Sidney Blackmer, the Tony-award winning actor who played Teddy Roosevelt in seven movies, is best remembered by today’s movie audiences for his turn as the warlock/coven-leader Roman Castevet in Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968).
Born and raised in Salisbury, North Carolina, where he made his debut on July 13, 1895, he had planned as a young man to study law at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. However, playing football and engaging in amateur theatricals proved more important to him than his aspirations to be an attorney, and while in his teens, he went to New York City to try to make it as an actor. He appeared uncredited in movies turned out by various film studios in Fort Lee, New Jersey, which in the first half of the decade of the 1910s, was the Hollywood of America. He reportedly appeared in a bit part in the popular movie serial “The Perils of Pauline” (1914).
Blackmer made his Broadway debut on February 13, 1917, in “The Morris Dance,” Harley Granville-Barker’s adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel “The Wrong Box.” He was not to appear again on the Broadway stage for almost exactly three years, due to the outbreak of his World War I, which saw Blackmer join the military as an officer. After the war, he returned to the theater, making his second Broadway appearance in “Trimmed in Scarlet” on February 2, 1920. He appeared in 15 other productions on the Great White Way from 1920 to 1928. His appearance in ‘Clare Kummer”s comedy “The Mountain Man” in 1921 made him a star.
He was a pioneer in the new medium of radio, on which he sang during the 1920s. (Blackmer later participated in the first experimental dramas on Allen B. DuMont’s television network.) But it was the movies that increasingly attracted Blackmer’s professional attention, in which he typically was cast as a smooth villain from High Society, although he did also play sympathetic roles.
Although Blackmer is now credited with appearing (un-billed) in “The Perils of Pauline,” he didn’t make a credited appearance on the silver screen until the dawn of the sound era. With the coming of sound, Hollywood needed actors and actresses who could talk and talk well, so it raided the Broadway stage. Blackmer was one of the Broadway stars who headed West, appearing in his first talkie, “The Love Racket” (1929), in 1929. He starred in other early sound films, including “Kismet” (1930/I), which is considered a lost film. He was memorable as Big Boy in support of Edward G. Robinson in the gangster classic Little Caesar (1931)
Blackmer returned to Broadway in 1931 with the comedy “The Social Register” and appeared again in the comedy “Stop-Over” in 1938. In Hollywood, he had a supporting role in the Robert Donat version of “The Count of Monte Cristo” (1934). Also that year, he appeared in ‘William A. Wellman”s “The President Vanishes” (1934), co-starring ‘Edward Arnold’ and ‘Osgood Perkins’, the father of ‘Anthony Perkins’.
Sidney Blackmer has the distinction of starring in the only movie ever “written” by a president of the United States, “The President’s Mystery” (1936), based on a story by “co-authored” by ‘Franklin D. Roosevelt’. F.D.R. was an avid murder mystery reader, and at a meeting of whodunit authors at the White House during his first administration, he suggested an idea for a mystery novel to the writers: A millionaire disappears and starts a new life under a new identity, taking his wealth with him. Mystery writers, including S.S. Van Dine, cobbled together a patch-work book of uneven quality based on the premise, with F.D.R. listed as co-author. “The President’s Mystery” became a best-seller due to F.D.R.’s enormous personal popularity. In the movie version, written by future Hollywood Ten member ‘Lester Cole’ and novelist ‘Nathanel West’, Blackmer played millionaire industrialist Sartos, who engineers his own disappearance while holding on to his fortune. Sartos blackmails a corrupt investment bank run by two con men, which he takes over. He then invests his money with the firm, and robs himself under cover of the crooked brokerage. Disappearing after “losing” his fortune, people believe Sartos has committed suicide. Just when it seems that he has accomplished his goal and has escaped into his new life with his loot, something goes awry.
Nineteen-thirty seven was a busy year for Blackmer, who appeared in 12 films, including “Heidi” (1937), his second flick with superstar moppet Shirley Temple (the had earlier co-starred in “The Little Colonel” (1935)). He played General Phillip Sheridan in the epic pot-boiler “In Old Chicago” (1937), starring ‘Tyrone Power, Jr.’. The movie featured an Oscar-winning performance by ‘Alice Brady’ as Molly O’Brady, she of the cow with the combustible personality whose bovine hissy fit causes a conflagration that wipes out the City of Broad Shoulders. Then, it was time to indulge in the dubious enterprise of supporting two Caucasian actors in Oriental drag, the Swede ‘Warner Oland’ in “Charlie Chan at Monte Carlo” (1937) and the German ‘Peter Lorre’ in “Thank You, Mr. Moto.” (1937). He also appeared again with Edward G. Robinson in “The Last Gangster” (1937).
In the late ’30s, Blackmer began making a side-line out of portraying F.D.R.’s cousin ‘Theodore Roosevelt’, appearing as the wild ‘n’ woolly bully Bull Moose himself in “This Is My Affair” (1937), “The Monroe Doctrine” (1939), and the Academy Award-winning two-reel short “Teddy the Rough Rider” (1940). He followed these up, reprising T.R., in the patriotic short “March On, America!” (1942), in the John Wayne western “In Old Oklahoma” (1943), in Bill Wellman’s “Buffalo Bill” (1944), and in the nostalgic “My Girl Tisa” (1948). Blackmer appeared in three Broadway productions in the mid-1940s, but it wasn’t until the dawn of the new decade of the ’50s that he scored his greatest success on Broadway, playing the dipsomaniac Doc in ‘William Inge”s “Come Back, Little Sheba” opposite Shirley Booth, who scored a Best Actress (Dramatic) Tony Award in 1950 as his wife. Though Blackmer won the Best Actor (Dramatic) Tony Award for “Sheba,” he was not able to repeat his triumph on film and possibly join Booth into the Oscar-winner’s circle as ‘Burt Lancaster’ coveted the role. Blackmer also lost out on another plum film assignment when it came time to cast the film version of Sweet Bird of Youth (1962). ‘Ed Begley, Sr.’ won an Oscar for his portrayal of Boss Finley in ‘Richard Brooks”s film of the ‘Tennessee Williams’ play, a role that Blackmer had originated on Broadway under the stalwart direction of infamous Hollywood Un-American Activities Committee snitch ‘Elia Kazan’. Blackmer last appeared on Broadway in “A Case of Libel” in the 1963-64 season.
In his private life, Blackmer served as the national vice president of the Muscular Dystrophy Association. He was honored with a motion picture star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 1625 Vine Street, and was the recipient of the North Carolina Award, the state of North Carolina’s highest civilian award, in 1972.
Blackmer was married to Lenore Ulric from 1928 until 1939, when they were divorced. He married his second wife Suzanne Kaaren in 1943. They had two sons, Jonathan and Brewster Blackmer.
Sidney Blackmer died of cancer on October 6, 1973 at the age of 78 in New York City. He was interred in Chestnut Hill Cemetery in his home town of Salisbury, NC.