I love old movies, not just the classic films for their big stars, but also for the secondary players whose faces were often recognizable, but whose names were rarely listed in the credits. A few went on to stardom, some others became well known character actors, but most spent their working lives toiling for one studio or another, appearing in hundreds of films yet remaining virtually anonymous…here’s the story of one of them.
While watching a 1941 Hitchcock film, MR. & MRS. SMITH, and looking for Hitchcock to make his appearance, I became curious about the actor playing a doorman. It turns out that his story is interesting, and perhaps a bit sad.
Born in Freedom, Indiana on August 8, 1900, James Pierce attended Indiana University where he became an All-American center on their football team. After graduation, he moved to Arizona to coach High School football. After two years in Arizona, he moved to Los Angeles and was soon bitten by the “acting bug” and began appearing in uncredited bit parts in silent films. On night, while attending a party at the home of Edgar Rice Burroughs, creator of Tarzan, the host noticed the 6’4” would-be actor and immediately offered him the leading role of Tarzan in a film already in pre-production, at a salary of $75 per week. That was good money in 1927, and far more than he had been offered for the credited role in an upcoming aviator film, which he had already accepted. Calling the producer of the aviator film, he gave up the credited role and accepted an uncredited bit part instead. TARZAN AND THE GOLDEN LION (1927) opened to moderate success at the box office, but mixed reviews by the critics. Pierce’s chance for stardom had passed. Even more sadly for Pierce, the aviator film was WINGS (1927), winner of two Academy Awards, including Best Picture. His replacement, in the role he had turned down, was another struggling young actor, Gary Cooper, who went on to stardom.
All wasn’t lost for James Pierce, however, as he married Edgar Rice Burroughs’ daughter, Joan. In 1932, he and Joan began playing Tarzan and Jane in 15-minute radio episodes. In 1936, after more than 350 radio episodes, Pierce finally left Tarzan behind to play the role of Prince Thun of the Lion Men in a Universal Studios, Flash Gordon movie serial. That was followed in 1939 by a feature role in a Republic serial, Zorro’s Fighting Legion. Throughout the remainder of the 1930’s, the 40’s and into the early 50’s, he continued to appear in films in small uncredited parts as a policeman, or truck driver, or cowboy or simply a man in the background of a scene. One of his final film appearances was as another doorman, this time in SHOWBOAT (1951).
James Pierce died in December, 1983. We can only wonder how things would have turned out for him if he had kept the role in Wings…and how things might have been different for Gary Cooper.
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Next week another story from Silver Screen Memories.