Sidney Sommers Toler was born in Warrensburg, MO, the son of a renowned horse-breeder, Col. H.G. Toler, in 1874; three weeks later, the family moved to a stock farm near Wichita, KS, where he grew up. From an early age, he showed an interest in acting, and got his start at seven when he played Tom Sawyer in an adaptation written by his mother (this in a period in which the author Samuel Clemens was very much alive and the book The Adventures of Tom Sawyer was a popular contemporary work). Toler enrolled in the University of Kansas but abandoned his studies in favor of pursuing a career as an actor after receiving some words of encouragement during a brief encounter with actress Julia Marlowe. At 18, he headed to New York. He did a stint in the Corse Payton stock company, based in Brooklyn, where he became a leading man specializing in romantic parts over a period of four years.
Toler later had his own stock company, based in Halifax, Nova Scotia, for five years, and became a successful playwright, authoring The Dancing Masters, The Belle of Richmond, The House on the Sands, Ritzy, and The Golden Age, among many other plays. One of his works, The Man They Left Behind, was a major hit regionally and was being performed simultaneously by 18 different companies, and Toler himself once had a dozen different acting companies on the road performing his work. Two of his plays, Golden Days and The Exile, were also produced on Broadway. But it was during his 14 years with producer David Belasco that Toler became a Broadway star, culminating with his portrayal of Kelly the iceman in A Wise Child. Following a run of the play in Boston, Hollywood beckoned; with the full arrival of sound, the film mecca was suddenly desperate for experienced stage actors -- and in 1929 he made the move into films. Over the next nine years, he worked in 50 movies, in everything from comedies to Westerns, including Madame X, White Shoulders, Tom Brown of Culver, Our Relations (playing the belligerent ship's captain in the Laurel and Hardy comedy), and The Phantom President.
In 1938, fate took a hand when Warner Oland, the Swedish actor who had portrayed Honolulu-based police detective Charlie Chan in 16 movies for Fox, passed away. Toler was selected by the studio to succeed him in the role, and he immediately began receiving the largest amount of mail he had ever gotten in connection with his screen career, from fans of the Chan movies offering him encouragement and advice, which mostly consisted of urgings to mimic Oland was much as possible. Instead, with the support of the director, he went back to the six Chan novels written by Biggers (who had died in 1933) and reconstructed the character based on what he took out of those pages. Toler, who stood six feet and was a solid 190 pounds, created the illusion of being smaller and heavier in the role. The first two of his Chan movies, Charlie Chan in Honolulu (1938) and Charlie Chan in Reno (1939), proved so popular at the box office that Toler was signed to a long-term contract in August of 1939. Toler brought a good deal of warmth and wry humor to the role of the police detective, and had excellent interaction with Victor Sen Yung, who played the detective's number-two son, Jimmy.
The Chan pictures, which usually clocked in at under 80 minutes and occasionally under 70 by the mid-'30s, were studio programmers, essentially classy B-pictures made on reasonable but fixed budgets; they were also bread-and-butter revenue pictures, guaranteed money-makers and perennially popular. When Toler took over the role, they remained in this category, and if they were never opulent, they were good-looking productions whose mysteries and twists were ever-teasing and enticing to audiences. The revenue stream that they generated helped pay the bills for such large-scale productions as Suez. The Charlie Chan movies remained popular right into 1941, but the entry of the United States into the Second World War at the end of the year, coupled with the uncertainty of international distribution -- and the Chan movies were enormously popular overseas -- caused Fox to drop the series. The last of the Fox Chan movies was Castle in the Desert, released in early 1942, which holds up very well as a representative of the series.
Over the next year, Toler worked in other roles, including portraying one of the villains in Edgar G. Ulmer's two-fisted adventure yarn Isle of Forgotten Sins. The years 1942-1943 were not good for Toler, however. In addition to seemingly losing the Chan role in early 1942, his wife of 18 years, Vivian, passed away in 1943; he also underwent surgery that year from which, it was revealed after his death, he never fully recovered. According to his second wife, Viva Tattersall (who had worked with him on-stage in his play Ritzy), whom he married in 1943, Toler was never told that he had intestinal cancer or that he was terminally ill. Accounts vary somewhat as to what happened next. According to most historians, it was Monogram Pictures, a Poverty Row studio with a special interest in film series (they had the East Side Kids, and would soon have the Bowery Boys), that picked up the screen rights to the Chan character from the Biggers estate, and then selected Toler to star in a new round of movies. But others maintain that it was Toler himself, recognizing that there was still an audience for the movies, who bought the screen rights and then sold them to Monogram, with the provision that he star in the movies. Given his previously demonstrated business acumen on the stage, one can see where the second scenario was not only possible but likely, especially as onlookers (including Toler) would have recognized that Fox had handed away a gold mine with the screen character of Sherlock Holmes, which Universal grabbed up and with which they were making a small fortune by late 1942 -- the whole truth is buried somewhere in the Monogram business records.
In any case, Toler was back in the lead role in the revived series when it commenced in 1944 with Charlie Chan in the Secret Service, in which the renowned sleuth joins the war effort in Washington, turning his skills to the hunting down of spies, saboteurs, and other enemies of freedom. This new twist to the character -- possibly inspired by Universal's success in bringing the character of Sherlock Holmes (as portrayed by Basil Rathbone) into stories built on World War II's events -- gave Charlie Chan a new lease on life and added a fresh, contemporary edge to the movies. That new element in the plotting also helped to compensate for the threadbare production values of the Monogram Chan films, which looked nowhere near as good as the Fox films in terms of casting, sets, or costuming. Toler's acting was more important than ever and although he was in an ever-weakening physical state, he kept up the portrayal convincingly and also engaged in some surprisingly strenuous scenes in some of the 1944-1945 Monogram pictures. Though neither the actor himself, nor anyone around him (except his wife and physician), nor any of the audience knew it, those movies were the last testament of a dying man. Looked at in the decades since, whatever their production flaws, they're a powerful statement of fortitude, professionalism, and dedication to the acting profession in the face of horrendous physical toll.
By the summer of 1946, Toler was almost too weak to work, and it was clear in his final two movies -- Dangerous Money and The Trap, shot simultaneously in August of that year -- that he could barely walk. He retired to his home in Beverly Hills and spent the next seven months bedridden, before he passed away in February of 1947.