William Norris (15 June 1862 – 20 March 1929) was a longtime working actor with a career that spanned from California to New York, from playing musical comedies on the road to silent pictures. When he died he left what money he’d saved to The Lambs and others. For his kindness he was named an Immortal Lamb.
He was born in Manhattan as William Block, son of Elias M. and Harriet Mayer Block. His father was a Czech immigrant who worked as a broker. When he was about nine years old the family moved to San Francisco, where he attended local schools. He was educated in the Cosmopolitan Grammar School and Boys’ High School in San Francisco.
The aspiring actor shaved as many as eight years off his actual birth year. He adopted the stage name, Norris, in California. He worked in San Francisco as a merchant until he was about 29 years old. As an amateur he played the Frenchman in Esmeralda (1891). His first appearance on the professional stage was in The Girl From Mexico (1892). He then moved back to his hometown.
A year or two later he scored his first success with Marie Jansen in Delmonico’s At Six (1894), and Miss Dynamite (1894), his eccentric piano playing in both of these pieces attracted attention. The season of 1895-96 Norris appeared with Brother Lambs (and actual brothers) Edmund M. and Joseph Holland in A Man With A Past, and A Social Highwayman, and the next year he appeared in Charles Frohman’s production of The Thoroughbred. He played with Thomas Q. Seabrooke in Papa Gou Gou, and later the opera, A Normandy Wedding, at the Herald Square Theatre.
Norris stayed busy in Little Miss Nobody (1897), The Belle of New York (1898), A Dangerous Maid (1898), and his Excellency the Governor (1899), he appeared as Pinchas in the Children of the Ghetto (1899), as Adonis in The Palace of the King (1900), with Otis Skinner as Pepe in Francesca Da Rimini (1901), A Country Girl (1902), and as Alan in Babes in Toyland (1903). He spent his summers beginning in 1900 playing in Chicago in various productions including King Dodo, A Businessman, and The Strenuous Life. Norris appeared opposite Ethel Barrymore and John Barrymore at the Empire Theatre in the revival of his Excellency the Governor (1907).
In June 1910 Norris married actress-singer Mabel Mordaunt in Chicago. The couple had been acquainted for years, but had never appeared in the same show. That changed in early 1910 when he was the star and she was the leading lady in the musical comedy My Cinderella Girl playing at the Whitney Opera House. They were married at Saint James Presbyterian Church. On Broadway they co-starred in My Sweet Sixteen (1911). They had a son, William Norris, Jr. The couple moved to Westchester County, residing in West Bronxville on Pondfield Road.
Norris worked continually in the 1910s and 1920s, touring and on Broadway. Around the Map (1915) a big Klaw & Erlanger show, played more than 100 performances at the New Amsterdam Theatre with Norris playing seven parts. The Dove (1925) staged by David Belasco also ran more than 100 shows. His final Broadway credit was a classic: He was in A Connecticut Yankee (1927), the musical that made Lambs Shepherd William Gaxton a star, and ran more than 400 performances at the Vanderbilt Theatre with music by Richard Rodgers; a book by Herbert Fields; and lyrics by Lorenz Hart.
Among the silent pictures Norris made were When Knighthood Was in Flower (1922), The Go-Getter (1923), and The Love Piker (1923). He lived in Hollywood, but returned to New York for his final stage performances from 1927-1928.
He died on 20 March 1929 in West Bronxville. He was about 67 years old. He left gifts to the Lambs’ Memorial Relief Fund (forerunner of the Lambs’ Foundation), the John Drew Fund at The Players, and the Actors’ Fund of America. For his generosity Norris was named an Immortal Lamb when the honors were created in 1933.
Norris has a memorial at Home of Peace Cemetery in Colma, California, where his parents are interred.