William S. Hart

Active - 1907 - 1939  |   Born - Dec 6, 1870   |   Died - Jun 24, 1946   |   Genres - Western

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Biography by Bruce Eder

William S. Hart was the most popular Western movie hero of the 1910s and the most revered Western movie actor of the silent era -- and oddly enough, that was only his second successful performing career. Born in Newburgh, NY, in 1870 (though his son always insisted it was 1864), he was the son of an itinerant laborer who moved his family to the Dakotas not long after, and Hart grew up among settlers and members of the Sioux tribe. The family's moves also took them to the Oklahoma and Indian Territories, and he knew the West of the 1870s and 1880s and always tried to give a true picture of what it was like. The family later moved back to Newburgh, and while he was in his teens, Hart decided to try for a career on the stage in New York City. He spent a few years in stock, in America and England, before graduating to leading roles in major productions during the 1890s, which included the dual lead in The Man in the Iron Mask and most notably as the Ben-Hur villain Messala in the original Broadway production. He was beloved for his Shakespearean portrayals as well and, in the midst of a wide variety of stage parts, occasionally got to play roles associated with the West, including the title parts in The Squaw Man (1905) and The Virginian (1907); he toured with the latter show for two years and later enjoyed success with The Barrier and The Trail of the Lonesome Pine.

Hart entered the movies in the early teens at the behest of his friend Thomas H. Ince, starting at 75 dollars a week; that quickly grew to 10,000 dollars a week as he proved not only a commanding and immensely popular screen presence but also as a director, screenwriter, and producer. Hart's insistence on showing the real West, and his honest, taciturn portrayals was something new and refreshing, whether he was playing heroes or villains (and, most often, villains who became heroes). His early films included O'Malley of the Mounted and -- in anticipation of Clint Eastwood's '60s persona -- The Man From Nowhere; these pictures, at his insistence, showed an unglorified, dusty vision of the West, showing how ordinary cowboys, ranchers, shopkeepers, and settlers lived and worked. He was one of the most popular leading men in movies during the mid-teens and became one of the wealthiest and most powerful men in pictures, establishing himself as an independent producer working through Famous Players-Lasky (the predecessor to Paramount), earning over four-million-dollar profits on an investment of the same size in some 27 films made there. Such was his fame on the screen, that most of Hart's fans were unaware of his background as a top Broadway actor with stage experience in New York and London. To them he was honest, taciturn Bill Hart, a two-gun threat and a realistic presence onscreen -- of those movies he made in the teens, the best of them (which he co-directed) was Hell's Hinges, a kind of Sodom and Gomorrah tale transposed to the West. By the early '20s, however, a change in public taste coupled with some personal conflicts -- including accusations (later proved false) of a son born out of wedlock, and the resulting breakup of his marriage -- marked a turn in Hart's fortunes.

Audiences wanted more romance in their Western heroes, and were getting it from players like Tom Mix; Hart's movies and portrayals were seen as old hat. He went on, however, until 1924, when he went into partnership with United Artists in the production and distribution of his last film, Tumbleweeds. A nostalgic look back at the closing of the West, Tumbleweeds is today regarded as one of the greatest of silent Westerns, though on its original release, the movie was -- based on original claims by the distributor -- only a moderate success in its own time. It did contain the essence of his screen persona and a land-rush scene that, in its editing and execution, has been compared favorably with the contemporary work of Eisenstein. Hart subsequently sued United Artists in a case that lasted for over a decade and ended up in Hart's favor, awarding him 278,000 dollars in damages in 1940. He later rereleased the movie with a sound prologue in which the aging actor gave a touching farewell to the screen and his fans.

During the late '20s, he wrote an autobiography, My Life -- East and West, and a few Western novels, but apart from the reissue of Tumbleweeds was largely invisible to the public. He did play an important behind-the-scenes role in the making of one classic film, however, when he was approached by Francis X. Bushman, who had been asked to star in the silent epic Ben-Hur: A Story of the Christ, in the role of Messala. Bushman had built his career playing heroes and wasn't sure if he should -- or should want to -- play a villain of such profound proportions in so weighty a work. He talked to Hart who had played the role on Broadway for two years and reportedly offered the advice: "Trust me -- play the villain." It has since proved to be the one role for which Bushman is remembered in silent movies. In the '40s, disputes broke out in public about Hart's physical condition, and the conditions under which he was living. His closest companion was his sister who lived at his estate; she was especially passionate about the rescue of homeless animals, and after her death in 1943, he gave 100,000 toward the establishment of an animal shelter in her name in Westport, CT. In his will, Hart established a Western museum on the grounds of his estate. He remains one of the most respected and revered Western actors from the early days of the genre, and his films Hell's Hinges and Tumbleweeds are still among the most watchable of all silent Westerns.

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