Volume III: Biographies


MORRIS, Chester *

Actor (1917)

Thanhouser Career Synopsis: Chester Morris appeared in a 1917 Thanhouser film.

Biographical Notes: Chester Morris was born on February 16, 1901 in New York City, the son of stage and screen actor William Morris (1861-1936). At one time the elder Morris, to whose biography refer, appeared in a Thanhouser film. Young Chester was educated at the Lincoln School in Mount Vernon, New York. As a lad he entered films at the age of nine in 1910, according to several of his own recollections, but the studio wasn't identified. Around six years later, Chester Morris played hookey from high school to appear in the 1917 Thanhouser film, An Amateur Orphan. "Instead of berating him, his parents admired his choice of a career, and to make sure that the lad's ambitions were fulfilled, they took him on a tour of the country for four years in a vaudeville act," an account noted. While still in high school, Chester was on the stage with the Westchester Players.

A 1944 King Features Syndicate story gave another version of his early film work: "On his 12th birthday, his father presented him with a Gilbert magic set. Adding a ring or two to his theatrical trunk, Chet soon slipped away from his studies at Mount Vernon high school to appear briefly in a film for Thanhouser at New Rochelle. 'If you're determined to go on stage,' the elder Morris sighed in resignation, 'I'll help you - but finish high school first.'"

An account in The New York Times, October 10, 1926, told more: "[He] was to have become an artist, and as early as his freshman year at high school he was, so far as his parents were concerned, supposed to be studying the old masters at the New York School of Applied Arts. In reality, another variety of pictures attracted the young man's fancy, and all the time he was being secretly screened in a leading juvenile part at the old Thanhouser studios. It was not until the film was shown in Mount Vernon, where the Morrises then resided, that his dark secret was revealed, for the local manager had advertised his name in bold type, and nothing remained for young Morris but wholehearted confession. His course was clear; the casting offices beckoned."

In 1918 Chester Morris was seen in the release of The Beloved Traitor (Goldwyn). In the same year the actor was on stage in New York City at the Shubert Theatre, with Lionel Barrymore in the production of The Copperhead. In the years that followed, on the screen he was seen in Loyal Lives (released through Vitagraph in 1923), The Road to Yesterday (1925), and over 80 other films over a long span of time until his death. He was also in numerous stage productions. In 1929 Chester Morris was nominated for the Academy Award of Best Actor for his role in Alibi. In later years he was a prominent television figure and was famous for his film and television characterization of "Boston Blackie." The actor appreciated his many fans, and, unlike many of his contemporaries, he was always willing to sign autographs for admirers. As a hobby he practiced magic and was at one time the president of the Association of Amateur Magicians. His siblings were actors: Gordon (1899-1940), Adrian (1903-1941), and Mrs. Harold Kusell (died in 1971).

On November 8, 1926, Chester Morris married actress Suzanne Kilbourne, and 13 years later, on November 10, 1939, divorced her. The union produced two children, John Brooks and Cynthia. On November 30, 1940 he wed Lillian Kenton Barker, nationally known as the "Chesterfield Cigarette Girl," who had been married twice before. The couple had one child, Kenton. Chester Morris died of a drug overdose (some accounts said heart attack) on September 11, 1970 in a Holiday Inn in New Hope, Pennsylvania. At the time he was starring as Captain Queeg in The Caine Mutiny Court Martial, at the Bucks County Playhouse, a spokesman for which said the actor had seemed in good spirits prior to his death. One of the last interviews he gave was incorporated into an article by Annette Heuser, published posthumously in the Trenton (New Jersey) Sunday Times Advertiser, September 13, 1970. It was stated that he was a frail old man, had an eye infection, and had to restrict his diet.

Thanhouser Filmography:

1917: An Amateur Orphan (6-3-1917)

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