Billy Ritchie

Active - 1916 - 1916  |   Born - Sep 14, 1874   |   Died - Jul 6, 1921   |  

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Biography by Hans J. Wollstein

Claiming, but with little proof, to have invented the tramp character that fellow Karno comedian Charles Chaplin brought to worldwide acclaim, Billy Ritchie was hired by the notorious Henry Lehrman to outright imitate Chaplin in the L-KO ("Lehrman-Knockout") comedies. In fairness, Ritchie sported a wider brush mustache, his clothes were a bit more refined, and if he was an imitation of Chaplin, it was a Chaplin at his most embryonic. Ritchie, who had enjoyed some success on American stages in the burlesque comedy Around the Clock and, like Chaplin, as the drunk in Mumming Birds, signed with Lehrman in 1914 as a direct challenge to Chaplin, who privately railed against him but refrained from taking legal action. Only a very few Ritchie comedies seem to have survived, including Partners in Crime from 1914, and they generally favor crude slapstick over any kind of character development. Lerhman and Ritchie left their distributor, Universal, in 1917 in favor of the Fox "Sunshine Comedies" and the quality of the comedies dropped even lower. Sadly, in 1919, Ritchie was badly wounded on the set by, of all things, a vicious ostrich, and never truly recovered. His death in 1921 left his widow virtually destitute but she was rescued by none other than the ever gracious Chaplin, who made her his wardrobe woman.