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Cary Grant

One of the Most Famous Actors of the 20th Century

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Picture of famous actor Cary Grant.

Portrait of British born actor Cary Grant wearing a double breasted pinstripe suit, seated in an armchair, 1940s.

(Photo by Getty Images)

Who Was Cary Grant?

One of the most successful actors of the 20th century, Cary Grant started life as Archibald Leach in Bristol, England, making his way out of a sad childhood to American vaudeville, eventually becoming one of Hollywood’s favorite leading men of all time.

Dates: January 18, 1904 – November 29, 1986

Also Known As: Archibald Alexander Leach

Famous Quote: "Everyone wants to be Cary Grant. Even I want to be Cary Grant."

Growing Up

Cary Grant, born as Archibald Alexander Leach on January 18, 1904, was the son of Elsie Maria (née Kingdon) and Elias James Leach, a suit presser in a clothing manufacturing plant. The working-class family of Episcopalian faith lived in a stone row house in Bristol, England, kept warm by coal-burning fireplaces and heated arguments between Grant’s parents.

A very bright young boy, Grant attended the Bishop Road Boys’ School, ran errands for his mother, and enjoyed the cinema with his father. When Grant was nine years old, however, his life tragically changed when his mother disappeared. Told by his family that she was resting at a seaside resort, Grant wouldn’t see her for more than twenty years.

Now raised by his father and his father’s parents, who were cold and distant, Grant buried his inner sadness and unsettled home life by playing English handball in the schoolyard and joining the Boy Scouts. In school, he loitered in the science lab, fascinated by electricity. The science professor’s assistant took 13-year-old Grant to the Bristol Hippodrome to proudly show him the switchboard and lighting system he had installed at the theater. Grant was immediately infatuated, not with the lighting but with the laughing theater people in costumes.

Grant Joins the English Theater

In 1918, at the age of 14, Grant acquired a job at the Empire Theater as a limelight, assisting the men who worked the arc lamps. He frequently skipped school and attended matinees, enjoying the shows and watching the performers. When hearing that the Bob Pender Troupe of comedians was hiring, Grant wrote Pender a letter of introduction and forged his father’s signature to it. Unbeknownst to his father, Grant was hired and learned to walk on stilts, to pantomime, and to perform acrobatics. He then toured English cities, performing with the troupe.

Filled with joy, Cary Grant became addicted to the adulation of applause, which was thwarted when his father found him and dragged him home. Grant proceeded to purposely get himself expelled from school by sneaking a peak at the girls in the restroom. With his father’s blessing, Grant rejoined the Bob Pender Troupe. In 1920, eight boys were selected from the troupe to appear in an engagement called Good Times at the Hippodrome in New York. Sixteen-year old Grant was one of those chosen and sailed for America aboard the SS Olympic to perform at the theater and begin a new life.

Grant on Broadway

While still working in New York in 1921, Grant received a letter from his father stating that he was living with a woman named Mabel Alice Johnson and had fathered a son with her named Eric Leslie Leach. Grant was enjoying American baseball, Broadway celebrities, and living beyond his means; he gave little thought to his new half-brother, 17 years his junior.

When the Bob Pender tour ended in 1922, Grant stayed in New York. While watching for another vaudeville act to join, he sold ties on the street corner and performed as a stilt walker at Coney Island. Soon he was back at the Hippodrome in various vaudeville shows using his acrobatic, juggling, and mime skills.

In 1927, Cary Grant appeared in his first Broadway musical comedy called Golden Dawn, which opened at the new Hammerstein Theater. Never having spoken onstage before, he tried to speak American English rather than the Queen’s English; many thought his accent was Australian.

Due to his handsome features and gentlemanly ways, Grant won the leading male role in 1928 in a play called Rosalie. That same year, Grant was spotted by Fox Film Corporation talent scouts and was asked to take a screen test. He flunked the test due to being bowlegged and having too thick of a neck.

When the stock market crashed in 1929, half the theaters on Broadway closed. Grant took a large pay cut, but continued to appear in musical comedies. In the summer of 1931, Grant, hungry for work, appeared in most of the shows at the outdoor Muny Opera in St. Louis.

Grant Gets Into the Movies

In November 1931, 27-year-old Cary Grant drove cross-country to Hollywood with nothing more than a dream. After a few introductions and dinners, another screen test was made, and that same year Grant received a five-year contract with Paramount; but the studio rejected the name Archibald Leach.

Grant had played a character named Cary Lockwood in a Broadway play called Nikki. The author of the play, John Monk Saunders, suggested that Grant take the name Cary. A Paramount secretary handed Grant a list of potential last names and “Grant” jumped out at him. Hence, Cary Grant was born.

Grant’s first feature film was This Is the Night (1932) followed by seven more films by the end of 1932, which were cast-off parts that seasoned actors had turned down. Although Grant’s early acting was rather inexperienced, his good looks and easy working style kept him in pictures, including a couple of popular Mae West films, She Done Him Wrong (1933) and I’m No Angel (1933), which fueled his career.

Grant Gets Married and Goes Independent

In 1933, Cary Grant met actress Virginia Cherrill, the star of a few Charlie Chaplin films, at the William Randolph Hearst beach house and sailed for England that following November, which was Grant’s first trip home. Thirty-year-old Grant and 26-year-old Cherrill married on February 2, 1934, in London’s Caxton Hall registry office. After seven months, Cherril left Grant on grounds that he was too controlling. After a one-year marriage, they divorced on March 20, 1935.

In 1936, rather than re-signing with Paramount, Grant hired an independent agent, Frank Vincent, to represent him. Grant could now pick and choose his roles, taking artistic control of his career, unprecedented independence at the time.

Between 1937 and 1940, Grant honed his screen personality as a dashing, elegant, irresistible leading man. Controlling his destiny, Grant appeared in two moderately successful motion pictures, Columbia's When You're in Love (1937) and RKO’s The Toast of New York (1937). Then came box-office success in Topper (1937) and The Awful Truth (1937). The latter received six Academy Awards, although Grant, the leading actor, received none of them.

Grant Finds Out About His Mother

In October 1937, Grant received a letter from his mother stating that she was anxious to see him. Grant, who thought she had died years ago, booked passage to England as soon as his movie Gunga Din (1939) had finished filming. Now 33 years old, Grant learned the truth of what had happened to his mother.

After Elsie had suffered a nervous breakdown, Grant’s father had put her into a mental asylum when Grant was nine years old. She had become mentally unbalanced due to the guilt of losing an earlier son, John William Elias Leach, who had developed gangrene from a torn thumbnail before he was a year old. After tending to him round the clock for several nights, Elsie had taken an exhausted nap and the child had died.

Grant had his mother released from the asylum and purchased a home for her in Bristol, England. He corresponded with her, visited her often, and financially supported her until she died at the age of 95 in 1973.

Grant’s Success and More Marriages

In 1940, Grant appeared in Penny Serenade (1941) and received an Oscar nomination. Although he did not win, Grant was now a major box-office star and became an American citizen on June 26, 1942.

On July 8, 1942, 38-year-old Cary Grant married 30-year-old Barbara Woolworth Hutton, who was the granddaughter of the founder of the Woolworth dime store and one of the wealthiest women in the world (worth $150 million). Meanwhile, Grant received his second Oscar nomination for Best Actor for None But the Lonely Heart (1944).

After a series of separations and reconciliations, the Grant-Hutton three-year marriage ended in divorce on July 11, 1945. Hutton had life-long psychological problems; she had been just six years old when she found her mother’s body after her mother had committed suicide.

In 1947, Grant was a recipient of the Kings Medal for Services in the Cause of Freedom for his meritorious service during World War II, in which he had donated his salaries from two movies to the British war effort.

On December 25, 1949, 45-year-old Cary Grant married for the third time, this time to 26-year-old actress Betsy Drake. Grant and Drake had co-starred together in Every Girl Should Be Married (1948).

Grant retired from acting in 1952, sensing that newer, grittier actors (such as James Dean and Marlon Brando) were the new draw rather than light-hearted comedy actors. Seeking introspection, Drake introduced Grant to LSD therapy, which was legal at that time. Grant claimed to have found inner peace from the therapy regarding his troubled upbringing.

Director Alfred Hitchcock, who enjoyed working with Grant, enticed Grant to come out of retirement and star in To Catch a Thief. The Grant-Hitchcock duo had two previous successes: Suspicion (1941) and Notorious (1946). To Catch a Thief (1955) was another success for the duo.

Cary Grant went on to star in more motion pictures, including Houseboat (1958) where he fell madly in love with co-star Sophia Loren. Although Loren married film producer Carlo Ponti, Grant’s marriage to Drake became strained; they separated in 1958, but did not divorce until August 1962.

Grant starred in another Hitchcock film, North by Northwest (1959). His character about a mistaken government agent was so suave that Grant became the archetype for Ian Fleming’s famous fictional 007 spy, James Bond. Grant was offered the role of James Bond by his close friend, the Bond film’s producer Albert Broccoli. Since Grant thought he was too old and would only commit to one film of the potential series, the role went to 32-year-old Sean Connery in 1962.

Grant’s successful movies continued into the 1960s with Charade (1963) and Father Goose (1964).

Retirement and Fatherhood

On July 22, 1965, 61-year-old Cary Grant married for a fourth time to 28-year-old actress Dyan Cannon. In 1966, Cannon gave birth to a daughter named Jennifer. Grant announced his retirement from acting that same year, as he was a father for the first time at the age of 62.

Cannon reluctantly joined Grant’s LSD therapy but had scary experiences, thus straining their relationship. After a three-year marriage, they divorced on March 20, 1968. Grant remained a doting father to his daughter, Jennifer.

In 1970, Grant received a special Oscar by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for his achievements in acting for over four decades.

On a trip to England, Grant met British hotel public relations officer Barbara Harris (46 years his junior) and married her on April 15, 1981. He remained married to her until his death five years later.

Death

In 1982, Cary Grant began touring in an international lecture circuit in a one-man show called A Conversation with Cary Grant. During the show he talked about his films, showed clips, and answered questions from audience participants.

Grant was in Davenport, Iowa, for his 37th performance when he suffered a cerebral hemorrhage while preparing for the show. He died that night at St. Luke’s Hospital on November 29, 1986, at the age of 82.

Cary Grant was named The Greatest Movie Star of All Time by Premiere Magazine in 2004.

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