Laird Cregar: Death by Typecasting
by Gail McIntyre.
For an actor it was a terrible way to go; the perpetual villain, the forever superhero, the eternal comedian, the tired out sidekick. If you contracted the disease there was usually no cure. Actors would pull out all the stops to insure that they were not infected with the typecasting virus. We know today that the cast of TAOS suffered from the insidious affliction, but they were not the only ones who would be affected by the disorder.
Laird Cregar was born in 1916 in Philadelphia and educated in England. Shortly thereafter, he won a scholarship to California’s Pasadena Playhouse which produced so many great stars during that era including George Reeves. His major break was when he was invited to a Hollywood party and started reading the part of Oscar Wilde, forcing everyone in the room to take notice. When he signed on with 20th Century fox, they assured him that he would not be typecast, something Cregar feared intensely. And it seemed initially that was the case. Cast in a hodgepodge of dramatic roles from the flamboyant Natalio Curro in Blood and Sand with Tyrone Power and Rita Hayworth, to the whimsical Gooseberry in Hudson’s Bay, it seemed this rotund actor would find a well balanced cinematic career that would showcase his acting range.
But things began to change in 1944. Although he did not receive top billing, Cregar was cast as Jack the Ripper in The Lodger with Merle Oberon. Weighing over 325 pounds, Cregar takes over the screen both with his body and his face leaving you unable to take your eyes off him. Coupling this performance with other villainous roles he had already played in films such as I Wake up Screaming and This Gun for Hire, Cregar began to worry that he was being typed as a villain. He longed for the opportunity to play a leading man. Merle Oberon told Cregar during the filming of The Lodger that he had a handsome face and could land leading man roles if he only lost the weight.
Cregar pushed for the lead role of Hangover Square. The novel centers on contemporary England where a mentally ill classical composer murders a woman he has fallen in love with after learning that she has taken advantage of him. Cregar, an accomplished pianist, was also told he could play some of his own musical pieces in the film. But a year went by and while Cregar was off appearing in a play that year, the producers of Hangover Square had reworked the screenplay so that it would take place in Victorian England, with the gaslights and mystery that made filming of that era so appealing. In short the story was made to look and sound very much like the previously successful film The Lodger. Compounding the disappointment, the promise to perform some of his own piano compositions fell to the wayside when Bernard Hermann was contracted to score the Concerto Macabre. One of the more spectacular aspects of this film is that Cregar’s hands are actually shown moving over the piano keyboard mimicking the actual movements that would match the music being played.
In preparation for the role of composer George Harvey Bone, Cregar lost over 100 pounds. Hangover Square was subject to reshoots after the film was completed so there are times in watching the film that Cregar seems heavier then curiously slimmer. His body appears to be almost as schizophrenic as his mind, making his performance all the more extraordinary. Cregar gets top billing in this film for the first time, playing opposite Linda Darnell, and clearly seems to break the leading man ceiling despite the fact that he still weighs a hefty 225 pounds. Hangover Square was a big box office hit for 20th Century Fox and it seemed that Cregar was on his way to becoming a major star for the studio. The reshoots of Hangover Square were completed at the end of November 1944. Two weeks later, Laird Cregar prepared his last will and testament and was admitted into the hospital to undergo surgery. There are conflicting stories as to whether the surgery was an elective one to undergo a procedure on his stomach to limit his consumption of food so as to lose more weight OR whether the procedure was to correct severe stomach problems, brought on as a result of the massive weight loss Cregar had sustained in such a short period of time, fueled by the use of amphetamines. Five days after the surgery, Cregar died of a heart attack at the age of 31.
Although Laird Cregar’s list of movie credits is short, consisting of only 16 films, his performances are absolutely mesmerizing. If you are a film noir fans, his body of work is a must see. While heart attack is the official cause of death, there is no doubt, knowing his story that he was yet one more victim of an era where too many Hollywood hopefuls died from an infected career for which no antibiotic or vaccine had ever been developed. Seeing his work today, we can only close our eyes as we do with George Reeves and wonder what could have been.
Monster Mania Convention, Horrorfind.com Convention
About the Author: Gail McIntyre, B.A., M.A., is the webmaster for Mollie Lane Communications. Ms. McIntyre has a passion for classic films and television and enjoys writing and communicating with others who share her interest. Aside from a love a TV/movies from yesteryear, Gail has enjoyed a long career in the technology industry working as both a technician and an analyst and is now retired. In her spare time, Gail works today at an animal shelter and assists in rescuing homeless dogs and cats in the hopes of finding them good loving homes.
Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Basil Rathbone, Nigel Bruce
COMPLETE FILMOGRAPHY OF LAIRD CREGAR AND THE ROLES HE PLAYED
Mr. Slade Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lodger
Clive Oxford Linda Darnell movie
Sam Weaver The Lux Radio Theater
Capt. Sir Henry Morgan
Maj. Sam Carter TCM Movie Schedule
Willard Gates Oscar Awards
Warren Inner Sanctum Mysteries
Herr Funk Susan Hayward movie
Ed Cornell Joyce DeWitt
Sir Francis Chesney Jack Benny
Natalio Curro Cinevent Convention
Gooseberry The Addams Family on DVD
Court Clerk (uncredited)
1940 Oh Johnny, How You Can Love