Sidney Toler

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Sidney Toler
Sidney Toler.jpg
Born (1874-04-28)April 28, 1874
Warrensburg, Missouri, U.S.
Died February 12, 1947(1947-02-12) (aged 72)
Beverly Hills, California, U.S.
Occupation Actor, playwright, theatre director
Years active 1903–1947
Spouse(s) Vivian Marston (1907-1943) (her death)
Viva Tattersall (1943-1947) (his death)

Sidney Toler (April 28, 1874 – February 12, 1947) was an American actor, playwright, and theatre director. Of primarily Scottish ancestry, he was the second non-Asian actor to play the role of Charlie Chan on screen, and is best remembered for that role.

Early life and career[edit]

Born in Warrensburg, Missouri, Toler showed a very early interest in the theater, acting in an amateur production of Tom Sawyer at the age of seven. Following his graduation from college, he became a professional actor in Kansas City, and then worked for a touring company during the late 1890s. For three decades, he acted on the stage in New York City, working with such future stars as Edward G. Robinson, John Barrymore, Katharine Hepburn, and Humphrey Bogart. In 1921, he co-wrote and directed Golden Days, a comedy starring Helen Hayes. Throughout the 1920s, Toler had an active role in co-writing or directing several other plays including The Exile (1923), Bye, Bye, Barbara (1924), and Ritzy (1930, co-written with Viva Tattersall).

In 1929, Toler worked in his first Hollywood film, playing an Englishman in Madame X. For nearly ten years, he worked in roles that supported well-known stars in films such as Blonde Venus (1932), starring Marlene Dietrich, The Phantom President (1932), with George M. Cohan, and Call of the Wild (1935), featuring Clark Gable. He generally had mid-level roles, often as police officers or minor officials.

Charlie Chan series[edit]

Following the death of Warner Oland, Twentieth Century-Fox began the search for a new Charlie Chan. Thirty-four actors were tested before the studio decided on Sidney Toler. Twentieth Century-Fox announced its choice on October 18, 1938, and filming began less than a week later on Charlie Chan in Honolulu, which had been originally scripted for Warner Oland and Keye Luke. Toler's portrayal of the Chinese detective in Charlie Chan in Honolulu was very well received. Besides Toler, there was another change in the series. Sen Yung, as Number Two Son Jimmy, replaced Number One Son Lee, who had been played by Keye Luke. Toler's Chan, rather than merely mimicking the character that Oland had portrayed, had a somewhat sharper edge that was well suited for the rapid changes of the times, both political and cultural. When needed, Charlie Chan now displayed overt sarcasm, usually toward his son Jimmy.

Through four years and eleven films, Toler played Charlie Chan for Twentieth Century-Fox. However, in 1942, following the completion of Castle in the Desert, Fox concluded the series. The wartime collapse of the international film market may have been a factor, but the main reason was that Fox was curtailing virtually all of its low-budget series. Fox's other "B" series -- (Jane Withers, Michael Shayne, The Cisco Kid -- also ended that year. (Only Laurel and Hardy remained in Fox's "B" unit, until it shut down at the end of 1944.)

With Fox no longer producing Chan films, Toler immediately sought the screen rights to the Charlie Chan character from Eleanor Biggers Cole, the widow of Chan's creator, Earl Derr Biggers. Toler had hoped that if he could find someone to produce new Charlie Chan films, starring himself, he might get Fox to distribute them. Fox declined, but Toler sold the idea to Monogram Pictures, a lower-budget film studio. Phil Krasne, a Hollywood lawyer who invested in film productions, partnered with James Burkett to produce the Monogram Chans.

With the release of Charlie Chan in the Secret Service (1944), the effects of a more limited budget were somewhat apparent. Production values were no match for those of Fox; Monogram's budgets were typically about 40% of what Fox's had been. In fairness to Monogram, the films did gradually improve, with The Chinese Cat, The Shanghai Cobra, and Dark Alibi often cited as favorites by fans. Cast changes were again made: Sen Yung's Jimmy was replaced by Benson Fong as Number Three Son Tommy, and Mantan Moreland played the ever-present and popular Birmingham Brown, who brought comedy relief (and black audiences) to the series. Monogram's Charlie Chan films boasted tricky screenplays with many surprise culprits and murder devices, and were profitable and successful.

Personal life[edit]

Toler's first wife was Vivian Marston, an American actress of Spanish and Canadian ancestry, whom he married in 1907 and who occasionally used the surname Marston-Toler professionally.[1][2][3] She died in 1943. The couple had no children.

In 1943, Toler married longtime friend Viva Tattersall (née Vera Tattersall, 1898-1989), a British-born actress with whom he had co-written several plays, including Ritzy (1930) and Dress Parade (1929).[4] Their marriage lasted until Toler's death in 1947. The couple had no children.

Later years and death[edit]

By the end of 1946, age and illness were affecting Toler. Diagnosed with cancer, the 72-year-old Toler was so ill during the filming of Dangerous Money (1946) and Shadows over Chinatown (1946) that he could hardly walk. Monogram hired Toler's original foil, "Number Two Son" Victor Sen Yung, for Toler's last two films, quite probably to ease the burden on Toler. Toler mustered enough strength to complete his last film, The Trap, which was filmed in July-August 1946 and released in November that same year. (Yung and Moreland relieve Toler of much of the action in The Trap). Toler's Monogram output matched his Fox output: 11 films for each studio.

Sidney Toler died on February 12, 1947, at his home in Los Angeles, California from intestinal cancer. Monogram continued the series with actor Roland Winters who appeared in six more feature films as Charlie Chan.

Selected filmography[edit]

Year Title Role Notes
1920 The Bait writer of source material, play The Tiger Lady
1921 A Heart to Let writer with Harriett Lummis Smith of source material, the play Agatha's Aunt
1929 Madame X Dr. Merivel Alternative title: Absinthe
1930 The Devil's Parade Satan
1931 White Shoulders William Sothern
Strictly Dishonorable Patrolman Mulligan
1932 Blondie of the Follies Pete
Blonde Venus Det. Wilson
The Phantom President Professor Aikenhead
Speak Easily Stage Director
1933 The Narrow Corner Ryan, the Go-Between
1934 Dark Hazard John Bright
Spitfire Mr. Jim Sawyer
The Trumpet Blows Pepi Sancho
Upper World Officer Moran
1935 Romance in Manhattan Police Sergeant
The Call of the Wild Joe Groggins
1936 Three Godfathers Prof. Amos Snape
The Gorgeous Hussy Daniel Webster
Our Relations Captain of SS Periwinkle
1937 That Certain Woman Detective Lieutenant Neely
Double Wedding Mr. Keough
1938 Gold Is Where You Find It Harrison McCooey
The Mysterious Rider Frosty Kilburn
If I Were King Robin Turgis
Up the River Jeffrey Mitchell
Charlie Chan in Honolulu Charlie Chan
Law of the Pampas Fernando A Hopalong Cassidy Film
Disbarred G.L. "Hardy" Mardsen
Charlie Chan in Reno Charlie Chan
Charlie Chan at Treasure Island Charlie Chan
Charlie Chan in City in Darkness Charlie Chan
1940 Charlie Chan in Panama Charlie Chan
Charlie Chan's Murder Cruise Charlie Chan
Charlie Chan at the Wax Museum Charlie Chan
Murder Over New York Charlie Chan
1941 Charlie Chan in Rio Charlie Chan
Dead Men Tell Charlie Chan
1942 Castle in the Desert Charlie Chan
1943 A Night to Remember Inspector Hankins
White Savage Wong
Isle of Forgotten Sins Krogan/Carruthers Alternative title Monsoon
1944 Charlie Chan in the Secret Service Charlie Chan The first Monogram "Charlie Chan" film
The Chinese Cat Charlie Chan Alternate title Murder in the Funhouse
Black Magic Charlie Chan Alternate title Meeting at Midnight
1945 It's in the Bag! Detective Sully Alternative title: The Fifth Chair
The Shanghai Cobra Charlie Chan
The Jade Mask Charlie Chan
The Red Dragon Charlie Chan
The Scarlet Clue Charlie Chan
1946 Dark Alibi Charlie Chan
Shadows Over Chinatown Charlie Chan
Dangerous Money Charlie Chan
The Trap Charlie Chan


  • Playthings (1918)
  • The Bait (1921) (made into a 1921 silent film, The Bait)
  • A Heart to Let (1921)


  1. ^ Marriage year and ancestry cited in 1910 U. S. Federal Census for Massachusetts, accessed online at on 25 September 2011
  2. ^ Career outlined in Johnson Briscoe, "The Actors' Birthday Book" (Moffat, Yard & Company, 1908), page 54
  3. ^ Surname Marston-Toler given in "The Green Book Album: A Magazine of the Passing Show", January 1910, page 429
  4. ^ "Catalogue of Copyright Entries", US Government Printing Office, 1929, page 6

External links[edit]