“A man is not old until regrets take the place of dreams.”—John Barrymore
John Blyth, AKA John Barrymore, was an American actor who appeared on stage, in movies, and on the radio. Born to the Barrymore acting family in 1882, he followed his siblings into acting, eventually gaining attention for his portrayals of Shakespeare’s Richard III and Hamlet. Considered to be one of the greatest English-speaking actors of all time, his fall from stardom also made him one of Hollywood’s great tragedies. Below are 42 facts about the debonair leading man.
1. A Flattering View
When he was young, John Barrymore’s good looks and Roman nose earned him the nickname “The Great Profile.” Ever the ham, he also liked to pose in such a way that everyone watching him would see it!
2. The Other Side of the Family
Barrymore’s mother was Georgie Drew, who was also born into an acting family. Her parents, grandparents, brother, and maternal uncles were all actors, with only her sister not entering into the family business. Although Georgie was an actress in her own right, Barrymore and his siblings Lionel and Ethel became far bigger stars.
3. A Different Direction
As hard as it may be to imagine now, becoming an actor was not Barrymore’s original plan. He briefly studied art and literature at the Slade School of Fine Art, eventually finding work at the New York Evening Journal as an illustrator.
4. Finding Trouble
In his youth, Barrymore was no angel, getting expelled from Georgetown Preparatory School in 1897. The official reason for his expulsion was that Barrymore was caught entering a brothel, but one biographer suggests that it’s also possible (and more than likely) that the staff simply saw him drunk.
5. Major Disruption
When Barrymore was 10, his grandmother, Louisa, gave up management of the Arch Street Theatre in Philadelphia and moved to New York, where she mostly retired. A year after that, Barrymore’s life changed again when his mother died from tuberculosis. After her death, Barrymore and his siblings were left to the care of their grandmother while their father was touring—though to be fair, the children rarely saw their mother while she was alive, since she spent so much of her life out on the road.
6. What Choice Did She Have?
According to grandmother Louisa’s autobiography, acting was something she enjoyed, but was more of a necessity than a dream profession. Throughout her life, Louisa found herself responsible for supporting her family, and acting became her default choice. Luckily she turned out to be pretty good at it, and acted with some of the greats of her time.
7. Protecting the Family Name
Barrymore’s paternal grandfather, William Edward Blyth, was a surveyor for the British East India Company, and he assumed that his son Herbert Blyth would become a lawyer. Because acting didn’t exactly have the greatest reputation at the time, Herbert changed his name to Maurice Barrymore to spare his father the embarrassment of having an actor in the family.
8. The Natural Thing to Do
Like their brother John, Ethel and Lionel did not initially want to follow their father into acting. Ethel had hoped to be a professional pianist, and Lionel wanted to be an artist. When their mother died, both entered into the acting profession (mostly because they weren’t making any money at the other stuff), with Ethel once saying, “I had to eat, and acting seemed like the natural thing to do since the family was already in it.”
9. Starting Young
Thanks in part to his unstable childhood, Barrymore started drinking at age 14, and his alcohol use just grew from there. His drinking got so bad that his second wife once caught him trying to drink her cologne. It eventually played havoc with his memory, forcing him to use cue-cards in his final roles.
10. Art Imitates Life
Ironically, the man who was famous for his brilliant acting also became known for portraying sympathetic alcoholic characters in his movies, with some of his final roles being about men who sink into lives of alcoholism and sin. Sadly, it wasn’t far from the truth.
11. The Other Wild Bunch
Before Frank Sinatra and his buddies formed the Rat Pack, there was another gang of entertainers in town. Barrymore was part of a group of entertainers known as the Bundy Drive Boys, who were most famous for practical jokes, spur of the moment stagings of Shakespeare in the wee hours of the night, and for consuming copious amounts of alcohol. The name came from the street (Bundy Drive) where ringleader John Decker’s house was located, and members included W.C. Fields, Errol Flynn, and Anthony Quinn.
12. Things to Quit
Barrymore was known for his wit and his sense of humor, and he managed to keep both until the end. A doctor once suggested to him that he give up wine, women, and song for his health. Barrymore then asked the doctor if he had to give them up all at once, and when the doctor told him no, he could give them separately, Barrymore replied: “Then I shall quit singing.” Not what the doctor had in mind!
13. A Trio of Barrymores
Despite all three Barrymore siblings being actors, the three only appeared in one film together, Rasputin and the Empress, which came out in 1932. Lionel and John appeared in four other films together between 1932 and 1933, including Grand Hotel and Dinner at Eight.
14. A Final Farewell
Errol Flynn and director Raoul Walsh were among Barrymore’s drinking buddies and practical jokers. After his death, they went on a major bender in his honor, and according to Flynn, that’s when things took a turn for the weird. As a part of a prank on Flynn, Walsh allegedly bribed the funeral director to give him Barrymore’s body, at which point he took it to Flynn’s house and got the butler to help prop him up (telling him Barrymore was unconscious).
When Flynn arrived, he understandably freaked out. Undoubtedly pleased with himself, Walsh then took Barrymore back to the funeral home where he belonged. In the 1973 documentary The Men Who Made the Movies, Walsh confirmed Flynn’s account of the story, but to this day, there is no other proof that it ever happened.
15. Stars in Her Eyes
Barrymore’s first marriage was to a New York City debutante named Katherine Harris in 1910. The 17-year-old’s father was none-too-thrilled with the match, but her mother loved the idea of her daughter marrying an actor and loved being associated with Barrymore. The marriage lasted seven years before they finally divorced, but they stayed friends until her death from pneumonia in 1927.
Barrymore was even at her bedside in her final moments.
16. Help Me Out!
While Harris and Barrymore may not have worked as a couple, it didn’t stop her from leaning on her famous husband to help her launch her career as an actress. He ended up finding her roles in a few of his silent movies, but it quickly became apparent that she was merely riding his coattails and her career never took off.
17. Permanently Shaken
The death of Barrymore’s mother had little effect on him because, as he recounted in his memoirs, he remembered very little of her. On the other hand, the death of his grandmother when he was fifteen left Barrymore permanently shaken and insecure. According to his brother Lionel, “he never felt safe after that.”
18. Finding His Niche
When drawing for a living didn’t pan out (at least financially), Barrymore followed his siblings onto the stage. Unlike his brother Lionel, who was relegated to primarily character roles, Barrymore’s good looks and charm made him leading man material.
19. Beautifully Simple
Playing the role of Hamlet is a defining moment for most actors, and Barrymore is no exception. His performance of the tragic hero is still considered to be one of the greatest renditions of all time and it was the role that really made him as a stage actor. Barrymore felt a strong connection with the part, and wrote of the experience: “I was amazed to find how simple Hamlet seemed to be, and I was no little bewildered that anything of such infinite beauty and simplicity should have acquired centuries of comment.”
20. Passed Over
Today, John Barrymore is considered to be a better actor than both his siblings, but ironically, he is the only one of the three to have never been nominated for an Oscar. While there’s no official reason for the Academy’s lack of recognition, it’s possible that his alcoholism and declining performances were responsible.
21. You Sucked!
George Bernard Shaw was one of the most influential playwrights of late 19th and early 20th century, and Barrymore foolishly invited him to the London premiere of his production of Hamlet. Shaw was unimpressed, to say the least, and described it as “one of the worst portrayals in history.” Ouch!
22. It’s Only Crying
Crying on cue is not nearly as easy as it looks, or at least not as easy as Barrymore made it look. He once demonstrated this talent to director Garson Kanin on the set of a film, starting first with one big tear, then a small one, then another small tear, then another big on. In his mind, crying wasn’t acting at all—it was merely something he’d learned at an early age from his siblings, who used it to get their own way.
23. Barrymore’s Backup
Barrymore was known for having an incredible memory and was able to memorize big chunks of lines. In spite of this, he still demanded that blackboards with all of his lines, even the single-word ones, be set up within his line of vision at all times. When Kanin asked him why, he replied: “They are just my safety nets, that’s all.” As if he needed them.
24. A Loyal Refusal
Actor William Powell supposedly got his big film break from John Barrymore, so when MGM studios tried to replace Barrymore with him in the 1936 film Romeo and Juliet, Powell politely refused out of loyalty to his friend. You don’t see that too often in Hollywood!
25. One Time Only
Barrymore’s last on-screen film appearance before his death in 1942 came the year before, in the 1941 comedy Playmates. Oddly enough, this is the only existing film footage of Barrymore reciting the famous soliloquy from Hamlet, though some recordings are still available.
26. The Biggest Ham
When Barrymore asked director Howard Hawks why he should take on the role of Oscar in the 1934 film Twentieth Century, Hawks replied: “It’s the story of the biggest ham on earth and you’re the biggest ham I know.” Barrymore accepted the part, and was glad he did, later saying that Oscar was a once-in-a-lifetime role, and Twentieth Century was his favorite of all of his movies.
27. Helping a Friend
Barrymore’s co-lead in Twentieth Century was rising star Carole Lombard, who was also coincidentally the first wife of William Powell. They became good friends during filming, and a few years later, when his career was going down the tubes, she fought to get him cast in her new film True Confessions.
28. Outside of the Law
In 1921, when Barrymore was finished with Broadway’s Claire de Lune, he went to Europe to rest. While overseas, someone asked him what he thought of American prohibition. He replied, “Fortunately, I don’t think of it.” Perhaps he should have!
29. A Strange Marriage
Barrymore’s second wife was born Blanche Marie Louise Oelrichs, but she used the pen name Michael Strange to write poetry. When she met Barrymore, she was already married to a much older man who was often away. Nonetheless, she enjoyed flirting with both men and women. There was something about Barrymore in particular that she just couldn’t get out of her head. As she described him, “He looked elfin and forsaken—an intriguing combination—but very highly strung too.”
She was so intrigued by him that she divorced her husband when he returned from Europe at the end of WWI. She and Barrymore were married in 1920.
30. Signing Her Away
In 1921 Oelrichs gave birth to John’s first child, Diana. While Barrymore was pleased about her birth, fatherhood just wasn’t a skill that came naturally to him. He was afraid to pick her up in case he hurt her and couldn’t easily interact with her. About a month after her birth, he gave his wife full guardianship of Diana, feeling that she was a better caregiver than he could ever be at that point in his life.
31. Meeting Her Halfway
When Barrymore learned that he was going to be starring opposite Greta Garbo in Grand Hotel, he wasn’t sure what to think, having heard all of the stories about her. He waited anxiously on the set, and by 9 AM, she still hadn’t arrived. He inquired where she was and learned that she was waiting for him outside the entrance, wanting to honor him by escorting him to the set. He met her halfway, kissed her hand, and turned on the Barrymore charm.
32. A Crass Retort
One day after filming, Barrymore went to a Hollywood bar with his pals for drinks. He went to the bathroom and accidentally entered the ladies’ room. A woman came in and was stunned to find him relieving himself. She immediately exclaimed “How dare you! This is for ladies!” at which point he waved his organ at the woman and replied, “And so madam, is this.”
33. Third Wife’s the Charm?
Barrymore’s third wife, Dolores Costello, also came from an acting family, and like his first marriage, her parents didn’t exactly agree on their relationship. Costello’s mother was completely enchanted by Barrymore, while her father was so against it he didn’t even attend the wedding.
Elaine Barry, Barrymore’s fourth and final wife, became infatuated with the actor when she saw him in Svengali in 1931, even changing her last name to Barry to sound more like his. It was not exactly a match made in heaven, and as it turned out—the pair couldn’t even work together. They divorced in 1941, but she never remarried, stating that no one could ever replace him.
35. Thank God That’s Done!
The 1932 film A Bill of Divorcement marked Katharine Hepburn’s screen debut, and she appeared opposite Barrymore. When the film was finished, she reportedly told him, “Thank God we’re finished. I never want to act with you again!” to which he replied, “My dear girl. I wasn’t aware that you had.” Fortunately for both of them, they never appeared together again.
36. A Memorable Performance
At the height of his stardom, Barrymore gave many memorable performances, but towards the end of his career, one of his performances was memorable for reasons other than his acting. He once arrived on stage so drunk that he paused his performance in the middle of a speech and literally peed in a flowerpot at the front of the stage.
37. Drinking Through It
Barrymore was staying at a hotel and in San Francisco when the 1906 Earthquake hit. Asleep at the time, the first shock woke him up, and the second knocked him into the bathtub. Totally freaked out, and not knowing what else to do, Barrymore got completely hammered, to the point where he didn’t even remember the earthquake or the fire! That’s one way to handle it.
38. They Needed Me!
Despite not having any memory of the earthquake or the fire, Barrymore still managed to create a highly detailed report of the event that made its way to national newspapers. He even threw in a bit about being recruited by the military to help clear the city’s roads. None of it was true. It took 20 years before he confessed to fabricating the whole story. However, it did at least get him out of having to travel to Australia for a play, which he really didn’t want to do.
39. A Modest Proposal
Around the age of 21, Barrymore became infatuated with 17-year-old actress Evelyn Nesbit, even going as far as proposing to the young beauty. At the time, he was still working as an illustrator and not earning much money, which made him a totally unsuitable prospect. Nesbit rejected his proposal, much to her mother’s relief, and married Harry Kendall Thaw, heir to a multimillion-dollar mine and railroad fortune instead.
She made the wrong decision. Thaw turned out to be completely deranged, and his obsession with Nesbit eventually led to him shooting and killing a man, leading to the infamous “Trial of the Century.”
40. A Secret Pregnancy
Barrymore’s affair with Evelyn Nesbit reportedly resulted in a pregnancy. Architect and patron Sanford White arranged for her to go to boarding school in New Jersey where she had an emergency “appendectomy” and took care of the problem. She also reportedly had a second “appendectomy” at a later time, which had it been true, would have made her a medical marvel!
41. I’m Still Sinning
Even on the brink of death, Barrymore still couldn’t resist having some fun. When the priest arrived in his hospital room with an unattractive nurse to administer last rites, the priest asked him if he had anything to confess. Barrymore “confessed” to having carnal thoughts right at that moment, much to the shock of the priest. When the priest asked him about whom, Barrymore pointed at the nurse and exclaimed: “About her!”
42. That’s Far Too Ordinary!
All of the drinking finally caught up to Barrymore in May 1942. He collapsed on a radio show and died a few days later from some combination of pneumonia and cirrhosis of the liver. His final words perfectly summed up his unconventional life: “Die? I should say not, dear fellow. No Barrymore would allow such a conventional thing to happen to him.”