Harry Carey

Active - 1912 - 1996  |   Born - Jan 16, 1878   |   Died - May 21, 1947   |   Genres - Western, Drama, Action

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Biography by Hal Erickson

Western film star Harry Carey was the Eastern-born son of a Bronx judge. Carey's love and understanding of horses and horsemanship was gleaned from watching the activities of New York's mounted policemen of the 1880s. He worked briefly as an actor in stock, then studied law until a bout of pneumonia forced him to quit the job that was paying for his education. He reactivated his theatrical career in 1904 by touring the provinces in Montana, a play he wrote himself. In 1911, Carey signed with the Bronx-based Biograph film company, playing villain roles for pioneer director D. W. Griffith. Though only in his mid-30s, Carey's face had already taken on its familiar creased, weatherbeaten look; it was an ideal face for westerns, as Carey discovered when he signed with Hollywood's Fox Studios. Under the guidance of fledgling director John Ford, Carey made 26 features and two-reelers in the role of hard-riding frontiersman Cheyenne Harry. Throughout the 1920s, Carey remained an audience favorite, supplementing his acting income with occasional scripting, producing and co-directing assignments. At the dawn of the talkie era, Carey had been around so long that he was considered an old-timer, and had resigned himself to playing supporting parts. His starring career was revitalized by the 1931 jungle epic Trader Horn, in which he appeared with his wife Olive Golden. While he still accepted secondary roles in "A" features (he earned an Oscar nomination for his performance as the Vice President in Frank Capra's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington [1939]), Carey remained in demand during the 1930s as a leading player, notably in the autumnal 1936 western The Last Outlaw and the rugged 1932 serial Last of the Mohicans. In 1940, Carey made his belated Broadway debut in Heavenly Express, following this engagement with appearances in Ah, Wilderness (1944) and But Not Goodbye (1944). By the early 1940s, Carey's craggy face had taken on Mount Rushmore dimensions; his was the archetypal "American" countenance, a fact that director Alfred Hitchcock hoped to exploit. Hitchcock wanted to cast Carey against type as a Nazi ringleader in 1942's Saboteur, only to have these plans vetoed by Mrs. Carey, who insisted that her husband's fans would never accept such a radical deviation from his image. Though Carey and director John Ford never worked together in the 1930s and 1940s, Ford acknowledged his indebtedness to the veteran actor by frequently casting Harry Carey Jr. (born 1921), a personable performer in his own right, in important screen roles. When Carey Sr. died in 1948, Ford dedicated his film Three Godfathers to Harry's memory. A more personal tribute to Harry Carey Sr. was offered by his longtime friend John Wayne; in the very last shot of 1955's The Searchers, Wayne imitated a distinctive hand gesture that Harry Carey had virtually patented in his own screen work.

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