The son of a house painter, American actor/dancer Ray Bolger grew up in a middle-class Boston neighborhood called Dorchester. Bolger knew what he wanted to do in life the moment he saw Broadway entertainer Fred Stone literally bounce on stage in a Boston production of Jack O'Lantern. "That moment opened up a whole new world for me" Bolger would remember; after a relatively aimless childhood, he determined to become a performer himself. Starting out in vaudeville as a dancer, Bolger developed a loose-limbed ad lib style that would win him starring spots in such 1930s Broadway musicals as Life Begins at 8:40 and On Your Toes; in the latter, Bolger introduced Richard Rodgers' "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue". Signed by MGM in 1936 for a featured solo in The Great Ziegfeld, Bolger was given a $3,000 per week contract and was expected to take whatever part was assigned him. But Bolger balked when he was cast as the Tin Man in the studio's Wizard of Oz. He felt the role was too confining for his talents, so Bolger convinced the film's Scarecrow, Buddy Ebsen, to switch parts with him. This move, of course, assured film immortality for Bolger, but wasn't so beneficial for Ebsen, whose allergic reaction to the Tin Man's silver makeup forced him to drop out of the film and be replaced by Jack Haley. Bolger's movie career pretty much took second place to his Broadway work in the 1940s. In 1948, Bolger was awarded the lead in a musical version of Charley's Aunt titled Where's Charley? It was when the daughter of one of the production people began singing his lyrics back to him during out-of-town tryouts that Bolger, in league with composer Frank Loesser, developed the "everybody sing" chorus for the song "Once in Love With Amy". Bolger repeated his role in the 1952 filmization of Where's Charley (1952), then continued his Broadway career with intermittent film appearances into the 1960s. He also starred in a 1953 TV series, alternately titled The Ray Bolger Show and Where's Raymond?, which was so bad that even he was uncharacteristically putting himself down before the inevitable cancellation. Bolger suffered a few career setbacks on stage in the early 1960s, and his villain role in Disney's Babes in Toyland (1961) hardly showed him to best advantage, but the performer prospered as a nightclub performer during the rest of the decade in a nostalgic (if slightly lachrymose) act which recalled his past song hits. Bolger charmed live audiences with his still-athletic hoofing skills into the 1970s. In the twilight of his career, Bolger was allowed to sparkle in guest spots on such TV programs as The Partridge Family, The Love Boat, Baretta, and even PBS's Evening at the Pops.
Biography by Hal Erickson
- Started his entertainment career as a dancer in vaudeville shows, which led to roles in the 1930s Broadway shows Life Begins at 8:40 and On Your Toes.
- Signed a contract with MGM in 1936 and made his feature debut in the 1936 biopic The Great Ziegfeld.
- Was originally cast as the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz (1939), while Buddy Ebsen had landed the role of the Scarecrow. Eventually, Bolger was able to talk his way into switching roles, a fateful move for Ebsen, who had to drop out of the film due to an allergic reaction to the Tin Man makeup.
- Spent most of the 1940s performing on Broadway and in a WWII USO Tour. In 1949, he won a Tony Award for his lead role in the Broadway production of Where's Charley?
- Starred in the ill-fated sitcom Where's Raymond? (also known as The Ray Bolger Show) from 1953 to 1955.
- Appeared in a variety of guest spots on such shows as The Partridge Family, The Love Boat, and Baretta near the end of his career.
- Was the last surviving marquee cast member from The Wizard of Oz until his death in 1987 from cancer.
- Actor John Bolger is his great-nephew.