William Surrey Hart (December 6, 1864 – June 23, 1946) was an American silent film actor, screenwriter, director and producer. He is remembered as a foremost western star of the silent era who “imbued all of his characters with honor and integrity.” During the late 1910s and early 1920s, he was one of the most consistently popular movie stars, frequently ranking high among male actors in popularity contests held by movie fan magazines. He was elected to The Lambs in 1906 and is an Immortal Lamb.
From The Lambs Script, 1953 May-June Issue
William Surrey Hart was born in Newburgh, New York, on December 6, 1864. There had been some uncertainty concerning the year, but at the time of his death, his son stated it was 1864, and that is the date now generally accepted. Soon after William’s birth, his father moved to Minnesota and the Dakotas, where he traveled throughout those states and Montana, installing flour mill machinery. Until his fifteenth year, William’s playmates and associates were “cowboys and Indians,” and their way of life became well-known to him. It was this early knowledge that stood him in good stead in the profession of his later years.
At 15 he came back to New York with the family, and went to work as a clerk in the post office on Park Row. We know that he didn’t like the work, and had his heart set on the theatre from the start, but here again publicity stories vary. According to some, young Hart spoke to his father of his ambitions, and the latter advised him that experience in the British theatre would aid in his career. Some accounts state, “He sold all the medals he had won in athletic games to purchase a ticket to London. Returning at 19, he appeared as Hamlet in New York at $12 a week.” There being no mention of his prowess in athletics at an early age, it is hard to believe that a boy of 15 would have accumulated enough loving cups and trophies to bring the cost of passage to England. Hart himself stated at one time that he had worked his way across the Atlantic on a freighter, and returned almost at once. Other stories relate that he acted as a supernumerary in the theatres of both London and Paris.
Whatever his early background, the majority of reports agree that his New York debut was in Austerlitz at the People’s Theatre on January 21, 1889, at the age of 25. Exactly what occupied the intervening ten years is open to conjecture, but it is quite certain that he did not return from London at 19 and burst upon the New York horizon in a blaze of glory as Hamlet (at $12 a week)!
But William S. Hart did make his way in the legitimate theatre in a comparatively short space of time. Early appearances in The Merchant of Venice, Othello, Anthony and Cleopatra, and other Shakespearean productions paved the way for engagements with Ada Rehan, opposite Mme. Modjeska in Camille and Macbeth, and finally as Romeo to Julia Arthur’s Juliet in 1899.
As Messala in Ben Hur he appeared for two years, then in The Virginian his particular talents as a “Western” type were first recognized. His portrayal of Cash Hawkins in The Squaw Man was perhaps the greatest influence on his subsequent career, where his early training with Lawrence Barrett and R. D. MacLean, while it no doubt aided in establishing a firm foundation for his acting skill, had little in common with the two-gun hero of the West with whom he became identified in motion pictures.
William S. Hart himself told an amusing story of his first interest in the films. “I was playing in Cleveland,” he says, “and went over to the theatre to see how the stagehands were getting along with the sets. To my surprise, the trucks of scenery were standing outside the theatre, still loaded, and no one was around. Upon inquiring the cause, I found the workmen were attending a “Western Movie” at a nearby picture house. I made up my mind to see what it was that had such an attraction for these workers in the theatre, and attended the showing myself. The portrayal and dress of the so-called cowboys and Western characters was so untrue to nature, and the stories so contrived and far-fetched, that I determined, should the opportunity ever arise, to do whatever I could to influence the makers of motion pictures to adopt a true-to-life method of presentation.”
As every movie-goer of the period soon became aware, the opportunity did arise, and William S. Hart became the ideal two-fisted fighter for right and order in the Old West. His early association with frontiersmen and Indians in Montana provided him with authentic models for his characterization.
Williams S. Hart became a Lamb in 1906, while playing on Broadway. He was an active member and frequented the Fold regularly until his work in pictures, which began in 1914, obliged him to make his home on the West Coast. Several times he came East to lend his services to The Lambs–notably to appear in character as Wild Bill Hickock at the Gambol of his old friend who had joined the organization the same year, our Shepherd, Thomas Meighan. These trips were made at his own expense, and as a gesture of good will to his club.
The first picture in which he appeared was The Bargain, in 1914. He himself states that his salary was $75 a week, and before long his employers must have realized that his first picture was prophetic. He was a bargain even at the thousand a day which he averaged at the peak of his picture career.
It would be needless to mention the number of Westerns in which he starred, and to try to describe his drawing-power. He received thousands of fan letters a day–many of them love-letters and proposals of marriage. Strangely enough, William S. Hart did not marry until he was 57, the day after his birthday, in 1921. He and his wife, Winifred Westover, separated after a short time, but he was proud of his son, William S. Hart, Jr., who resembled him to a remarkable degree.
His last picture, Tumbleweeds, was released in 1926. He had written many of his own pictures, and produced several himself, but business arrangements had caused him much worry and anxiety. His sight began to fail in his later years, and this period of his life was not altogether a happy one. In 1941 he came to New York for an ocular operation, and at that time again visited his old friends at The Lambs.
He wrote several books for boys, and an autobiography, My Life East and West, at his home, “Hill of the Winds,” about 40 miles from Los Angeles. This home, comprising about 300 acres and worth over $300,000, he gave to Los Angeles County as a museum in 1943. In 1945 he gave $100,000 to the Connecticut Humane Society in Westport, to provide a home for animals. His horse, variously known as “Fritz,” “Pinto,” and “Paint,” had been, as he expressed it, one of his best and closest friends.
One of William S. Hart’s last appearances in the entertainment world was as a guest on the Rudy Vallee show in November of 1937.
He passed away in the California Lutheran Hospital in Los Angeles on June 24, 1946, at the age of 81, though his obituaries all mention his being only 75. Services were held in the Church of the Recessional, Forest Lawn Memorial Park, Glendale, California, and his ashes sent to Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn. The last rites were attended by crowds of his friends and associates from both stage and screen. Rudy Vallee sang “The Last Round-up” and “A Long, Long Trail,” and the organ music included “Home on the Range” in tribute to the well-remembered career of this prototype of the True West.
William S. Hart had entered the movies at the age of 50. He was not the usual “hero” type–he was a character actor from the start. But he outshone by far most of the younger, more romantic men in his field. He was known and loved by millions, both young and old, as the typical fearless fighter for right and order in a time and place where it took a two-fisted two-gun man to survive. He still stands as an ideal of his type in the hearts of millions of Americans who thronged to his pictures long before cowboys began laying down their pistols to pick up a guitar. And he will long continue to stand in the hearts and memories of The Lambs as a great and good man–and an Immortal Lamb!