If ever there was a Great Dane in Hollywood it was Jean Hersholt – and one of its great hearts as well. He was from a well-known Danish stage and entertainment family that had toured throughout Europe performing with young Jean as an essential cast member. He graduated from the Copenhagen Art School and continued expanding his stage experience and evidently decided early that he wanted to work in films. He did just two very early (1906) silent films in Germany. Hersholt emigrated from Denmark to the US while still a young man in 1913. Like many another European he came to America to seek further opportunities. Unlike many other European actors who appeared on Broadway in their early American careers, Hersholt never trod The Great White Way. He moved on to Hollywood in 1914 where the future of silent movies had taken the lead. He started as a movie extra then progressed into small feature player roles from 1915 through 1917. For that latter year he had no less than 17 bit parts.
By the 1920s his roles were substantial feature pieces, but most of these were as villains – in fact, a concoction of really vile characters. His theater experience serving him well, he played them so well that he much sought after by directors. Several of his 1920s films were landmarks of the silent era, an early one being The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921) which helped propel Rudolf Valentino into the stellar heights. Hersholt became popular and well paid. And certainly his signature silent role was the lead character of Marcus Schouler in the Erich von Stroheim great film Greed (1924), based on the novel McTeague. Stroheim, who spent far more time in front of the camera as an actor, was already well know as a task master and perfectionist director. He went through 42 reels of film for the picture – a numbing nine hours of screen time (shown only once at that length in a private studio screening). He cut the film to five hours, but it was further whittled to a bit over two for release, causing Stroheim to quip bitterly of the editor, “The only thing he had on his mind was his hat!” The powerful film was still there, but the massive editing resulted in whole roles disappearing, not to mention some telltale continuity. Stroheim’s need for realism resulted in the climax of the movie to be shot in Death Valley. Still hot in the fall time, Hersholt endured like a veteran but required a hospital stay after sweating away 27 pounds.
Fortunately into the later 1920s Hersholt’s roles expanded into a more realistic balance of characters-more virtuous roles – but still some shady fellows and especially the unsuspected, and thus surprising, guilty party in the ever popular murder mysteries. He worked for Samuel Goldwyn for about a year (1923-1924), for Paramount from 1927 through 1929, and several other studios during the period. By the end of the silent era, including those early primitive part mono features with small bits of audio music, sound effects, or dialog, Hersholt was a tried veteran of 75 films. His first all mono sound film was The Climax (1930) and despite a Germanic accent, he had a pleasant, mellow voice and a camera friendly presence that ensured him continued success. The variety ran the gamut from a sturdy supporting part in Grand Hotel (1932), to supporting Boris Karloff and a pretty hot Myrna Loy in The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932), and doing the same in Dinner at Eight (1933). Busy with nine movies in 1930, he also moved into people’s living rooms on radio as well during that year.
Of course, for some time Hersholt was a mature actor-simply meaning he had many secondary roles as doctors and professors and nobles of many sorts and increasingly he appeared as benign fatherly types. Father roles of the 20s continued into the 30s – augmented with grandfather roles as well. He was the father of Sonja Henie in that charismatic champion ice skater’s first Hollywood film One in a Million (1936), and he is perhaps best remembered as the embittered but deeply caring grandfather of Shirley Temple in the beloved Heidi (1937). But it was another role as a doctor that would provide a continuing vehicle for Hersholt and something of a fateful direction for the actor. The mid-30s were abuzz with the births of the Dionne Quintuplets in Canada. Hollywood jumped on it with usual alacrity, highlighting the story and the officiating obstetrician, Dr. Dafoe, who was translated into Dr. John Luke, in The Country Doctor (1936). Hersholt brought the right ingredients to the part of Luke and two years later a sequel followed, Five of a Kind (1938). Hersholt thought the character good medicine all round and was enthusiastic about a series of movies, but Dafoe himself blocked this idea. Nevertheless, in 1937 Hersholt had already germinated a new radio series to continue portraying a dedicated and kindly small town doctor. For a character name Hersholt turned to his most beloved author, his countryman, literary light Hans Christian Andersen, for a name-Dr. Christian. It was a hit and, and he convinced RKO Radio Pictures to bankroll a series of six Dr. Christian films (1939-41).
These latter and a few other films would mark the end of Hersholt’s film career, but he was so very busy otherwise. His familiarity with Andersen was a scholarly avocation and labor of love, furthered by enthusiastic collecting of a library of important Andersen editions and related bibliography (which would later go to the Library of Congress). His English translation (see Trivia below) of the Andersen corpus of fairy tales (including his addition of several other Andersen stories from the author’s private papers) remains perhaps the most comprehensive and best effort-even more so for Hersholt personal interpretation of Andersen. Hersholt would also write several articles about Andersen and edit The Andersen-Scudder-Letters (1948). Among other literary pursuits Hersholt also co-wrote a novel based on his Dr. Christian character.
It was in Hersholt’s generous nature to give back something in gratitude for the acting career afforded him in Hollywood. His payment was rich indeed: the Motion Picture Relief Fund, the retirement home and hospital inspired by it and generated from it (see Trivia below), and the great charitable work that Hersholt would perform were paid back with two Academy Awards, the second after his tenure as president of the Academy. These special honors would be the seed of the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award (see Trivia below). But in 1956 Hersholt was dying of cancer – and yet that would not stop him from one more good turn. His beloved Dr. Christian character was going to TV (produced by the Ziv Studios), and he was asked to symbolically pass the baton to the new Dr. Christian, Macdonald Carey. With a tremendous effort, Hersholt, now withered to 95 pounds braved the first episode shooting, capping his life with one last magnificent example of his humanity.