These days, the idea of someone trying to have a lengthy career, a healthy life, AND be a heavy smoker is pretty absurd. The negative effects of smoking cigarettes are well researched and publicized. But back in the day, it was a totally different situation. In the early years of the country’s founding, tobacco farms actually played a huge role in saving the U.S. economy and helping it flourish. And until a few decades ago, cigarettes were generally considered a habit that was perhaps not great for you, but nothing too bad. As such, cigarettes were not only rampant among many parts of society, but commonly shown in films and TV shows. Actors helped popularize the “cool” factor when it came to smoking, which only furthered their use in society. And of course, many of these actors and actresses who smoked on camera picked up the addictive habit off-screen too. In this video, we’re taking a look at some of the biggest culprits of this unhealthy behavior. Join Facts Verse, as we present: Hollywood Golden Age Celebrities Who Smoked Like Chimneys.
We’ll start with the actor who was perhaps most influential when it came to making smoking look cool, and one who suffered the horrible consequences of it. Bogart, in his private life, smoked two packs a day, and was a heavy drinker to boot. He would constantly cough from the effects of the cigarettes, and he was always tired and suffered memory loss from his heavy drinking. Sadly, he kept putting off a trip to the doctor to deal with his cough and other ailments until 1956. When he finally went, it was discovered he had esophageal cancer, due to his long time smoking habit. But besides being a sad story, Humphrey’s on screen relationship with cigarettes is also fascinating. Back in the day, screenplays had far fewer physical directions written in, and were often just long monologues. During one shoot, Bogart complained to the director that he was flat out bored by the scene they were shooting. He joked to the director that the only way fix it would be to have two camels fornicating in the background. The director wasn’t about to say yes to that, so he suggested Bogart try smoking in the scene as well. The act helped in two ways. One, it gave Humphrey an action that he could do in between lines that would help break up the monologue. And it also kept the audience focused on his face as he took a drag, so they stayed in the scene.
The result was that Bogart began smoking in every film. He played cool, detached characters, and thus cigarettes were linked with that type of person. He became so iconic for smoking, cigarettes became known by a slang term – Bogeys. Sadly, his smoking meant that not only did millions of people think it was cool and try it for themselves, but also a life cut tragically short for a fine actor.
While some might argue that Humphrey Bogart set the standard for making smoking look cool on screen, others would say that title belongs to Bette Davis. Let’s just put it this way: In a roast of Davis, actor Henry Fonda said, “I’ve been close to Bette Davis for thirty-eight years – and I have the cigarette burns to prove it.”
Oddly enough, however, Bette only smoked in about a quarter of her movies. And she was never a spokesperson for a cigarette brand. And yet, she became inextricably connected with smoking on screen over the course of her career. This happened for a number of reasons. For starters, Bette was all about realism in her films. So when she played a smoker, she didn’t just have a scene or two where she was puffing on one. She would insist that, true to real life, a smoker would likely be smoking throughout most days, and would have a lit cigarette in her hands throughout the movie. Then there was the fact that there are several movies of hers where cigarette smoking actually played an important part in the plot. And finally, because she managed to use her cigarettes as an effective prop for creating memorable and individualized characters. In other words, she knew how to use the cigarettes to make an impression on screen.
Davis’s penchant for smoking didn’t stop on screen. Off screen she smoked even more, relying on a habit of four packs a day of Vanguard Cigarettes. She claimed that she couldn’t go ten minutes without needing to light one up, which is why she’s seen in virtually every interview with a lit cigarette in her hand. She wasn’t even discouraged from smoking by her dentist, who admitted that Davis smoked in the waiting room and even in the actual dental chair!
Amazingly, Davis managed to live a long life without succumbing to a smoking related disease. She died after getting breast cancer, but reportedly was still smoking around 100 cigarettes every day until she passed.
Sammy Davis Jr.
The Rat Pack was certainly known for promoting an aura of cool, peppered by many vices like drinking, womanizing, and smoking. However, it has been revelaed in more recent years that most of that was an act. While on stage, the likes of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Sammy Davis Jr. would be downing glasses of apple juice made to look like whiskey. And they certainly weren’t chasing after women. That’s because as famous stars, it was usually the women who were chasing them. The one thing you couldn’t fake was smoking. And Sammy Davis Jr. was a big culprit. He would smoke on stage and off, which is pretty hazardous for anyone, but particularly so for a singer. One of his signature moves, in fact, was taking a puff during a song, and then singing the next note as the smoke came rushing out. It probably looked cool, but it definitely wasn’t good for him. At one point, Sammy was warned by Nat King Cole about the damage he was doing with his constant smoking. Cole told him that he was burning his vocal cords with the intense, localized heat that cigarette smoke put in his throat. Sammy paid him no heed, unfortunately. Later, Sammy’s manager brought him to see a throat specialist in the 1980’s, when Sammy was having vocal troubles. It turns out that Nat King Cole was right. Singing while smoking had caused inflamed nodules on his vocal cords.
Rod Serling created one of the all time great TV shows, The Twilight Zone. He was respected in Hollywood for his creative vision, and became a sensation for his work. And yet, he never was able to feel good about himself as an artist and a person. His penchant for self doubt led to him taking on many vices like drinking and smoking. And these only got worse when the Twilight Zone ended. He was so worried about not being able to replicate the success of his masterpiece, that he took to heavy drinking, and smoking four packs a day. These vices only worsened as he tried, unsuccessfully t make a comeback. He bounced around between projects, and did occasional acting work. But inside, Rod was a wreck. He was riddled with doubt and self hatred, and self medicated with more booze and cigarettes. In 1975, he had to undergo bypass surgery for a clogged artery. Sadly, his heart stopped during the operation and he passed away at age 50. His heart had been damaged by his years of mistreated his body, and didn’t have the capacity to keep going through the surgery.
Jackie Gleason became a household name by portraying the legendary character, Ralph Kramden in The Honeymooners. His big frame and over the top comic persona ate up the screen, and audiences around the country adored him. But off screen, Gleason’s behavior was just as grand. For starters, he ate with voracity. He generally weighed between 230 and 330 pounds, and constantly fluctuated between the two. Dean Martin once remarked that Gleason was a “perfect specimen of fatness.” Jackie would often have multiple meals in one sitting, followed by a gallon of ice cream. But it wasn’t just bad eating habits that made Gleason unhealthy. He drank heavily, downing whiskey like it was water. He referred to a scotch on the rocks as an “cream bun on ice” and was basically drunk most of the time. And of course, he smoked as well. He was known for smoking five packs a day. And given his size and other habits, moving around was not very easy for Gleason. And it squashed his libido entirely. He was once quoted as saying, ‘sex for a fat man is much ado about puffing’. Gleason kept up his unhealthy lifestyle until his death of colon cancer at age 71.
While many of the people in this video were unabashed smokers who didn’t regret the habit, that can’t be said of actor Yul Brenner. Brenner was a huge presence on screen, and also shined on the Broadway stage for years. But as he did, he smoked about five packs a day. And this ultimately caught up with him. He ended up passing away from lung cancer, caused by his long time habit. Before he passed away, however, Yul filmed a commercial for the American Cancer Society. In it, he spoke in a raspy, unhealthy voice, and told people not to smoke. In fact, he referred to the fact that the commercial would be airing after he passed away. Brenner looked into the camera and said, “Now that I’m gone – don’t smoke. Whatever you do. Just don’t smoke.” The commercial was actually taken from footage from Yul’s appearance on Good Morning America, where he was responding to a question of what he would say to fellow smokers if he could talk to them after he passed away. It was a haunting ad campaign, but ultimately an effective one. Brenner had gone from being a towering and healthy actor to wasting away from lung cancer. And he had his cigarette habit to blame for it.
Now it’s time to hear from you. Do you think smoking would have been as popular if these stars weren’t seen making it look cool on screen? Let us know in the comments section below!