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1880: An Actor Whose Ugliness Concealed a Heart of Gold Is Born

David Green
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The lobby card for the movie "Two Arabian Nights" starring, among others, Louis R. Wolheim (right), a popular character actor of stage and screen, whose most distinctive asset was his mashed-in nose.
The lobby card for the movie "Two Arabian Nights" starring, among others, Louis R. Wolheim (the shorter-looking one on the right).
David Green

March 28, 1880, is the birthdate of Louis R. Wolheim, a popular character actor of stage and screen, whose most distinctive asset was his mashed-in nose. Although known in his personal life for his intelligence, erudition and kindness, Wolheim, found himself regularly typecast as a criminal or brute (he played the title character in the original production of Eugene O’Neill’s “The Hairy Ape”). When, late in his career, he contemplated having surgery on his nose, in the hope it would help him land leading-man roles, Wolheim’s studio went to court to stop him.

Although Wolheim told people he was born in New York City, U.S. census records indicate that he was born in Russia, and that his parents, Elias and Lena Wolheim, emigrated with the family to New York in 1888. That’s where most of his nine brothers and sisters were born.  

The bar fight won

Louis enrolled at the City College of New York before transferring to Cornell University, where he studied engineering – and played varsity football. That’s how he originally injured his nose. However, according to a contemporary issue of Photoplay magazine, Louis had his nose restored to its original glory surgically, and celebrated the occasion with a party at an Ithaca bar. After a bit of drinking, he and one of his guests got into a fight, during which he broke his nose a second time. (Wolheim told the fan magazine that he won the fight.)

Following graduation, in 1906, Wolheim remained in Ithaca for several years, and tutored college students in math. One of his pupils was Adolphe Menjou, who later described Louis as having “a mind like a calculating machine and a face that looked as though it had been run over by a truck." (Ironically, it was the handsome, debonair Menjou who, in 1931, replaced Wolheim in his starring role in “The Front Page,” when Wolheim unexpectedly died.)

Wolheim, who supposedly spoke French, Spanish, German and Yiddish, spent the years 1910-1912 working in Mexico as a mining engineer. Back in Ithaca, he was selling cigars at the Ithaca Hotel when, in 1914, he was seen by film star Lionel Barrymore, who was in town working on a silent movie.

Barrymore, according to the legend, advised Louis that “with that face, you could make a fortune in the theater.”

Mary Astor and Louis Wolheim in Two Arabian KnightsCredit: Harold Dean Carsey, Wikimedia Commons

'Gangster' with a socialist heart

With the help of Barrymore and his younger brother John, Wolheim was cast as an extra in several films, and then had a string of 10 serious stage roles on Broadway. In between, he began an officers training course in the U.S. army, during World War I, but resigned after the armistice, in 1918.

It was inevitable that Wolheim would be typecast as a gangster or prisoner. Off-screen, however, he was known for his modesty and for always being ready to help friends in need. After his death, the editor of Photoplay, James R. Quirk, described him as “one of the finest and most generous souls I have ever known." Another friend, producer Miles Connolly, addressing the charge that Wolheim was a “Red,” explained that, “If business men made a profit greater than the energy invested, [Louis] felt these profits made others unnecessarily poorer. He never understood why some should wear rich furs and others starve.”

Probably Wolheim’s most famous role was his performance as the German sergeant Kat. Kaczkinsky in “All Quiet on the Western Front,” an early talkie, which won the Oscar for Best Picture in 1930. Hoping to further expand his range by improving his looks, Wolheim was supposedly weighing another round of plastic surgery on his nose. However, his studio, United Artists, went to court for a restraining order to stop him.

After he was cast in the role of editor Walter Burns in “The Front Page,” Wolheim began losing weight quickly. According to some accounts, he had gone on a crash diet for the role; others say the weight loss was unintended. Either way, on February 4, 1931, he collapsed on the set. When he underwent exploratory surgery a short time later, he was discovered to be suffering from stomach cancer. He died two weeks later, on February 18, a month short of his 51st birthday.

Danger Lights - 1930 Adventure/drama starring Louis Wolheim, Robert Armstrong, and Jean ArthurCredit: YouTube