The first thing I always told them when they said they were thinking of going into acting was, ‘Don’t,’ ” John Carradine once said of his sons Keith, David, Robert and Bruce. “It’s the most insecure profession there is.” If their father knew best on the subject, he was, for once, wildly inept at conveying how he felt. One son, Christopher, took the old man’s advice and became an architect; all the rest followed, with varying success, in what Carradine claimed were his misguided footsteps.
He probably wasn’t very disappointed. John Carradine had been many things before he became an actor and patriarch of an acting dynasty—dairy farmer, sculptor, wood carver, designer of sets for Cecil B. DeMille. But with his cavernous voice, a gaunt body that managed to appear haggard, a face that looked like a skull papered over and a deep thirst for the flamboyant, he was impossible to picture as anything but a thespian. When he died of pneumonia and kidney and heart failure last week in Milan at age 82, he had made, by his own count, nearly 500 movies, many of them dreadful and some of them classics. “I think I’m better at acting than I am at dairy farming, and that’s why I’m involved in it,” he once concluded. “It pays a little better than raising cows, and I happen to like it better than forwarding bananas by fast freight to consignees in California, an occupation in which I was once involved.”
“He was a unique father and an exceptional actor,” Keith Carradine said last week, days after he began shooting a TV movie ironically titled A Time for Dying. “He invested us all with a great sense of honor and integrity and professionalism in whatever we did.” In recent decades, what John himself did would have driven a lesser, or less enthusiastic, ham back to dairy farming. To many, he is known only as a spectral specialist in gaudy villainy in such campy-vampy movies as The Astro-Zombies, Vampire Hookers, Satan’s Cheerleaders and Billy the Kid vs. Dracula, which he once described as the worst of his films. Yet this was the same man who so loved Shakespeare that he would roar out the Bard’s best on Broadway, the same actor who enthralled critics and audiences in Captains Courageous, Stagecoach, Drums Along the Mohawk, The Grapes of Wrath and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. He apparently saw no discrepancy between these several parts. He was an actor, and he kept working.
He was born Richmond Reed Carradine in Greenwich Village and, after his false starts, toured in stock companies before breaking into films. In the ’30s he became a member of director John Ford’s “stock company,” and he made 10 Ford films in all. He was theatrical even in private. Grandly swathed in a red-lined satin cape topped off by a wide-brimmed fedora, he strolled the streets of L.A. and New York, declaiming his beloved Shakespeare and earning the nickname the Bard of the Boulevard. Sometimes, at night, he would find his way into the Hollywood Bowl, stand alone in the dark and recite Shakespeare. When it came time to work, he was so professional that he was known as One-take Carradine.
“He was getting weaker and older and becoming quite frail recently,” his son Keith says. “But he was still very lucid. He wanted to keep working as long as he could. And he did. He died with his boots on.” With a pretty good exit line too. “Milan,” the old trouper whispered. “What a beautiful place to die.” And then he bowed out.