Broderick Crawford was the typical example of "overnight" success in Hollywood -- the 1949 release of All the King's Men turned him into one of the most popular "character" leads in Hollywood, a successor to Wallace Beery and a model for such unconventional leading men to come as Ernest Borgnine. His "overnight" success, however, involved more than a decade of work in routine supporting roles in more than 20 movies, before he was ever considered as much more than a supporting player. Crawford was born into a performing family -- both of his maternal grandparents, William Broderick and Emma Kraus, were opera singers, and his mother, Helen Broderick, was a Broadway and screen actress, while his father, Lester Crawford, was a vaudeville performer.
Born in Philadelphia, PA, he accompanied his parents on tour as a boy and later joined them on-stage. He attended the Dean Academy in Franklin, MA, and excelled in athletics, including football, baseball, and swimming. Crawford entered show business by way of vaudeville, joining his parents in working for producer Max Gordon. With vaudeville's decline in the later 1920s, he tried attending college but dropped out of Harvard after just three months, preferring to make a living as a stevedore on the New York docks, and he also later served as a seaman on a tanker. Crawford returned to acting through radio, including a stint working as a second banana to the Marx Brothers. He entered the legitimate theater in 1934 when playwright Howard Lindsay selected him for a role in the play She Loves Me Not, portraying a football player in the work's London run -- although the play only ran three weeks, that was enough time for Crawford to meet Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne (then theater's leading "power couple" on either side of the Atlantic) and come to the attention of Noel Coward, who selected him for a role in his production of Point Valaine, in which the acting couple was starring. After a string of unsuccessful plays, Crawford went to Hollywood and got a part as the butler in the comedy Woman Chases Man, produced by Samuel Goldwyn. Crawford's theatrical breakthrough came in 1937 when he won the role of the half-witted Lennie in the theatrical adaptation of John Steinbeck's Of Mice And Men. His performance won critical accolades from all of the major newspapers, and Crawford was on his way, at least as far as the stage was concerned -- when it came time to do the movie, however, the part went to Lon Chaney Jr..
In movies, Crawford made the rounds of the studios in one-off roles, usually in relatively minor films such as Submarine D-1, Undercover Doctor, and Eternally Yours. The murder mystery Slightly Honorable gave him a slight boost in both billing and the size of his role, but before he could begin to develop any career momentum the Second World War intervened. Crawford served in the U.S. Army Air Force and saw action in the Battle of the Bulge. When he returned to civilian life, he immediately resumed his screen career with a series of fascinating films, including The Black Angel and James Cagney's production20of The Time of Your Life. True stardom however, still eluded him. That all changed when director-producer Robert Rossen selected Crawford to portray Willie Stark in All the King's Men. In a flash, Crawford became a box-office draw, his performance attracting raves from the critics and delighting audiences with its subtle, earthy, rough-hewn charm. His portrayal of the megalomaniac political boss of a small state, based on the life and career of Louisiana governor and senator Huey Long, won Crawford the Oscar for Best Actor. He signed a long-term contract with Columbia Pictures in 1949, which resulted in his starring in the comedy hit Born Yesterday (1950). That was to be his last major hit as a star, though Crawford continued to give solid and successful lead performances for much of the next five years, portraying a tough undercover cop in the crime drama T he Mob, and a villainous antagonist to Clark Gable in Vincent Sherman's Lone Star.
During the early '50s, Crawford was Hollywood's favorite tough-guy lead or star antagonist, his persona combining something of the tough charm of Spencer Tracy and the rough-hewn physicality of Wallace Beery -- he could be a charming lunkhead, in the manner of Keenan Wynn, or dark and threatening, calling up echoes of his portrayal of Willie Stark. In the mid-'50s at 20th Century Fox, he added vast energy and excitement to such films as Night People and Between Heaven and Hell -- indeed, his performance in the latter added a whole extra layer of depth and meaning to the film, moving it from wartime melodrama into territory much closer to Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, with his character Waco serving as the dramatic stand-in for Kurtz. In 1955, after working on the melodrama Not As a Stranger and Fellini's Il Bidone (his portrayal of the swindler Augusto being one of his best performances), Crawford became one of the biggest Hollywood stars of the era to make the jump to television. He signed to do the series Highway Patrol for Ziv TV, which was a hit for three seasons. In its wake, however, Crawford was never able to get movies or roles of the same quality that he'd been offered in the early '50s. He did two more series, King of Diamonds and The Interns, and did play the title role in Larry Cohen's The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover (1977), which attracted some offbeat notice; otherwise, Crawford's work during his final 30 years of acting involved roles as routine as the ones he'd muddled through while trying for his break at the other end of his career. One of his most visible screen appearances took place on television, in a 1977 episode of CHiPS that played off of his work in Highway Patrol, with Crawford making a gag appearance as himself, a motorist pulled over and cited for a moving violation by the series' motorcycle police officers.