American film's first true comedy star, hefty (nearly 300 pounds) John Bunny came out of minstrel shows to appear in such legitimate productions as Way Down East, Tom Jones, and, as Bottom, A Midsummer Night's Dream. One of the first stage actors to recognize the possibilities of moving pictures, Bunny reportedly cancelled a lucrative contract with Broadway's Shubert organization and after being turned down by several studios, approached the Brooklyn-based Vitagraph Company, who hired him for a weekly sum far below his usual stage salary.
Playing alternately supporting and starring roles, Bunny rose to a heretofore unheard of prominence within mere months, emerging in 1911 as Vitagraph's biggest moneymaker. Excelling in what a noted film historian has termed jovial dramas, Bunny found the perfect foil in scrawny Flora Finch, a homely actress from England who somewhat resembled the cartoon character Olive Oyl. Together they starred in scores of so-called Bunnyfinch comedies, usually playing henpecked husband and domineering wife. Enjoying a worldwide success, Bunny himself was mobbed when visiting Great Britain in May 1912, there to film a three-episode version of Charles Dickens' The Pickwick Papers (1913). As it turned out, Bunny, although well cast as Pickwick, was rather more popular as a seasick passenger in Bunny All at Sea (1912), improvised en route to Southampton, and in The Blarney Stone (1913), filmed on location in Ireland.
Turning down multiple offers from British film concerns, Bunny returned to New York, where he added personal appearances to his already hectic filming schedule. By now, Vitagraph was grooming the vaguely similar Hughie Mack and Jay Dwiggins to take over in case Bunny lost his legendary stamina. Which is exactly what happened: Fatigued and overworked, Bunny suddenly died from Bright's Disease on April 26, 1915. Neither Mack nor Dwiggins -- or for that matter the late star's lookalike brother George Bunny -- ever enjoyed anywhere near John Bunny's popularity, fading instead into supporting roles and obscurity, respectively.