We tend to think of movie and television stars as being these lofty, almost-superhuman icons of glitz and glamour, but in reality, they’re just regular people who happened to use their talents to gain recognition in a highly-competitive, dog-eat-dog industry. While you got to give them credit for being quite gifted and dedicated to their craft, it’s also worth noting that quite a bit of luck played a part in their achievement of fame. Before becoming stars, many celebrities held down regular 9-5 jobs just like the rest of us. For example, Steve Buscemi used to be a firefighter, and Jennifer Anniston worked as a telemarketer selling timeshares for a while before she became a household name.
Another star who worked a relatively unexpected job before finding success in show business was Cary Grant.
Grant was prized in cinema for his suave, sophisticated style, and for his distinct manner of speaking, moving, and dressing. He was a high-class man who was oozing with class. However, if you take a closer look at his performances, you’ll notice that he spoke with a slight working-class accent. He also was surprisingly adept at physical comedy. The former had much to do with his humble English origins, while the latter likely had a lot to do with his years spent working as a member of a comic acrobatic troupe in music halls and on the vaudeville circuit.
But those aren’t the only interesting highlights of his formative years. Join Facts Verse as we discuss how Cary Grant Had a Strange Job Before He Was Famous.
Before he was known the world over as Cary Grant, he was Archibald Leach. He was born in Bristol, England, in 1904 to a drunk father and an emotionally abusive, highly-controlling, mentally ill mother. At 9, Leach was informed that his mum was away ‘for a rest’. In reality, she was at a sanitarium, but young Archie didn’t learn the truth about where his mother was until 1935. By that time, he had already been transformed into the famous film star Cary Grant.
As a young person, Grant worked as a production assistant at various theaters in Bristol. In 1917, while he was an early teen, he joined Bob Pender’s Knockabout Comedians troupe. The company toured Britain’s provinces for the next couple years. In 1920, Grant boarded a cargo ship called the Olympic to go perform a show in America.
The comedy troupe opened at New York City’s Hippodrome in a revue called “Good News”. The show ran for nine months. The following year, they toured the B. F. Keith Vaudeville Circuit before delivering their final performance at the Palace theater in New York City in 1922.
Unfortunately, there is very little photographic record of Grant’s early acrobatic days. Still, there is this great photo of Grant with the Pender troupe that we found in the Billy Rose Collection at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. Archie Leach, aka Cary Grant, can be seen in the bottom right
Grant hardly ever got the chance to display his full range of skills on camera, but this screenshot from the Movie Holiday shows him doing a backflip.
After performing that last show at the Palace, Pender returned back to the United Kingdom, but Leach chose to remain in the United States. He then found work stilt walking at Coney Island. He next appeared in the sequel to “Good News”, “Better Times”, at the Hippodrome with a few fellow Pender performers.
Billed as ‘The Walking Strangers’, the troupe did a vaudeville act in 1924. Archie then joined the National Vaudeville Artist’s Club, where he made himself available as a substitute. Some of the skills he was known for included juggling, unicycling, acrobatics, comic sketches, and his ability to be a fantastic straight man.
During these years of struggling to stay afloat, Grant became close friends with Burns and Allen. By studying Burns and Zeppo Marx, who were known for being some of the top straight men in the industry, he learned to hone his ability to perform as they did.
In the late 1920s, Grant began to move into the arena of musical comedy. In 1927, he was cast in the Hammerstein musical Golden Dawn. In 1929, he appeared in Lee and J.J. Shubert’s Boom Boom with Jeanette McDonald. For the next three years, he worked in various Shubert shows.
It was then that his good friend and colleague, Fay Wray, went off to Hollywood to star in King Kong. Wray was able to convince Grant to make that same move out west in late 1931. Once in Tinsel Town, he signed with Paramount and adopted the name Cary Grant – or more accurately, that identity was carefully crafted for him. This was, after all, the age of Hollywood’s infamous star system.
The Making of a Star
In 1931, Grant was offered the lead romantic role in William B. Friendlander’s musical Nikki. In that production, Grant starred alongside Fay Wray as a solider in post-World War I France. The play, unfortunately, only ran for 39 performances before getting canceled due to the effects of the Great Depression.
Grant’s performance in Nikki was heavily praised by Ed Sullivan of The New York Daily News. Sullivan noted that Grant, whom he referred to as a ‘young lad from England’, had a ‘big future in the movies’.
That role and Sullivan’s glowing review led Grant to appear in Paramount’s 1931 short film Singapore Sue. After that, he had another successful screen test with Marion Gering. This led to him being offered that contract with Paramount by B.P. Schulberg. At the time, he had a salary of $450 a week, which then was a fairly large sum considering the ongoing economic turmoil that was gripping the world.
Grant immediately set out to establish himself as the epitome of masculine glamour. He looked to Douglas Fairbanks as his first Hollywood role model. We’ll touch on their unique relationship in more detail in just a moment, so be sure to stick around.
It might be hard to imagine, but Grant’s early appearances in cinema were widely panned by critics. One casting director reportedly even passed on him due to his ‘bowlegged walk and thick neck’. However, just a few years later, after he was cast opposite Meg West in ‘She Done Him Wrong’, Hollywood seemed to change it’s mind about the suave young leading man. For that film, he was billed as being the “top flight of box office names”.
Not long after landing his first big break, Grant got married for the first time. In 1934 he and actress Virginia Cherril eloped not long after meeting at a party. The couple only were married for seven months before parting ways.
Throughout the second half of the 1930s, Grant established himself as one of Hollywood’s most beloved leading men. He often starred in lighthearted comedies such as His Girl Friday, Topper, and Bringing Up Baby. In those films, he showed off his gift for physical comedy. He also dabbled in more serious flicks like Only Angels Have Wings, where he proved that he could shine as a more grizzled, complex hero-type.
Grant Escaped The Hollywood Studio System
After Grant’s initial contract with Paramount ended in 1935, he elected not to renew his contract with that or any other major studio. At that point, he became one of the first actors to break free from the Hollywood studio system.
This move allowed him to negotiate deals where he would receive a percentage of the box office sales instead of a flat fee upfront. This calculated move led him to become one of the wealthiest actors in show business. In some cases, he was taking in up to 75% of a movie’s profits while maintaining complete control over every project that he signed on to.
In 1939, Grant began production on Gunga Din, a film that was based on a poem penned by Rudyard Kipling. In that feature, he appeared onscreen alongside his old role model Douglas Fairbanks and his son Douglas Fairbanks Jr.
The Bachelor Hall
From the early ’30s through the ’40s, Grant lived on and off with fellow actor Randolph Scott in an oceanfront home that they called their ‘bachelor hall’. Over the years, this unique living arrangement has inspired much speculation about Grant’s sexual orientation. Some argue that the arrangement was purely a matter of economics, while others contend that it was a cover-up for a more intimate, romantic relationship. Regardless of the true reason why Grant lived with Scott, this wouldn’t be the only time that his living arrangements would be questioned.
For years after arriving in America, Grant lived with an openly gay costume designer named Orry-Kelly, until the two had a falling out.
Hitchcock’s Agent of Fortune
Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, Grant enjoyed a close working relationship with Alfred Hitchcock. During this time, Hitchcock cast Grant in four of his films, 1941s Suspicion, 1946s Notorious, 1955s To Catch a Thief, and 1959s North By Northwest.
The drama films, Notorious and North By Northwest, were met with critical acclaim. And in Suspicion and Notorious, Grant played these dark, morally ambiguous characters. Towards the end of his acting career, Grant was praised for being a romantic leading man. He ended up receiving five Golden Globe nominations for Best Actor, including for 1962s That Touch of Mink and 1963s Charade.
He’s best remembered by critics and his fans for his unusually broad appeal. He was remarkably handsome and suave, but at the same time, he didn’t ever take himself too seriously. Because of this, he was capable of playing with his dignity by appearing in comedies without ever surrendering it entirely.
Following his divorce from Virginia Cherrill, Grant went on to marry four more times. He had a daughter with Dyan Cannon, whom they named Jennifer.
Grant retired from acting in 1966 and later represented the cosmetics firm, Faberge. He also sat on the board of MGM for many years.
Grant died of a stroke on the 29th of November, 1986, in Davenport, Iowa, at the age of 82. Since then, he has appeared on numerous lists of the best actors of the 20th century. The American Film Institute, for example, ranked him the second greatest male star of the Golden Age of Hollywood Cinema in 1999, trailing just behind Humphrey Bogart.
With that, we’ll go ahead and wrap this video up, but before you move on to watching another one of our facts-packed videos, we’d love to hear what you have to say about Grant. Did you know that before he was a Hollywood film star, Cary Grant worked as an acrobat and that on the boat ride over to the US from his home country of Britain, he met and befriended Douglas Fairbanks? Let us know in the comments.