Oscar Actors: Aherne, Brian–Background, Career, Awards

Research in Progress (April 16, 2021)

Brian Aherne Career Summary:

Occupational Inheritance: No

Social Class: upper middle; father architect

Race/Ethnicity/Nationality: British; UK and US




Teacher/Inspirational Figure: Katherine Cornell

Radio Debut:

TV Debut:

Stage Debut:

Broadway Debut:

Film Debut:

Breakthrough Role:

Oscar Role: Juarez, 1939; Supp. Actor

Other Noms: No

Other Awards:

Frequent Collaborator: Katherine Cornell (on stage, for deacdes)

Screen Image: lead and character actor

Last Film:

Career Output:

Film Career Span:

Marriage: first wife, Joan Fontaine


Death: age 83

William Brian de Lacy Aherne (May 2, 1902–February 10, 1986) was an English actor of stage, screen, radio and television, who enjoyed a long and varied career in Britain and the US.

His first Broadway appearance in “The Barretts of Wimpole Street” in 1931 teamed him with Katherine Cornell, with whom he would appear in many productions. In films, he played opposite Madeleine Carroll, Bette Davis, Marlene Dietrich, Rita Hayworth and Carole Lombard, and was Oscar-nominated for his role as Emperor Maxmilian in Juarez (1939).

On TV he appeared in “Wagon Train and Rawhide.”

He was born in King’s Norton, Worcestershire, the second and younger son of the Birmingham architect William de Lacy Aherne and his wife Louise (née Thomas). His elder brother Pat Aherne was also an actor.

Educated in Edgbaston, Birmingham, he got early stage training at Italia Conti Academy in London and had some child roles before completing his education at Malvern College.

He first appeared on the stage in Birmingham with the Pilgrim Players (later the Birmingham Repertory Theatre), on April 5, 1910, in Fifinella; and made his first appearance on the London stage at the Garrick Theatre, December 26, 1913, in Where the Rainbow Ends, a fairy play by Clifford Mills and John Ramsey, with music by Roger Quilter, which ran at various theatres for over 25 years.

With amateur experience in Birmingham, and Liverpool’s Green Room Club, he obtained an engagement under Robert Courtneidge, and appeared at London’s Savoy Theatre, opening on December 26, 1923, as Jack O’Hara in a revival of Paddy the Next Best Thing, the play by W. Gayer-Mackay and Robert Ord.

He then toured with Violet Vanbrugh as Hugo in The Flame, and appeared at the London Playhouse in May 1924 as Langford in Leon Gordon’s White Cargo, in which he played all through 1924–25.

Aherne’s first screen appearance was in the crime film “The Eleventh Commandment,” in 1924. He appeared in productions at Cricklewood Studios by Stoll Pictures, then the largest British film company, including two directed by Sinclair Hill, The Squire of Long Hadley (1925) and A Woman Redeemed (1927). He was also in King of the Castle (1925), and the comedy Safety First (1926).

In 1926 he accompanied Dion Boucicault, Jr. to Australia, where he appeared in several plays by J.M. Barrie: as Valentine Brown in the comedy Quality Street, John Shand in the comedy What Every Woman Knows, Crichton in The Admirable Crichton, Simon and Harry in Mary Rose; and Willocks in Aren’t We All? another comedy by Frederick Lonsdale.

Aherne reappeared in London at the Strand in March 1927, again as Langford in White Cargo, and continued on the London stage in a succession of plays until late 1930 when he went to America.

His final silents were two films Shooting Stars and Underground by the rising director Anthony Asquith.

Aherne made his talkie debut in The W Plan (1930) directed by Victor Saville. He appeared opposite Madeleine Carroll in Madame Guillotine (1931).

Aherne made his first appearance on the New York stage at the Empire Theatre on February 9, 1931, playing Robert Browning in Rudolph Besier’s play “The Barretts of Wimpole Street” opposite Katharine Cornell. The play was a success, running for 370 performances. Miss Cornell and Aherne remained lifelong friends and he played in many subsequent productions.

Aherne returned to Broadway in 1932 for Lucrece which starred Cornell. It only had a short run.

He then went to Hollywood where he made his American film debut in “The Song of Songs” (1933) with Marlene Dietrich.

He returned to England where he starred in the film of Basil Dean’s The Constant Nymph (1933).

In 1934 he was reunited with Cornell on Broadway in Romeo and Juliet, playing Mercutio; Cornell was Juliet and Basil Rathbone was Romeo. In only ran 77 performances.

Aherne went to Hollywood where he supported Ann Harding in RKO’s The Fountain (1934).

Aherne went to MGM where he co-starred with Helen Hayes in What Every Woman Knows (1934). He supported Joan Crawford in I Live My Life (1935), which was a big hit. In 1935 Aherne and Cornell revived The Barretts of Wimpole Street on Broadway for 24 performances.

At RKO Aherne was in Sylvia Scarlett (1935) with Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant, a notorious flop.

Aherne went back to Broadway for Cornell’s production of Saint Joan (1936), co-starring Maurice Evans. He returned to Hollywood for Beloved Enemy (1936) with Merle Oberon at Goldwyn Productions.

In 1937 he was Iago on Broadway to Walter Huston’s Othello.

Aherne was top billed in The Great Garrick (1937), directed by James Whale at Warners. He supported Constance Bennett in Merrily We Live (1938) for Hal Roach Studios. He was Oscar-nominated for his role as Emperor Maxmilian in Juarez (1939).

Hal Roach gave Aherne the star role in Captain Fury (1939), as a bushranger in colonial Australia. He supported Carole Lombard in Vigil in the Night (1940) at RKO then was reunited with Madeleine Carroll in My Son, My Son! (1940) for Edward Small.

Aherne was billed over Rita Hayworth in “The Lady in Question” (1940) at Columbia. He made Hired Wife (1940) at Universal with Rosalind Russell, and then The Man Who Lost Himself (1941) with Kay Francis.

MGM put Aherne in support of Jeanette MacDonald for Smilin’ Through (1941). He supported Claudette Colbert in Skylark (1941) at Paramount and Rosalind Russell in My Sister Eileen (1942) at Columbia.

He stayed at that studio to support Loretta Young in A Night to Remember (1942) and was one of many stars in Forever and a Day (1943).

At Columbia, Aherne supported Merle Oberon in First Comes Courage (1943) and Rosalind Russell in The Beautiful Cheat (1943).

In 1943 he quit films to become a flight instructor for the air force in Arizona. In November 1943 it was reported Columbia paid him $144,958 for the year, making him the second highest paid person at Columbia, after Harry Cohn

He fell ill with influenza while touring army camps in 1944.

In 1945 he and Cornell returned to Broadway in a revival of The Barretts of Wimpole Street. He stayed in New York to appear in The French Touch (1945–46) directed by René Clair.

Aherne returned to movies with RKO’s The Locket (1946), billed after Laraine Day. He was top billed in Smart Woman (1948), co-starring producer Constance Bennett. He did Drums Along the Amazon (1948) for Republic.

Aherne was in a Broadway revival of She Stoops to Conquer (1949–50).

Aherne made his TV debut with “Dear Brutus” for The Ford Theatre Hour (1950), which he had performed on stage in Boston. He followed it with “The Magnificent Gesture” for Armstrong Circle Theatre (1950), “A Well-Remembered Voice” for Lux Video Theatre, “The Old Flame” for The Billy Rose Show (1951), “The Buccaneer” for Pulitzer Prize Playhouse (1951), and Betty Crocker Star Matinee (1952).

He and Cornell were reunited on stage in The Constant Wife (1951–52) then Aherne returned to Hollywood. He had support roles in I Confess (1953) directed by Hitchcock and Titanic (1953) (as Captain E.J. Smith).

Aherne did Escapade (1953) on Broadway and “Two for Tea” for Lux Video Theatre and “Element of Risk” and “Breakdown” for Robert Montgomery Presents (1953).

20th Century Fox asked Aherne back to Hollywood to play King Arthur in Prince Valiant (1954) and to play a support part in A Bullet Is Waiting (1954).

He did Quadrille (1954–55) on Broadway with the Lunts then “Now in Rehearsal” for The Eddie Cantor Comedy Theater (1955). Aherne did “The Martyr” for General Electric Theater (1955), “Reunion in Vienna” for Producers’ Showcase (1955), and “The Round Dozen” and “Appearances and Reality” for The Star and the Story (1955).

Aherne went to MGM for The Swan (1956). On TV he did “One Minute from Broadway” for Sneak Preview (1956), “Night Shriek” for Climax! (1956), “The Sacred Trust” and “The Lamp of Father Cataldo” for Crossroads (1956), “The Transfer” for The Errol Flynn Theatre (1956), “Safe Enough” for Studio 57 (1957), “Story Without a Moral” for Goodyear Theatre (1959).

In 1957 he went on a national tour of My Fair Lady playing Professor Henry Higgins.

In 1970, he appeared as a mystery guest on What’s My Line.

Aherne was invited back to 20th Century Fox for a sizeable supporting role in the big budget The Best of Everything (1959). Aherne’s final Broadway appearance was in Dear Liar (1960) with Cornell, where he played George Bernard Shaw (“with great vivacity” according to The New York Times[15]) opposite Cornell’s Mrs Patrick Campbell. He was in “The Trouble with Templeton” for The Twilight Zone (1960) and the film Susan Slade (1961). He did “The Bruce Saybrook Story” on Wagon Train (1961), and “The Gentleman’s Gentleman” on Rawhide (1961). He also appeared as guest host on the TV panel show The Name’s the Same.

Aherne’s final film roles included Lancelot and Guinevere (1963) as King Arthur, The Waltz King (1964) for Disney (as Johann Strauss I), and The Cavern (1964).

He settled in Switzerland. He appeared in a play in England and agreed to return to Hollywood to play Rosalind Russell’s love interest in Rosie! (1967).

Aherne co-starred in the Florence Nightingale episode of Theatre Guild on the Air 13 April 1952.[17] In 1945, he played sleuth Simon Templar in the mystery series, The Saint.

Between 1939 and 1945, Aherne was married to actress Joan Fontaine, which ended in divorce. He married Eleanor de Liagre Labrot in 1946, and their union lasted until his death (1967).

Aherne published his autobiography A Proper Job in 1969, as well as A Dreadful Man (1979), a biography of his close friend George Sanders.

Aherne was a pilot and charter member of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association.

Aherne died of heart failure in Venice, Florida, at the age of 83. He was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.