By Fred Muenz
Best remembered as the portly, frog-voiced Friar Tuck in THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD (1938), and a similar role as Father Felipe in THE MARK OF ZORRO (1940), Eugene Pallette’s long career included roles in more than 240 films.
Eugene William Pallette was born in Winfield, Kansas in July, 1889. His parents had both been actors in their younger days but had given up the stage by the time Eugene was born. His father, William, worked as an insurance salesman. Needing discipline, young Eugene was sent to school at a military academy in Indiana. After leaving school, the slim and athletic young man worked as a jockey for a time before joining a successful horse-riding stage act and finally a stock company, where he spent the next six years learning his craft, while supporting himself as a part-time streetcar conductor. His first experience with films came as an extra and stunt man in several east coast productions in 1910. In 1913, he left for California. Unable to find stage work, he made his first credited film appearance in a one-reel western, THE FUGITIVE (1913). Quickly advancing to a featured actor, he found himself a romantic leading man, working with the likes of Dorothy and Lilian Gish, and playing dual roles in D.W. Griffith’s epic THE BIRTH OF A NATION (1915), and INTOLERANCE (1916). With his great range, he could play convincing cowboys, sadistic villains, dashing heroes, romantic leads, or abusive husbands. When the U.S. entered World War I, Pallette volunteered and served with the Army Flying Corp., during which time he began to gain weight. Within a few years of his return to Hollywood, he had become a compulsive eater and, despite the studio’s demands, refused to go on a diet. A new generation of leading men had arrived, and he was forced to transition to the character roles which would define the remainder of his career. After appearing in a number of major silent films, with some of the biggest stars of the day, and even as a foil for Laurel and Hardy in several films, he abruptly quit acting and moved to Texas, where he made a fortune in the oil business. Sadly, he lost it all to bad investments and soon returned to Hollywood. Throughout the remainder of the 1920’s and into the 30’s and early 40’s, Pallette continued to be a busy character actor, and compulsive gourmand. During the filming of THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD, he would cook lavish feasts, similar to those seen in the film, for his fellow cast members.
By the end of World War II, Pallette, who had always held right wing and somewhat racist political views, had become a survivalist who was convinced that the world was doomed to suffer atomic destruction. Intending to survive the oncoming universal catastrophe, he bought a 3,500-acre mountain fortress in Oregon, stocked enormous supplies of food and water, to await the atomic war which would end the world. After a few years, when the world didn’t end, he sold the Oregon property and returned to Hollywood. Plagued by ill health, he made only one more film appearance before succumbing to throat cancer in September, 1954, at age 65.
ANOTHER SILVER SCREEN MEMORY NEXT WEEK.