Oscar Actors: Morris, Chester–Background, Career, Awards

November 25, 2020
Chester Morris Career Summary:

Occupational Inheritance: Yes; both parents stage actors

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Social Class: Middle

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Screen Image: character actor

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John Chester Brooks Morris (February 16, 1901–September 11, 1970) was an American stage, film, television, and radio actor. He had some prestigious film roles early in his career, and was nominated for an Academy Award. Chester Morris is best remembered today for portraying Boston Blackie, a criminal-turned-detective, in the modestly budgeted Boston Blackie film series of the 1940s.

Chester Morris was born John Chester Brooks Morris in New York City, one of four surviving children of Broadway stage actor William Morris and stage comedian Etta Hawkins.

His siblings were screenwriter-actor Gordon Morris (1898–1940), actor Adrian Morris (1907–1941), and actress Wilhelmina Morris (1902–1971).  Another brother, Lloyd Morris (1892–1902), had died young.

Morris dropped out of school and began his Broadway career at 15 years old opposite Lionel Barrymore in The Copperhead. He made his film debut in the silent comedy-drama film An Amateur Orphan (1917).

After appearing in several more Broadway productions in the early 1920s, Morris joined his parents, sister, and two brothers, Gordon and Adrian, on the vaudeville circuit.[6] From 1923, they performed William Morris’ original sketch called All the Horrors of Home, which premiered at the Palace Theatre, New York, then on the Keith-Orpheum circuit for two years, including Proctor’s Theatre, Mount Vernon, New York, and culminating in Los Angeles in 1925.

Morris returned to Broadway with roles in The Home Towners (1926) and Yellow (1927). While appearing in the 1927 play Crime, he was spotted by a talent agent and was signed to a film contract.

Morris made his sound film debut in the 1929 film Alibi, for which he was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor.[8] He followed with roles in Woman Trap (1929), The Case of Sergeant Grischa (1930) and The Divorcee, starring Norma Shearer in 1930. Later that year, Morris was cast as one of the leads (with Wallace Beery and Robert Montgomery) in the MGM prison drama The Big House. For the next two years, he worked steadily in films for United Artists and MGM and was cast opposite Jean Harlow in the 1932 comedy-drama Red-Headed Woman.[9]

By the mid- to late 1930s, Morris’ popularity had begun to wane and he was cast as the lead actor such B-movies as Smashing the Rackets (1938) and Five Came Back (1939).[5] In 1941, Morris’ career was revived when he was cast as criminal-turned-detective Boston Blackie. Morris appeared in a total of 14 Boston Blackie films for Columbia Pictures, beginning with Meet Boston Blackie. He reprised the role of Boston Blackie for the radio series in 1944.[10] During World War II, Morris performed magic tricks in over 350 USO shows. He had been practicing magic since the age of 12 and was considered a top amateur magician.[11]

While appearing in the Boston Blackie series, Morris continued to appear in roles in other films mostly for Pine-Thomas films for Paramount Pictures.[5] After appearing in 1949’s Boston Blackie’s Chinese Venture, the final Boston Blackie film, Morris largely retired from films.[4] During the 1950s, he focused mainly on television and theatre, returning to Broadway in 1954 in the comedy The Fifth Season.[12] During this time, Morris also appeared in guest spots for the anthology series Cameo Theatre, Lights Out, Tales of Tomorrow, Alcoa Premiere, Suspense, Danger, Robert Montgomery Presents, The Web, Phillip Morris Playhouse, Studio One, and Kraft Television Theatre. He briefly returned to films in 1955 with a role in the prison drama Unchained, followed by a role in the 1956 science-fiction horror film The She-Creature. In 1960, he had recurring role as Detective Lieutenant Max Ritter in the CBS summer replacement series, Diagnosis: Unknown. The series lasted a year, after which Morris appeared in the NBC television film A String of Beads. In November 1960, he returned to Broadway as Senator Bob Munson in the stage adaptation of the 1959 novel Advise and Consent. Morris remained with the production until it closed in May 1961. In October, he reprised his role for the touring production.

In the early to mid-1960s, Morris appeared in guest spots for the dramas Route 66, The Defenders, and Dr. Kildare. In 1965, he replaced Jack Albertson in the Broadway production of The Subject Was Roses.  He reprised his role in the play for the touring production in 1966.

In mid-1968, Morris starred opposite Barbara Britton in the touring production of Where Did We Go Wrong?.[14] After the production wrapped, he returned to his home in Manhattan, where his health began to decline. Morris was later diagnosed with stomach cancer.[15] Despite his declining health, Morris began work on what was his last film role, as Pop Weaver in the biographical drama The Great White Hope (1970). The film was released after his death.

After filming wrapped, Morris joined the stage production of The Caine Mutiny Court Martial at the Bucks County Playhouse in New Hope, Pennsylvania.

On September 11, 1970, Lee R. Yopp, the producer and director of Caine, was scheduled to have lunch with Morris. After Yopp could not reach Morris by phone at his motel room, he went to Morris’ room, where he found the actor’s body lying on the floor. The county coroner attributed Morris’ death to an overdose of barbiturates.

Morris was married twice. He first married Suzanne Kilbourne on November 8, 1926. They had two children, John Brooks and Cynthia.[1] Kilbourne was granted an interlocutory divorce in November 1939 which was finalized on November 26, 1940.

On November 30, 1940, Morris married socialite Lillian Kenton Barker at the home of actor Frank Morgan. They had a son, Kenton, born in 1944. The couple remained married until Morris’ death in 1970.

Select theatre credits
Date Title Role Notes
February 18 – June 1918 The Copperhead Sam Carter Shubert Theatre, New York City[23]
September 22 – October 1918 Thunder Sam Disbrow Criterion Theatre, New York City[23]
December 12, 1921 – April 1922 The Mountain Man Carey Maxine Elliott Theatre, New York City[23]
September 22 – October 1922 The Exciters Lexington Dalrymple Times Square Theater, New York City[23]
January 23 – February 1923 Extra Wallace King Longacre Theatre, New York City[23]
August 23 – October 1926 The Home Towners Waly Calhoon Hudson Theatre, New York City[23]
September 21, 1926 – January 1927 Yellow Val Parker National Theatre, New York City[23]
February 22 – August 1927 Crime Rocky Morse Eltinge 42nd Street Theatre, New York City[23]
February 20 – May 1928 Whispering Friends Al Sheeler Hudson Theatre, New York City[23]
September 26 – October 1928 Fast Life Chester Palmer Ambassador Theatre, New York City[23]
September 5 – October 23, 1954 The Fifth Season Johnny Goodwin Cort Theatre, New York City
Touring to Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Chicago[12][24]
February 27 – July 19, 1958 Blue Denim Major Bartley Playhouse Theatre, New York City[23]
November 17, 1960 – May 20, 1961 Advise and Consent Bob Munson Cort Theatre, New York City[23]
September 7, 1965 – May 21, 1966 The Subject Was Roses John Cleary Helen Hayes Theatre, Henry Miller’s Theatre and Belasco Theatre, New York City[23]
Select filmography

Poster for Alibi (1929)

Poster for Corsair (1931)

Poster for The Gay Bride (1934)

Poster for Public Hero No. 1 (1935)

Chester Morris, Lucille Ball, Casey Johnson and Kent Taylor in Five Came Back (1939)
Year Title Role Notes
1917 An Amateur Orphan Dick [25]
1918 The Beloved Traitor Dan [25]
1923 Loyal Lives Tom O’Hara [25]
1925 The Road to Yesterday Extra at party [25]
1929 Alibi Chick Williams Nominee, Academy Award for Best Actor[25][26]
1929 Fast Life Paul Palmer [25]
1929 Woman Trap Ray Malone [25]
1929 The Show of Shows Cast member [25]
1930 Second Choice Don Warren Lost film[25]
1930 Playing Around Nickey Solomon [25]
1930 She Couldn’t Say No Jerry Casey Lost film[25]
1930 The Case of Sergeant Grischa Sgt. Grischa Paprotkin [25]
1930 The Divorcee Ted [25]
1930 The Big House John Morgan [25]
1930 The Bat Whispers Detective Anderson [25]
1931 Corsair John Hawkes [25]
1932 Cock of the Air Lieutenant Roger Craig [25]
1932 The Miracle Man John Madison, also known as Doc [25]
1932 Sinners in the Sun Jimmie Martin [25]
1932 Red-Headed Woman Bill Legendre, Jr. [25]
1933 Blondie Johnson Danny Jones [25]
1933 Infernal Machine Robert Holden [25]
1933 Tomorrow at Seven Neil Broderick [25]
1933 Golden Harvest Chris Martin [25]
1934 Gift of Gab Himself [25]
1934 The Gay Bride Office Boy, also known as Jimmie Burnham [25]
1934 Society Doctor Dr. Bill Morgan [25]
1935 Public Hero No. 1 Jeff Crane [25]
1935 Pursuit Mitchell [25]
1936 Three Godfathers Bob [25]
1936 Moonlight Murder Steve Farrell [25]
1936 Frankie and Johnnie Johnnie Drew [25]
1937 I Promise to Pay Eddie Lang [25]
1937 Flight From Glory Smith [25]
1937 Sunday Night at the Trocadero Himself Short subject
1938 Law of the Underworld Gene Fillmore [25]
1938 Sky Giant Ken Stockton [25]
1938 Smashing the Rackets Jim Conway [25]
1939 Pacific Liner Doc Craig [25]
1939 Blind Alley Hal Wilson [25]
1939 Five Came Back Bill Brooks [25]
1939 Thunder Afloat “Rocky” Blake [25]
1940 The Marines Fly High Lt. Malone [25]
1940 Wagons Westward David Cook/Tim Cook [25]
1941 Meet Boston Blackie Boston Blackie [25]
1941 No Hands on the Clock Humphrey Campbell [25]
1941 Confessions of Boston Blackie Boston Blackie [25]
1942 Alias Boston Blackie Boston Blackie [25]
1942 I Live on Danger Jeff Morrell [25]
1942 Boston Blackie Goes Hollywood Boston Blackie [25]
1942 Wrecking Crew Duke Mason [25]
1943 Tornado Pete Ramsey [25]
1943 After Midnight with Boston Blackie Boston Blackie [25]
1943 Aerial Gunner Foxy Pattis [25]
1943 The Chance of a Lifetime Boston Blackie [25]
1944 Gambler’s Choice Ross Hadley [25]
1944 Secret Command Jeff Gallagher [25]
1944 One Mysterious Night Boston Blackie [25]
1944 Double Exposure Larry Burke [25]
1945 Boston Blackie Booked on Suspicion Boston Blackie [25]
1945 Boston Blackie’s Rendezvous Boston Blackie [25]
1946 A Close Call for Boston Blackie Boston Blackie [25]
1946 The Phantom Thief Boston Blackie [25]
1946 Boston Blackie and the Law Boston Blackie [25]
1947 Blind Spot Jeffrey Andrews [25]
1948 Trapped by Boston Blackie Boston Blackie [25]
1949 Boston Blackie’s Chinese Venture Boston Blackie [25]
1955 Unchained Warden Kenyon J. Scudder [25]
1956 The She-Creature Dr. Carlo Lombardi [25]
1970 The Great White Hope Pop Weaver [25]