Bill Cody (actor)
|Born||William Joseph Cody, Jr.
January 5, 1891
St. Paul, Minnesota
|Died||January 24, 1948
Santa Monica, California
Cody, often called "the reel Bill Cody", began his acting career in the early days of film, and just happened to have the same name as "Buffalo" Bill Cody, although being of no relation. The name was, initially, what drew producers to Cody. However, he soon proved to be a charismatic performer in his own right.
Born in St. Paul, Minnesota, the son of William F. Cody and Lillian Isabel Johnson, Cody was said to have attended Saint Thomas Military Academy, and later St. Johns University. Immediately out of college, he joined the Metropolitan Stock Company, touring the U.S. and Canada. This eventually led him to Hollywood. In 1922 he began working as a stuntman.
Acting Career in Silent Films
Jesse Goldburg, liking Cody, signed him to an eight series film deal for the 1924-1925 season. Golburg's company, Independent Pictures, although known for being made for as little money as possible, had gained a good reputation for having good casting and locations for their films. The first of the series starring Cody was Dangerous Days, directed by J.P. McGowan. That was followed by The Fighting Sheriff, with the rest of the series out over the next six months.
Following the Independent Pictures series, Cody starred in two films for Associated Exhibitors, The Galloping Cowboy and King of the Saddle, both released in 1926. That same year he starred in Arizona Whirlwind released through Pathé. In 1927 he starred in Born to Battle, which gave him an opportunity to exhibit his horse riding skills and to use a bull whip on screen, and two more Bill Cody Productions boasting stories supposedly concocted by Cody himself: Gold From Weepah and Laddie, Be Good. Agile and pleasant in appearance, Cody ended his silent film career by starring in a group of action pictures released by Universal which temporarily removed him from the western milieu: The Price of Fear, Wolves of the City, The Tip-Off, Slim Fingers and Eyes of the Underworld.
His first talking feature was Under Texas Skies, starring Bob Custer, in 1930. Many former silent film stars failed to be accepted by the public with the advent of sound pictures, and many could not make a successful transition. However, Cody's pace never lessened, and he was in demand immediately following his first "talky", despite his well-known difficulty with the memorization of dialogue.
Monogram Pictures signed Cody to an eight-film western series, co-starring with child actor Andy Shuford, which was called "the Bill and Andy series". The first Monogram Cody film to be released was Dugan of the Badlands, directed by Robert Bradbury. Harry Fraser replaced Bradbury as director of The Montana Kid, Oklahoma Jim (a somber story in which Cody, as a gambler, becomes involved in an Indian uprising), Mason of the Mounted (featuring Cody as a Mountie and Shuford as a runaway youngster), the atmospheric Ghost City, Land of Wanted Men, Law of the North and Texas Pioneers. The films were well-received, but Monogram opted not to continue the series.
Cody did not film anything in 1933, instead working for a traveling wild west show as its star attraction. He returned in 1934, starring in Border Menace, an extremely low-budgeted film released by Aywon Pictures, which received terrible reviews. Aywon followed that with Border Guns and Western Racketeers, which did somewhat better. Cody then worked for a time in the Downie Bros. Circus, replacing Jack Hoxie as the star attraction.
Ray Kirkwood Productions
Late in 1934, producer Ray Kirkwood signed Cody to a contract, to make a series of cowboy thrillers for release through Spectrum Pictures. Kirkwood, a native of Pennsylvania who had once been a production manager for Thomas Ince and later a film distributor in South America, turned producer with the release of Frontier Days, a lively and entertaining feature which opened to exceptionally good reviews. Cody and his pinto, Chico, were joined by leading lady Ada Ince, silent film veterans Franklyn Farnum and William Desmond, one-time leading man Wheeler Oakman, and Cody's 9-year-old son, billed simply as Billy, Jr.. As the first father-and-son team starring together in B Westerns, both Cody, Sr. and Billy showed considerable promise in the first film of the series. It was followed by Six Gun Justice, The Cyclone Ranger (a tale of mistaken identity from the pen of prolific western writer Oliver Drake), The Texas Rambler (another Oliver Drake screenplay, this one with a strong element of mystery), and The Vanishing Riders (in which Cody and his son masquerade as ghosts to demoralize a gang of despicable, superstitious rustlers). The Codys went on tour with a wild west show and circus. When they returned to Hollywood, Kirkwood – experiencing a financial squeeze – replaced writer Drake with his own wife, Zara Tazil, who wrote the remaining screenplays for the series. Director J. P. McCarthy succeeded in getting from Cody one of his best performances in The Lawless Border, featuring Molly O'Day as leading lady. Blazing Justice and Outlaws of the Range concluded the Spectrum series on a pleasant but less-ambitious note.
The Reckless Buckaroo
Ray Kirkwood's widow recalled in later years that Kirkwood was very fond of Cody. He planned another series of eight features, co-starring Cody, Sr. and Cody, Jr. for the 1936-37 season, and this was announced in the trade papers. With finances strained, the first film - scripted by Zara Tazil and entitled The Reckless Buckaroo - went into production. During production, Kirkwood's backer, Monarch Laboratories, removed him as producer and ordered him to leave the set, placing director Harry Fraser in charge. By the first of March, 1936, Fraser had finished the picture, but Kirkwood was unable to secure financing for any additional films in the proposed series. The Cody series concluded abruptly, and Kirkwood left Hollywood. Released in 1937 by Crescent Pictures, this proved to be Cody's final starring role.
Cody's career slowed for a time, and his roles became less, but he still had success throughout his lifetime. Oliver Drake wrote the part of "Sheriff Warren" for him in the RKO film The Fighting Gringo, starring George O'Brien in 1939, and that same year he played a small role in what has been called John Wayne's breakout role, Stagecoach, directed by the legendary John Ford. He is said to have had bit roles in two cliffhangers, G-Men vs the Black Dragon and The Masked Marvel, both in 1943, and in Joan of Arc, released in 1948.
Cody died at age 57 in 1948, at St. Joseph's Hospital in Santa Monica, California. A funeral Mass was celebrated at Blessed Sacrament Church in Hollywood, and Cody was survived by his wife, Victoria Regina, and his sons, Bill, Jr. and Henry.
- Truitt, Evelyn Mack. Who Was Who On Screen, 1977, Bowker.
- Fraser, Harry. I Went That-a-Way, 1990, Scarecrow Press, New York.
- Adams, Les, and Buck Rainey. Shoot 'em Ups, 1978, Arlingtom House, New Rochelle, New York.
- Hollywood Reporter, 27 February 1936