Danish actor Jean Hersholt was already a stage and movie veteran when he arrived in the USA in 1913. An apprenticeship as an extra and bit player led to a long and lucrative silent film career in the '20s, during which time Hersholt was firmly entrenched as the slimiest and most monstrous of movie villains. Towards the end of the silent era, Hersholt began playing nicer characters, still taking on the occasional bad guy or "surprise" killer in murder mysteries. Hersholt's screen image was altered permanently in 1936, when he was cast as Dr. Dafoe, the Canadian obstetrician who delivered the celebrated Dionne Quintuplets, in 20th Century-Fox's The Country Doctor. Plans to create a Dr. Dafoe movie series were blocked by the real Dafoe, but Jean Hersholt was anxious to sustain the characterization of a beneficent, lovable small-town medico; thus Dr. Christian -- named for Hersholt's favorite author, Hans Christian Andersen -- was born. The actor created the role of Dr. Christian on radio in 1937, then commenced a series of six low-budget Christian features for RKO Radio in 1939. Extending the ethics and generosity of Dr. Christian into his private life, Hersholt set up the Motion Picture Relief Fund, which provided medical care and a livable income for actors, directors, and other studio employees who were no longer able to care for themselves. While serving as president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Hersholt was lauded with three Academy Awards for his own charity work, and in 1948, he was knighted by King Christian X of Denmark. In 1956, a TV series based on Dr. Christian was produced by ZIV Studios; appearing on the first episode to bestow his practice upon the new Dr. Christian (MacDonald Carey) was Jean Hersholt, who had valiantly agreed to help launch the series even though he was dying of cancer and had wasted away to only 95 pounds. After the actor's death, the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award was set up to honor conspicuous acts of selflessness and kindness in the movie industry.
Biography by Hal Erickson
- Cofounded the Motion Picture Country House and Hospital, one of many endeavors that led to the establishment of the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, given annually at the Academy Awards.
- Served as president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences from 1945 to '49.
- Translated 160 Hans Christian Andersen fairy tales into English; his work became a six-volume set called The Complete Andersen.
- Knighted by King Christian X of Denmark in 1948.
- Honored with two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame: one for his film work and one for his longtime radio role as Dr. Christian.
- Grave is marked with a statue of Klods-Hans, a character from a story by Hans Christian Andersen.