Born to middle-class British parents (his father was an import merchant), actor Ronald Colman was raised to be as much a gentleman as any "high born" Englishman, and strove to maintain that standard both on and off screen all his life. Acting was merely a hobby to Colman while he attended the Hadley School at Littlehampton, Sussex, but after a few years' drudgery as a bookkeeper with the British Steamship Company, the theatre seemed a more alluring (if not more lucrative) life's goal. After a brief service in WWI (during which he was wounded and then discharged), Colman eventually went into acting full-time, making his debut in a tiny role in the play The Maharanee of Arakan (1916). A subsequent better role in a production of Damaged Goods led to Colman's being hired to star in a two-reel film drama, The Live Wire. The film was never released, which is why Colman's "official" debut is often listed as his first feature film The Toilers (1919). The money wasn't good in the British film industry of the period--in fact it was a step away from starvation wages - so Colman arrived in New York City with about $37 to his name, making his American movie debut in Handcuffs or Kisses? (1920). His next film was also his Big Break: The White Sister (1923), directed in Italy by Henry King, in which Colman was co-starred opposite prestigious actress Lillian Gish. The association with King and Gish was Colman's entry into Hollywood, and by 1925 he'd begun his nine-year association with producer Sam Goldwyn. Most of Colman's silent films were lush romantic costume dramas, in which he usually co-starred with the lovely Vilma Banky. This sort of glorious nonsense was rendered anachronistic by the advent of talking pictures, but Goldwyn wisely cast Colman in a sophisticated up-to-date adventure, Bulldog Drummond (1929), for the actor's talkie debut. Colman scored an instant hit with his beautifully modulated voice and his roguishly elegant manner, and was one of the biggest and most popular screen personalities of the 1930s. A falling out with Goldwyn in 1934 prompted Colman to avoid long-term contracts for the rest of his career. As good as his pre-1935 films were, Colman was even more effective as a free-lancer in such films as Tale of Two Cities (1935), Lost Horizon (1937), The Prisoner of Zenda (1937), The Light That Failed (1939) and Talk of the Town (1942). The actor also began a fruitful radio career during this period, first as host of an intellectual celebrity round-robin discussion weekly The Circle in 1939; ten years later, he and his actress wife Benita Hume starred in a witty and well-written sitcom about a college professor and his spouse, The Halls of Ivy, which became a TV series in 1954. Perhaps the most famous of Colman's radio appearance were those he made on The Jack Benny Program as Jack's long-suffering next door neighbor. Colman won an Academy Award for his atypical performance in A Double Life (1947) as an emotionally disturbed actor who becomes so wrapped up in his roles that he commits murder. Curtailing his film activities in the 1950s, Colman planned to write his autobiography, but was prevented from doing so by ill health -- and in part by his reluctance to speak badly of anyone. Colman died shortly after completing his final film role as the Spirit of Man in The Story of Mankind (1957), a laughably wretched extravaganza from which Colman managed to emerge with his dignity and reputation intact.
Biography by Hal Erickson
- Served during World War I with the London Scottish Regiment.
- Moved to the U.S. in 1920.
- Successfully transitioned from silent films to talkies, thanks to his exceptional speaking voice.
- Had to shave off his trademark moustache for his role as Sydney Carton in A Tale of Two Cities (1935).
- Frequent guest voice, with second wife Benita Hume, on the radio version of The Jack Benny Show; he and Hume later had their own radio show, The Halls of Ivy.
- One-time owner of the San Ysidro Ranch resort in Santa Barbara, CA.