Like his younger brother John, American actor Lionel Barrymore wanted more than anything to be an artist. But a member of the celebrated Barrymore family was expected to enter the family trade, so Lionel reluctantly launched an acting career. Not as attractive as John or sister Ethel, he was most effectively cast in character roles - villains, military officers, fathers - even in his youth. Unable to save what he earned, Barrymore was "reduced" to appearing in films for the Biograph Company in 1911, where he was directed by the great D.W. Griffith and where he was permitted to write a few film stories himself, which to Lionel was far more satisfying than playacting. His stage career was boosted when cast in 1917 as Colonel Ibbetson in Peter Ibbetson, which led to his most celebrated role, Milt Shanks in The Copperhead; even late in life, he could always count on being asked to recite his climactic Copperhead soliloquy, which never failed to bring down the house. Moving on to film, Barrymore was signed to what would be a 25-year hitch with MGM and begged the MGM heads to be allowed to direct; he showed only moderate talent in this field, and was most often hired to guide those films in which MGM wanted to "punish" its more rebellious talent. Resigning himself to acting again in 1931, he managed to cop an Academy Award for his bravura performance as a drunken defense attorney in A Free Soul (1931), the first in an increasingly prestigious series of movie character parts. In 1937, Barrymore was crippled by arthritis, and for the rest of his career was confined to a wheelchair. The actor became more popular than ever as he reached his sixtieth birthday, principally as a result of his annual radio appearance as Scrooge in A Christmas Carol and his continuing role as Dr. Gillespie in MGM's Dr. Kildare film series. Barrymore was aware that venerability and talent are not often the same thing, but he'd become somewhat lazy (if one can call a sixtyish wheelchair-bound man who showed up on time and appeared in at least three films per year "lazy") and settled into repeating his "old curmudgeon with a heart of gold" performance, save for the occasional topnotch part in such films as It's a Wonderful Life (1946) and Down to the Sea in Ships (1949). Denied access to television work by his MGM contract, Barrymore nonetheless remained active in radio (he'd starred in the long-running series Mayor of the Town), and at one point conducted a talk program from his own home; additionally, the actor continued pursuing his hobbies of writing, composing music, painting and engraving until arthritis overcame him. On the day of his death, he was preparing for his weekly performance on radio's Hallmark Playhouse; that evening, the program offered a glowing tribute to Barrymore, never once alluding to the fact that he'd spent a lifetime in a profession he openly despised.
Biography by Hal Erickson
- First appeared onstage with his parents during his infancy.
- Wanted to be an artist but reluctantly joined brother John and sister Ethel in the "family business."
- Made his Broadway debut in 1900 in Sag Harbor.
- Studied painting in Paris in the early 1900s.
- Was a contract player with MGM for 25 years, occasionally directing.
- Starting in 1938, had a recurring role as Dr. Gillespie in the Dr. Kildare film series.
- By the age of 60, had become wheelchair-bound due to severe arthritis, but continued to act, particularly in curmudgeonly roles such as Mr. Potter in It's a Wonderful Life (1946).
- The great-uncle of actress Drew Barrymore.