Louis Wolheim

Louis Wolheim

Louis Wolheim with Mary Astor in
Two Arabian Knights (1927)
Born March 28, 1880
New York City, New York, USA
Died February 18, 1931(1931-02-18) (aged 50)
Los Angeles, California, USA
Occupation Actor
Years active 19141931

Louis R. Wolheim (March 28, 1880 February 18, 1931) was an American actor, of both stage and screen, whose rough physical appearance relegated him to roles mostly of thugs or villains in the movies, but whose talent allowed him to flourish on stage. His career was mostly contained during the silent era of the film industry, due to his untimely death at the age of 50 in 1931.

Early life

Born in New York City in 1880, he attended Cornell University, where he graduated with a degree in engineering. After graduation he taught mathematics, including 6 years as an instructor at Cornell.[1] Despite his rugged visage, Wolheim was intelligent and cultivated, speaking French, German, Spanish, and Yiddish.[2] According to Wolheim, while at Cornell, he suffered an injury to his nose during a football game, and, after having the nose seen to by medical professionals, later that same day he got into a physical altercation (which he won), although his nose suffered more damage, ending up becoming almost a trademark for him.[3] After the United States entrance into World War I, Wolheim joined the United States Army, and was in Officer's training at Camp Zachary Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky when hostilities ended. Not wanting to remain in the service as a career, he asked for and was granted a discharge.[4]


In 1914, on the advice of Lionel Barrymore and John Barrymore, Wolheim entered films. Both brothers also invited him to appear in the 1919 play The Jest in which the Barrymores co-starred.[5] He would appear in at least five films with Lionel Barrymore including a serial and three films with John Barrymore, Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde (1920), Sherlock Holmes (1922) and Tempest (1928). Wolheim appeared in two silent films with their sister Ethel Barrymore. Wolheim's fearsome visage almost immediately typecast him in roles as gangsters, executioners (as in D. W. Griffith's Orphans of the Storm) or prisoners. Towards the end of the 1920s, he occasionally broke out of these stereotypes and played a comic Russian officer in Tempest and a rambunctious Sergeant in Howard Hughes's Two Arabian Knights. He also played a Chaneyesque gangster in Hughes's splendidly photographed The Racket, a lost film for over 70 years recently rediscovered.

Wolheim as a saloon owner with John Barrymore as Mr. Hyde in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde(1920)

Beginning with his appearance in the Barrymores' play, The Jest, Wolheim would appear in ten Broadway plays from 1919 through 1925. He received considerable acclaim as Yank in the original stage production of The Hairy Ape (1922) by Eugene O'Neill. His final play would be as the lead, Captain Flagg, in What Price Glory?, in 1925. The play would be made into a film a year later, with Victor McLaglen in the role of Flagg.[6] In 1922, with his fluent French, Wolheim translated Henri Bernstein's play, The Claw, into English, which his friend, Lionel Barrymore had a successful run on Broadway in.[2][7]

Wolheim acted primarily in silent films, because of his sudden death at the close of the silent era, but he did appear in several talkies, including All Quiet on the Western Front and Danger Lights (both 1930) before he died. Wolheim was credited for a screenplay in addition to his acting career, for The Greatest Power, which starred none other than Ethel Barrymore. At the very end of his career, his final appearance was in The Sin Ship, which was also his only directing credit.[8] The film was released in April 1931, after Wolheim's death, however after its completion, Wolheim had decided that directing was not for him, and had stated he would only act from that point forward.[9]

According to the biography included in the DVD version of All Quiet on the Western Front, Wolheim wanted, at one point in his career, to play romantic leads instead of tough "heavies." To that end, he sought to have plastic surgery performed on his broken nose. Executives at United Artists successfully obtained a restraining order against him from doing so, however.[3][10]

Off-screen, Wolheim had a reputation as a genuinely caring individual, so much so that after his death, when flowers were usually sent to the funeral, his friends and co-workers instead took up a collection and gave the money, in Wolheim's name, to a fund to feed the hungry.[11] James R. Quirk, editor and president of Photoplay Magazine, said of Wolheim, "This is no attempt to glorify an actor who has passed on. It is the truth, every word of it. Louis Wolheim was one of the finest and most generous souls I have ever known."[11]


While preparing to appear in the film The Front Page, Wolheim died suddenly on February 18, 1931, in Los Angeles. He had been losing drastic amounts of weight for the role, and news accounts from that time attributed his death to that weight loss. However, modern sources attribute his death to stomach cancer.[1][12][13][14] He would be replaced in The Front Page's cast by Adolphe Menjou.[12] He is interred at Hollywood Forever Cemetery in Hollywood, CA.[15]


(filmography as per AFI database, except where otherwise noted)[8]

Stage career

  • What Price Glory? (1925) - Captain Flagg
  • Catskill Dutch (1924) - Cobby
  • MacBeth (1924) - Porter
  • The Hairy Ape (1922) - Yank
  • The Idle Inn (1921-22) - Bendet
  • The Fair Circassian (1921) - The Prince Regent
  • The Claw (1921-22) - translation from French
  • The Broken Wing (1920-21) - General Panfilo Aguilar
  • The Letter of the Law (1920) - Bridet
  • The Jest (1919–20) - The Executioner

(list as per Internet Broadway Database)[6]


  1. 1 2 "Louis Wolheim". Turner Classic Movies. Archived from the original on August 23, 2014. Retrieved August 23, 2014.
  2. 1 2 "Louis Wolheim". Find a Grave. Archived from the original on October 19, 2007. Retrieved August 23, 2014. |archive-url= is malformed: timestamp (help)
  3. 1 2 Lang, Harry (January 1931). "Gr-r-r-r-r!". Photoplay. p. 66.
  4. Lang 1931, p. 118.
  5. The Oxford Companion to the American Theatre c.1992 by Gerald Bordman
  6. 1 2 "Louis Wolheim". Internet Broadway Database. Archived from the original on February 18, 2014. Retrieved August 23, 2014. |archive-url= is malformed: timestamp (help)
  7. "The Claw". Internet Broadway Database. Archived from the original on July 12, 2014. Retrieved August 23, 2014. |archive-url= is malformed: timestamp (help)
  8. 1 2 "Louis Wolheim". American Film Institute. Retrieved August 23, 2014.
  9. Schallert, Edwin; Schallert, Elza (March 1931). "Hollywood High Lights". Picture Play Magazine. p. 16.
  10. "Gossip of all the Studios". Photoplay. January 1928. p. 100.
  11. 1 2 "The Hard-Boiled Samaritan". Photoplay. May 1931. Retrieved August 23, 2014.
  12. 1 2 Waterbury, Ruth (March 1931). "The Final Fling". The Silver Screen. p. 82.
  13. "Louis Wolheim, full biography". The New York Times. Archived from the original on August 23, 2014. Retrieved August 23, 2014.
  14. "Hollywood's Goings-On". Photoplay. April 1931. p. 45.
  15. "Louis Wolheim (1880 - 1931) - Find A Grave Memorial". www.findagrave.com. Retrieved 2016-06-22.
  16. "The Carter Case". Silent Era. Archived from the original on November 10, 2013. Retrieved August 23, 2014. |archive-url= is malformed: timestamp (help)
  17. "The House of Hate". Silent Era. Archived from the original on February 25, 2014. Retrieved August 23, 2014. |archive-url= is malformed: timestamp (help)
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