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American National Biography Online Wolheim, Louis Robert (28 Mar. 1881-18 Feb. 1931), actor, was born in New York City, the son of Elias Wolheim, an unskilled laborer; his mother's name is not known. The family was poor, but Wolheim learned several languages while growing up. After graduating from City College of New York (1903), he earned a degree in mechanical engineering from Cornell (1906). He also had his nose broken three times while playing football for Cornell, badly disfiguring his face. He became known in Cornell as a heavy drinker, brawler, and glib spinner of stories about his adventurous youth. After a brief period with an engineering firm in New York, Wolheim returned to Cornell to work toward a Ph.D. Meanwhile, he taught mathematics at Cornell Preparatory School, tutored college undergraduates in mathematics and physics, and clerked at the cigar counter of the Ithaca Hotel. The hotel was his hangout, and he is said to have tutored his undergraduates in its bar. In 1910 he left to do engineering work for an American firm in Mexico, but when revolution broke out there in 1912, he returned to Ithaca to work again as tutor and cigar clerk. In later years he concocted tall tales about his adventures in revolutionary Mexico. About that time the independent filmmakers Theodore Wharton and Leopold Wharton began using the surroundings of Ithaca as settings for their films. Wolheim picked up extra money as an extra and bit player. Thus he met Lionel Barrymore, who had come to play the villain in a Wharton serial. The two became cronies and drinking partners. Barrymore soon realized that behind Wolheim's thuggish face was an intelligent man, and he persuaded Wolheim to leave his aimless life in Ithaca to go into film and stage work, saying, "Anyone with a mug like yours should use it. It would be your fortune" (New York Herald Tribune, 19 Feb. 1931). Wolheim moved to New York, viewed plays, and took voice and acting lessons. For several years Barrymore obtained bit parts in films for him and used him as an assistant director on one film. Wolheim first acted on the stage as a minor villain in a play starring John Barrymore and Lionel Barrymore, The Jest (1919). Lionel Barrymore later recalled in his autobiography that Wolheim "took part in a battle in the third act, and made me look so good by losing that I won much more applause than I deserved." Wolheim went on to other small stage roles, such as a Mexican bandit chief in The Broken Wing (1920). He continued to take small movie parts, showing increasing stage presence. In D. W. Griffith's Orphans of the Storm (1921), he made a memorable brief appearance as the half-naked executioner. Two other small but telling film roles were with John Barrymore, in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920) and Sherlock Holmes (1922). In 1921 he helped to adapt two plays, The Claw from a French original, and The Idle Inn from Yiddish. Wolheim's breakthrough to prominence as an actor came when Eugene O'Neill chose him to play the lead in The Hairy Ape (1922). He portrayed a brutish stoker, Yank Smith, who goes berserk and is killed after an experience with a young society woman causes him to doubt his place in humanity. Reviews of the play were divided, but Wolheim's performance was unanimously praised. An interview in Theatre (Aug. 1922) showed both his acceptance of his ugliness and his buried intellect: "I have no illusions whatever about my face and form." He said he was content with meaty character roles, for "I believe the strong and ugly face, and the powerful physique--the Man of Iron type--is coming in to his own. I believe that we are going to have more plays with real power to them, and real ideas, and it necessarily follows that virile plays will call for virile types." Wolheim was even more of a success in just such a virile play, What Price Glory?, in 1924. In this disillusioned look at soldiers in World War I, he portrayed the brawling, cynical, joking Captain Flagg. The New York Times reviewer said he acted "with a security and variety that I have never seen this actor achieve before, as well as with intelligence and a kind of husky wit" (6 Sept. 1924). Along with his two stage successes, he married the actress and sculptor Ethel Dane in 1923. The couple did not have any children. Wolheim found that work on the stage was uncertain for him, despite praise for his acting, because he was hard to cast as anything but a menace, and those parts were not leads. Work was more plentiful for him in the movie studios. Continuing to make films during the runs of his plays, he quickly became a leading screen actor in thug roles. By 1924, the New York Times movie review of The Story without a Name (6 Oct.) reported, "Mr. Wolheim is as usual the acme of villainy" as a run-running pirate. He joked to one interviewer that he was identified with "genteel parts [such as] stokers, ship captains, roustabouts, and gang leaders" (Theatre, Jan. 1926). He also did well in a few movie roles with a comic dimension, such as Two Arabian Knights (1927). By the late 1920s Wolheim had moved permanently to Hollywood, where he found higher pay, regular hours, and a better climate. Wolheim easily made the transition to talking pictures. The pinnacle of his screen career came in All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), in which he appeared as the brutally funny and tender German army veteran, Katczinsky, who shepherds his recruits through four years of World War I battles, only to die of a random bullet from an airplane while being carried to a hospital. Jack Spears described Wolheim's performance as "beautifully low-key . . . a disciplined one, shaded with the right proportions of sentiment, humor, irony, and buried bitterness, all of which were projected on his unique face" (Films in Review, Mar. 1972). At the end of 1930 Wolheim was cast as the tough editor Walter Burns in a screen version of The Front Page. Preparing for the role, he dieted punishingly and lost twenty-five pounds in one month. He became seriously ill during production and had to leave the film after collapsing on the set. He was kept in the hospital for two weeks, then underwent an exploratory operation for appendicitis. The surgeons discovered cancer of the stomach. Weakened by the operation, he sank into a coma and died. Though known as a carouser in his younger days, Wolheim lived quietly with his wife in Hollywood, enjoying the company of friends, shunning social life and publicity. In private life he was nothing like his hardboiled screen image, but he could switch from dignified academic speech into underworld jargon, and though ordinarily soft-spoken he was reputed to have a caustic wit. He may have been less accepting of his lucrative ugliness than he claimed: he attempted to have his nose remodeled by plastic surgery in 1927, only to be stopped by a studio injunction. His place in film history is ensured by his classic performance in All Quiet on the Western Front. Bibliography Materials on the life and career of Wolheim are in the Billy Rose Theatre Collection at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Lincoln Center. A survey of his movie career is Jack Spears, "Louis Wolheim," Films in Review, Mar. 1972, pp. 158-76, including portrait and production stills. For information on his stage career, views, and personality, see two Theatre articles: Carol Bird, "Enter the Monkey Man," Aug. 1922, pp. 102, 120; and "Mirrors of Stageland," Jan. 1926, p. 12. Anecdotes of his Ithaca years are in Lionel Barrymore, We Barrymores (1951). Obituaries are in the New York Times and New York Herald Tribune, both 19 Feb. 1931. William Stephenson Citation: William Stephenson. "Wolheim, Louis Robert"; http://www.anb.org/articles/18/18-01260.html; American National Biography Online Feb. 2000. Access Date: Copyright (c) 2000 American Council of Learned Societies. Published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved. From American National Biography, published by Oxford University Press, Inc., copyright 2000 American Council of Learned Societies. Further information is available at http://www.anb.org.