Clark Gable was born William Clark Gable 116 years ago today in Cadiz, Ohio. In his day, he was known as the King of Hollywood or, often, just as the King. Here are 10 CG Did-You-Knows:
Gable was named after his father, William, who was an oil well driller, but even as a child, he was referred to by his middle name or sometimes as Billy. His birth certificate mistakenly listed Gable as female.
Gable’s stepmother (his birth mother died when he was young) encouraged his interest in music, teaching him to play piano. He later took up brass instruments and at age 13, he was the only teen to play in the men’s town band. Gable’s father encouraged him from an early age to be well-dressed and well-groomed.
At 17, Gable decided he decided to pursue a career in the theatre and by 21, he was touring in stock companies, along with jobs in the oil fields and working with horses. Josephine Dillon, an acting coach and theatrical manager in Portland, Oregon, set out to remake Gable from head to toe. She paid for him to get new teeth, she built up his once-slight physique with a proper diet and strenuous exercise and helped him improve his movements and posture. She also worked at length to lower his high-pitched voice and improve his diction.
Dillon, who was 17 years Gable’s senior, also financed Gable’s relocation from Portland to Hollywood in 1924, where she officially became his manager and his wife. He changed his professional name from W. C. Gable to Clark Gable and began to work as an extra and a bit player in silent short and features.
When no leading film roles were in the offing, Gable returned to the stage, acting for a season with the Laskin Brothers Stock Company in Houston, Texas, where he played a variety of roles and gained valuable experience. Finally, with the ascent of talking pictures, Gable’s stock as an actor rose as well. He was offered a contract with MGM in 1930. His first role was as a rough-hewn villain in a William Boyd western, The Painted Desert (1930). His imposing stature and now-powerful speaking voice made a quick hit with moviegoers (especially female ones).
Many of Gable’s early roles were tough guys, gangsters and villains, and though no less an authority than Darryl F. Zanuck had once said of Gable, “His ears are too big and he looks like an ape,” he was finding himself cast opposite popular leading ladies of the day, including Joan Crawford, Barbara Stanwyck, Norma Shearer and even Greta Garbo (with whom he shared a mutual dislike—she thought his acting wooden; he thought her a snob).
Despite long being known as the King of Hollywood, Gable was never No 1 at the box office in a given year, but year after year, he ranked near the top, as the fortunes of other actors rose and fell. His breakthrough role was his Oscar-winning performance in Frank Capra‘s It Happened One Night in 1934, opposite Claudette Colbert. That classic film won the Best Picture Oscar to go along with Gable’s Best Actor nod. Capra considered the role of Peter Warne in the film the closest to Gable’s actual personality: “It Happened One Night is the real Gable,” he wrote. “He was never able to play that kind of character except in that one film. They had him playing these big, huff-and-puff he-man lovers, but he was not that kind of guy. He was a down-to-earth guy, he loved everything, he got down with the common people. He didn’t want to play those big lover parts; he just wanted to play Clark Gable, the way he was in It Happened One Night, and it’s too bad they didn’t let him keep up with that.”
Gable is said to have been Adolph Hitler‘s favorite actor, and it’s been reported that Hitler offered a reward to anyone who could capture Gable, then flying combat missions over Germany, and bring him to Hitler unharmed. The reward went unclaimed.
Gable played a newspaper reporter in nine different pictures, more than any other type of role, but late in life, he expressed regret that he hadn’t appeared in more westerns, the genre he most enjoyed working in.
Gable was married five times, the first two times to women many years his senior, but it is generally accepted that his third Wife, actress Carole Lombard, was the great love of his life. She even got Gable, a lifelong Republican, to support Franklin Delano Roosevelt for president. It’s said that Lombard’s tragic death in a plane crash in 1942 left Gable so bereft that he immediately enlisted in the Army Air Corps and was absent from the silver screen for three years.