stage in Eight Bells, a talent scout for Paramount Pictures reportedly arranged a screen test which came to the attention of producer-director Cecil B. DeMille in Hollywood."[2] DeMille recalls in his autobiography:

"One of my longest and closest professional and personal associations began because I was impatient about waiting my turn for the use of a projection room at the studio, while I was casting Cleopatra. I had already engaged Claudette Colbert for the title role, but had not yet found a satisfactory Marc Antony to play opposite her.
"However, I did have some film footage of horses that I wanted to see, for possible use in the picture. I took it to the projection room, but found the room in use... While waiting in the booth, I heard, come from the soundtrack of the test film [being shown], a resonant, manly voice, with only a pleasant trace of an English accent... I asked who the young actor was.
" 'Oh,' I was told, 'he's a young Englishman that Paramount signed from the London stage. Name of Harry Wilcoxon, but the executives don't think Harry is dignified enough, so we're changing his name to Henry Wilcoxon.'
" 'Harry or Henry,' I said, 'he is Marc Antony.' "[7]

So he was renamed by DeMille for the role of Marc Antony in Cleopatra, and from then on he was Henry Wilcoxon.

Wilcoxon he was next given the lead role of Richard the Lion-Hearted in DeMille's big-budget film The Crusades (1935) opposite Loretta Young. That film, however, was a financial failure, "losing more than $700,000".[2] After the lack of success of The Crusades, Wilcoxon's career stalled; although he featured—and starred—in a number of films, most were "minor B's like The President's Mystery and Prison Nurse for Republic [Pictures]."[2] Wilcoxon himself deemed "his worst acting job [to be] in Mysterious Mr. Moto (1938), in which year he played in If I Were King and featured in Five of a Kind with the Dionne quintuplets.[2]

The war years

In 1941, Wilcoxon appeared as Captain Hardy, alongside Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, in Alexander Korda's Lady Hamilton, during the filming of which:

"a wad of flame fell from a torch directly on Olivier's head, setting his wig afire. Wilcoxon, standing right beside him, tried to extinguish the blaze but was unsuccessful. Finally he had to wrench the wig from Olivier's head, but he had both hands badly burned while Olivier had his eyebrows scorched."[2]

When America entered the World War II in December 1941, Wilcoxon enlisted in the United States Coast Guard, supposedly "leaving his home twenty minutes after the announcement that the States had declared war and proceeding to enlist then and there."[2] He served with the Coast Guard until 1946, gaining the rank of Lieutenant.[2]

During his period of service, he had three films released in 1942, among them Mrs. Miniver,[8] which received considerable public acclaim, as well as six Academy Awards.[2] Wilcoxon, in his role as the vicar, "wrote and re-wrote" the key sermon with director William Wyler "the night before the sequence was to be shot."[2] The speech "made such an impact that it was used in essence by President Roosevelt as a morale builder and part of it was the basis for leaflets printed in various languages and dropped over enemy and occupied territory."[2]

Upon his return from war service, Wilcoxon "picked up his relationship with Cecil B. DeMille" with Unconquered, and after starring as Sir Lancelot in the 1949 musical version of Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (with Bing Crosby in the title role), he featured (with "fifth starring billing") in DeMille's Samson and Delilah (1949).[2] To help pre-sell the film, "DeMille arranged for Wilcoxon to tour the country giving a series of lectures on the film and its research in 41 key cities in the United States and Canada."[2] However, "after the fourteenth city," Wilcoxon collapsed "from a mild bout of pneumonia," (actually tuberculosis), and the tour was continued by "press-agent Richard Condon and Ringling Brothers public relations man Frank Braden" (who also collapsed, in Minneapolis).[2] Condon finished touring by the time of the film's release in October, 1949.[2] Wilcoxon, meanwhile, had returned to England under contract to feature in The Miniver Story (1950), a sequel to the multi-Oscar-winning Mrs. Miniver (1942) in which he reprised his role as the vicar.

Later life as producer and TV actor

In the late 1940s, "several young actors and actresses came to Wilcoxon and wife Joan Woodbury and asked them to form a play-reading group", which began to take shape as the 'Wilcoxon Players' in 1951, when the two "transformed their living room into a stage."[2] 'Guest star' performers sometimes appeared in the plays produced by the group, among them Larry Parks and Corinne Calvet, and soon the "Wilcoxon Group Players Annual Nativity Play" was being performed "at the Miles Playhouse in Santa Monica."[2] The group was recognized by the American Cancer Society in 1956 with a Citation of Merit, awarded for donations received by attendees of the groups Easter productions.[2]

Wilcoxon played a "small but important part" in DeMille's 1952 production The Greatest Show on Earth, on which film he also served as Associate Producer, helping steer the film towards its Academy Award for Best Picture, 1952.[2] He also acted as associate producer on, and acted (as Pentaur, the pharaoh's captain of the guards) in DeMille's remake of his own The Ten Commandments (1956). Wilcoxon was sole producer on the 1958 film The Buccaneer, a remake of DeMille's 1938 effort, which DeMille only "supervised" (due to his declining health) while Anthony Quinn directed.[2]

Henry Wilcoxon in The War Lord, (1965)

After DeMille died, Wilcoxon did "considerable work... in pre-production" on "a film based on the life of Lord Baden-Powell, founder of the Boy Scout movement," which DeMille had left unrealized, and was also ultimately abandoned.[2]

After a relatively inactive period "for the next three or four years," Wilcoxon had a "chance meeting with actor Charlton Heston and director Franklin Schaffner at Universal studios," a meeting which saw him appear in The War Lord (1965), for which he again "went on tour... visiting 21 cities to publicize the picture."[2]

He was credited as co-producer on a "90-minute tribute to Cecil B. DeMille televised by NBC" entitled The World's Greatest Showman: The Legend of Cecil B. DeMille (1963), which production was hampered by the absence of "some of DeMille's best-remembered films of the 30s and 40s" when rights-holder MCA refused their use.[2] At the opening of the DeMille Theatre in New York, he produced a "two-reel short," that in the estimation of critic Don Miller "was much better than this 90-minute tribute."[9]

In the last two decades of his life, he worked sporadically and accepted minor acting roles in a number of television and film productions. He guest-starred in shows including Daniel Boone, Perry Mason, I Spy, It Takes a Thief, Wild Wild West, Gunsmoke, Cimarron Strip, Cagney & Lacey, The Big Valley, Private Benjamin and Marcus Welby, M. D., as well as in a smaller number of films, including a memorable turn as the golf-obsessed Bishop Pickering in the 1980 comedy Caddyshack.[2]

He has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6256 Hollywood Blvd. west of Argyle St., in front of the W Hollywood Hotel & Residences and the Metro Red Line Hollywood/Vine station, and across from the Pantages Theater.

Personal life

By loaning money from his early film acting, Wilcoxon assisted his brother Owen to establish himself in 1931 as a partner in the Vale Motor Company in London, and for a short time he showed a personal interest in the development of their sports car, the Vale Special.[10]

English-born actress Heather Angel, whom he had previously acted with in Self Made Lady (1932) when they were both in England, had come out to Hollywood a few months before Wilcoxon and met him again in 1934.[11] They became lifetime friends. She taught him horse-riding, and acted in two more films with him: The Last of the Mohicans (1936) and Lady Hamilton (1941). Heather Angel and her husband Ralph Forbes were both present at Wilcoxon's wedding to Sheila Browning.

Wilcoxon married a 19-year old actress Sheila Browning in the summer of 1936, but they divorced a year later. When they had first met, two years before they were married, they were introduced by her sister Lynn, and Browning told Wilcoxon her name was "Bonnie". When they got to know each other better it was at his suggestion that she changed her name to Sheila Garrett.[12]

On 17 December 1938 (her 23rd birthday) he married his second wife, actress Joan Woodbury.[13] They had three daughters: Wendy Joan Wilcoxon (born 1939), Heather Ann Wilcoxon (1947) and Cecilia Dawn "CiCi" Wilcoxon (1950).[2] They divorced in 1969.[14] His second daughter was named after Heather Angel.[15] His youngest daughter was named after Cecil B. DeMille: DeMille said he wanted the child to be called Cecil if it was a boy, but when it turned out to be a girl, DeMille was still insistent, saying "I think Cecilia is a beautiful name! My daughter is named Cecilia...".[16]

Wilcoxon was an amateur painter and photographer, whose work was exhibited on at least one occasion in London.[2] He was also "an avid antique collector and accomplished flier."[2]

At his home in Burbank in the summer of 1975 Wilcoxon first met his niece Valerie (born 1933), the English daughter of his brother Owen[17] with Dorothy Drew (sister of architect Jane Drew). Up until then he did not know that his brother, killed at the Dunkirk evacuation, had any children.

In The Devil Thumbs a Ride and Other Movies (New York: Grove Press, 1988), author Barry Gifford, citing personal experience of an attempted pickup by the actor, suggests that Wilcoxon was bisexual.

Partial filmography

Made in UK:

Made in USA:

References and Notes

  1. 1 2 The deMercado Family Website "Monthly Comments: Jamaica" Vol. 6 - 'Memories and Reflections,' by Ansell Hart. Accessed August 7, 2008
  2. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 Daynard, Don Henry Wilcoxon in Peter Harris (ed.) The New Captain George's Whizzbang #13 (1971), pp. 2-7
  3. "BMD records". Accessed August 7, 2008
  4. Henry Wilcoxon and Katherine Orrison Lionheart in Hollywood, prologue
  5. 1911 census shows Harry and Owen Wilcoxon with the Stewart family at Springhill House, Horn Lane, Acton. They were Charlotte Stewart (age 80) and single daughters Harriet (49), Caroline (48), Sara (39), Kathleen (37) and Ruth (34). Also a son John (41) with his wife Florence (33). The house has 18 rooms.
  6. The Stage, 30 June 1932
  7. Cecil B. DeMille quoted by Daynard, Don Henry Wilcoxon in Peter Harris (ed.) The New Captain George's Whizzbang #13 (1971), pp. 2-7
  8. His role in "Mrs. Miniver" must have had special meaning to Henry because his only brother, Sub-Lieutenant Robert Owen Wilcoxon of the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, had been killed by a German bomb when assisting in the Dunkirk evacuation on 29 May 1940.
  9. Don Miller quoted in Daynard, Don Henry Wilcoxon in Peter Harris (ed.) The New Captain George's Whizzbang #13 (1971), pp. 2-7
  10. David Cox, Ave Atque Vale, pp.13, 26
  11. Lionheart in Hollywood, p.6
  12. Lionheart in Hollywood, p.69-70
  13. Lionheart in Hollywood, p.114
  14. Lionheart in Hollywood, p.351
  15. Lionheart in Hollywood, p.160
  16. Lionheart in Hollywood, p.196-7
  17. Sub-Lieut. Robert Owen Wilcoxon of the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, only brother of Henry Wilcoxon, assisted in the Dunkirk evacuation on 29 May 1940; but, having helped to get hundreds of Allied troops off the beach to safety in his assault landing craft, he was fatally injured when, after returning to the sloop HMS Bideford to arrange a tow back to Dover, the ship had its stern blown off by a bomb dropped from a dive-bombing German aircraft. This must have been on Wilcoxon's mind during the making of the film Mrs Miniver. This event is reported in the book The Evacuation from Dunkirk, 'Operation Dynamo', 26 May–4 June 1940 ed. W. J. R. Gardner, pub. Frank Cass, London, 2000 ISBN 0-7146-5120-6


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