The son of a Norwegian pastor, John Qualen was born in British Columbia. After his family moved to Illinois, Qualen won a high school forensic contest, which led to a scholarship at Northwestern University. A veteran of the tent-show and vaudeville circuits by the late '20s, Qualen won the important role of the Swedish janitor in the Broadway play Street Scene by marching into the producer's office and demonstrating his letter-perfect Scandinavian accent. His first film assignment was the 1931 movie version of Street Scene. Slight of stature, and possessed of woebegone, near-tragic facial features, Qualen was most often cast in "victim" roles, notably the union-activist miner who is beaten to death by hired hooligans in Black Fury (1935) and the pathetic, half-mad Muley in The Grapes of Wrath (1940). Qualen was able to harness his trodden-upon demeanor for comedy as well, as witness his performance as the bewildered father of the Dionne quintuplets in The Country Doctor (1936). He was also effectively cast as small men with large reserves of courage, vide his portrayal of Norwegian underground operative Berger in Casablanca (1942). From Grapes of Wrath onward, Qualen was a member in good standing of the John Ford "stock company," appearing in such Ford-directed classics as The Long Voyage Home (1940), The Searchers (1955), Two Rode Together (1961), and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). John Qualen was acting into the 1970s, often appearing in TV dramatic series as pugnacious senior citizens.