Born in New York City, Louis Calhern moved to St. Louis with his family as a child. There he played high-school football, and while engaged in gridiron activity he was spotted by a theatrical manager and hired as a supernumerary in a local stage troupe. Borrowing money from his father, Calhern headed to New York to pursue acting. Because World War I was going on at the time, the young actor thought it expedient to change his Teutonic given name of Carl Henry Vogt ("Calhern" was a rearrangement of the letters in his first and second names). After his first Broadway break in the 1923 George M. Cohan production Song and Dance Man, the tall, velvet-voiced Calhern became a matinee idol by virtue of a play titled The Cobra. In films from 1921, Calhern thrived in the early talkie era as a cultured, saturnine villain. For a time, Calhern battled alcoholism and lost several important stage and screen assignments because of his personal problems, but by the late 1940s, Calhern had gone cold turkey and completely cleaned up his act. He was brilliant as Oliver Wendell Holmes in both the Broadway and film versions of The Magnificent Yankee, and from 1950 onward made several well-reviewed appearances as Shakespeare's King Lear (his favorite role). An MGM contract player throughout the 1950s, Calhern was seen as Buffalo Bill in Annie Get Your Gun (1950), the above-suspicion criminal mastermind (and "uncle" of kept woman Marilyn Monroe) in The Asphalt Jungle (1950), and the title character in Julius Caesar (1953). Louis Calhern died of a sudden heart attack while filming The Teahouse of the August Moon in Japan; he was replaced by character actor Paul Ford.
photo credit: Warner Brothers
by Hal Erickson biography