J. Farrell MacDonald

Active - 1914 - 2020  |   Born - Jun 6, 1875   |   Died - Aug 2, 1952   |   Genres - Drama, Western, Comedy, Romance, Crime

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Biography by Hal Erickson

J. Farrell MacDonald was one of the most beloved and prolific character actors in Hollywood history. A former minstrel singer, MacDonald toured the U.S. in stage productions for nearly two decades before he ever set foot in Tinseltown. He made his earliest film appearances in 1911 with Carl Laemmle's IMP company (the forerunner of Universal); within two years he was a firmly established lead actor and director. While functioning in the latter capacity with L. Frank Baum's Oz Film Company, MacDonald gave much-needed work to up-and-coming extras Hal Roach and Harold Lloyd. When Roach set up his own production company in 1915 with Lloyd as his star, he signed MacDonald as director (both Roach and Lloyd would hire their one-time employer as character actor well into the sound era). In the 1920's, MacDonald had returned to acting full time, appearing extensively in westerns and Irish-flavored comedies. A particular favorite of director John Ford, he was prominently featured in such Ford silents as The Iron Horse (1924), The Bad Man (1926) and Riley the Cop (1927, as Riley). He also showed up as Kelly in some of Universal's culture-clash "Cohens and Kellys" comedies. With a voice that matched his personality perfectly, MacDonald was busier than ever in the early-talkie era, usually playing such workaday roles as cops and railroad engineers; in 1932 alone, he showed up in 18 films! Even when his footage was limited, he was always given a moment or two to shine, as witness his emotional curtain speech in Shirley Temple's Our Little Girl. He kept up his workload into the 1940s, often popping up in the films of John Ford and Preston Sturges. His later roles often went unbilled, but he gave his all no matter how fleeting the assignment. One of his choicest roles of the 1940s was as the Dodge City barkeep in Ford's My Darling Clementine (1946). J. Farrell MacDonald continued working right up to his death in 1952; one of his last assignments was a continuing character on the Gene Autry-produced TV series Range Rider.

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