By Fred Muenz
Born in Olathe, Kansas, but raised in the Chicago suburb of Joilet, Illinois, Samuel Klausman Lawrence Parks, aka Larry Parks was born in December, 1914. As a child, he suffered a variety of illnesses, including rheumatic fever. After graduating from high school in 1932, he entered the University of Illinois, majoring in science and pre-med, intending to pursue a career in medicine. However, he found a passion in college dramatics and, to the dismay of his parents, gave up the idea of becoming a doctor. After leaving the University, he spent the next few years learning his craft in stock companies, before leaving for New York, with dreams of stardom on Broadway. While waiting for his big chance, he worked as an usher at Carnegie Hall and tour guide at Radio City. Finally, in 1937, he secured a small part in the Broadway production of Golden Boy. Several more small Broadway parts followed, and he was just beginning to make a name for himself when his father died, and he had to return to his family in Joliet. While working as a Pullman inspector in Chicago, he was offered a small film role in Hollywood. Although the movie role was cancelled, he decided to stay and began haunting the studios looking for acting work. Finally, Columbia Pictures gave him a screen test and a contract. For the next nine years, Larry Parks labored through a succession of small, mostly meaningless, roles.
When it became known that Columbia was working on a script for a biography of Al Jolson, Larry Parks was the first actor to apply for the role. The studio, however, wanted a bigger name for the role and offered it to James Cagney, who was Jolson’s choice. Jolson had wanted to play the part himself, but at 68 was too old. When Cagney turned down the role, it was offered to Danny Thomas, who also turned it down. Finally, the studio turned to Larry Parks. THE JOLSON STORY (1946) was a huge hit and earned Parks an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor. Although Larry Parks was now a recognized star, the studio continued to cast him in forgettable roles in light comedies and swashbucklers. After trying to get out of his contract with Columbia, the studio finally cast him in the sequel, JOLSON SINGS AGAIN (1949), another huge hit. During this time, while looking for a creative outlet, he and his wife, actress Betty Garrett, played in summer stock and created a successful touring stage act which even played at London’s Palladium.
His movie career came to an abrupt end in 1951, during the “Red Scare”, when he was summoned to appear before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, under threat of being blacklisted in the movie industry if he refused to testify. Despite the fact that he tearfully agreed to testify, he was blacklisted anyway. He later said that he was given the choice of either going to jail for contempt of the Committee or “being forced to crawl through the mud to be an informer”. Following his appearance before the Committee, Columbia cancelled his contract, although it still had four years to run.
Once the controversy died down, he found work in small parts on TV and Broadway. During those lean times, he concentrated on becoming a businessman. He started a construction company which built apartment buildings. Instead of selling the buildings after completion, he kept them and collected rents, which turned out to be very profitable. During this time, he and Betty continued to appear in Las Vegas showrooms, summer stock and touring companies of Broadway shows.
On April 13, 1975, Larry Parks, who could have been one of Hollywood’s greats, suffered a fatal heart attack. He was 60 years old.
ANOTHER SILVER SCREEN MEMORY NEXT WEEK.