Volume III: Biographies


MILASCH, Robert E. *

Actor (1912)

Thanhouser Career Synopsis: Robert Milasch appeared as the giant in The Star of the Side Show, a 1912 Thanhouser film.

Biographical Notes: Robert E. Milasch was born in New York City on April 18, 1885. He was educated in New York City. Under Frohman he was seen on the stage in Decorating Clementina. He also appeared in The Girl I Left Behind Me, and, with James K. Hackett, in The Prisoner of Zenda. His film career is said to have commenced with Gaumont, although his obituary in Variety, November 24, 1954, stated that he first worked with Edison.

A 1939 article by Elizabeth Copeland, in her syndicated "Reel News from Hollywood" column, stated that he was the industry's oldest worker at the time, and told of his debut before the motion picture camera: "Milasch heard that there was a chance to earn some between-seasons money with an outfit in Long Island who were making pictures that moved. Somewhat skeptical he investigated, and ended up by going to work at $2.50 a day in an odd little back-lot affair which was making a one-reel killer-diller entitled Babes in a Barrel. That was in 1899, and Milasch was 14." His place of birth was given as Smoke Mountain, Tennessee in the same account. Milasch was in many films over the years, including two roles, a trainman and a robber, in The Great Train Robbery (Edison, 1903). A few years later he appeared in one of Edison's early talking pictures, Chimes of Normandy, which took three weeks to produce. Voices were captured by a huge horn which hung above the set. Later, the sounds were reproduced on a cylinder record which was approximately synchronized with the film.

The Motion Picture Story Magazine, November 1913, carried the following whimsical item: "Robert Milasch almost rivaled Commodore Perry and the boy who stood on the burning deck, in Hard Cash (Edison), when he was aloft and the fire began to lick his boots. He was some distance from the fire on the ship's deck, though, for he is built like a hairpin and is seven feet four inches long." Milasch worked in silent films for numerous other companies, including Pathé (The Moonshiner's Last Stand), Biograph, Crystal, Famous Players, World, and Amber Star. In 1910 he was in The Eagle's Mate, which featured Mary Pickford. He was hired by Thanhouser to play a giant in The Star of the Side Show, a 1912 film.

Robert Milasch did much work for Universal, including many Carter DeHaven shorts in the Timothy Dobbs, That's Me series. He remained in pictures for 52 years, until his retirement in 1951. In a 1939 interview with Elizabeth Copeland, he spoke of his roles: "I'm six feet, six inches tall, so all they'll let me play are heavies, atmosphere and character parts - and I guess my face isn't the kind that photographs well in dressed-up clothes."

An article in the Hollywood Citizen, April 17, 1939, told of the actor's life: "For 41 years Robert Milasch has been a movie actor. That's a record. Most of the time he hasn't known where he'd get his next meal. And that's a commentary on Hollywood which always seems, somehow, to be glossed over. Glowing stories are written about the Robert Taylors and their homes with swimming pools attached, but the Robert Milaschs and their heartbreaks seldom hit the public prints. We never would have talked to Milasch if we hadn't dropped out today to 20th Century Fox to see Henry Fonda perform as 'Young Mr. Lincoln.' There was a giant of a man sitting on an imitation log and looking glum. It was Milasch, functioning at $7.50 a day as an extra. His wife, in an old-fashioned flounced skit and sunbonnet, was doing the same. And they were thanking their lucky stars they had their jobs. At the same time they were wondering whether they'd have anything to do this time next week, or next month - or next year.

"'It has been a very tough life,' Milasch said. 'It has been one hardship after another and a constant struggle to get out of debt. It has been 41 years of getting jobs which last only for a few days - and then looking for another spot. For a little while I did fairly well and then blooie! And I've been lucky the last five or six years to earn even $2,000 a year. That isn't much. Many a year I haven't made even that. I remember when my son wanted to be an actor, too. I told him, 'Wallace, don't be a fool.' And he wasn't. He became a postal clerk and he's working in Miami, Florida. Maybe there isn't much romance in that, but at least he'll eat regularly.'

"Milasch's story, we think, is as interesting as that of any star and more so than most. When he was nine years old in the village of Smoke Mountain, Tennessee, a wagon circus passed through. He ran away with it. 'When the show finally got back East, I was 13 and a fairly good contortionist,' he said. 'So I shipped with another circus, which was touring South Africa. The boss beat me up so down there that I ran away again and finally got to England, where I performed as a clown.' By 1898 he'd saved up enough money to come back to America. He landed in New York York, broke, heard about the picture people working at Flushing, Long Island. 'It was the old Gaumont film company, making shorts,' he said, 'so I got a job with 'em. They paid me two dollars a day. Then I went with the Thomas Edison company and played the part of a brakeman in The Great Train Robbery.

"'A few years later I was working for Vitagraph in The Prodigal Judge, he said. 'I was doing all right. I was on the upgrade. So Producer Henry King asked me to take the leading part in a picture called Tol'able David. I told him I was already booked up, but that I knew a man who looked like I did and could play the part. So I went out to the old Fulton Street Theatre in Brooklyn and got the piano player there. He was almost a dead ringer for me. King said he'd do fine. So this piano player friend of mine took the part. The picture was a whale of a success. It started my friend on a career which made him a fortune before he died. His name was Ernest Torrence.'"

Robert E. Milasch was described in an article in The Los Angeles Times, June 18, 1944, in an interview with Paul W. Panzer, as being 'a big fellow, six feet four inches, with a hawk nose.' At the time Panzer considered himself to be the second oldest player in continuous service in the motion picture business, noting that Milasch superseded him by one year. Robert Milasch died of uremic poisoning on November 14, 1954, while a resident of the Motion Picture Country House and Hospital in Woodland Hills, California. By that time he had been in pictures for 52 years, until his retirement in 1951. He was survived by a son and two daughters.

Note: In publicity his surname sometimes appeared as "Milash."

Thanhouser Filmography:

1912: The Star of the Side Show (4-2-1912)

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Copyright © 1995 Q. David Bowers. All Rights Reserved.