A circus, vaudeville, and Broadway comedian, actor Charles Grapewin was an unlikely prospect for screen stardom. In fact, he had already retired as an entertainer prior to the advent of sound in films, and before he'd ever even considered appearing in movies. Born in Xenia, OH, in 1869 (although some say 1875), he ran away from home to join a circus at the age of ten, and, by his teens, was a roller-skating acrobat who graduated to be a high-wire performer and trapeze artist. Grapewin made a living at these high-risk activities for a few years, but was later drawn to the footlights, and eventually joined a regional stock company (although he found himself back on the trapeze in the 1880s). He moved between the theater and the circus until the end of the decade, when he landed a role in a New York production of the play Little Puck. He never returned to the circus, although he did lend his skills to vaudeville for a time, writing plays along the way and touring with one of his own productions, The Awakening of Mr. Pipp, for a dozen years.
In 1919, Grapewin gave up performing to join General Motors; having invested his money wisely, he retired. One day in late 1929, however, he and his wife Anna awakened to discover that their net worth -- once two million dollars -- had dropped to about 200. He subsequently wrote four books that proved successful enough to earn him some income. At around the same time, the arrival of sound in movies was also creating a demand for actors who could read lines well, and, as he had retired to California, Grapewin decided to give Hollywood a try. He ended up a busy actor throughout the 1930s in increasingly visible roles, including key supporting parts in films such as The Grapes of Wrath. But it was in 1941 that he achieved stardom when he was cast as Lester Jeeter in John Ford's Tobacco Road. That movie made Grapewin into a major screen actor, but, given his advanced age, he never took full advantage of it. He declined to sign a long-term contract, preferring to use his energy at his time of life picking and choosing his roles. He always seemed to be offered the best character parts, and remained busy right to the end of the '40s. Ironically, Tobacco Road dropped out of distribution in later decades, and Grapewin's became best known for playing a part that was probably one of the shortest of his movie career: Dorothy's Uncle Henry in The Wizard of Oz, in which he displayed some of his comedic skills to great advantage in the historic film's opening segment.