Sidney Toler

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Sidney Toler
Sidney Toler in 1930
Born Hooper G. Toler Jr.
(1874-04-28)April 28, 1874
Warrensburg, Missouri, U.S.
Died February 12, 1947(1947-02-12) (aged 72)
Beverly Hills, California, U.S.
  • Actor
  • playwright
  • theatre director
Years active 1903–1947
  • Vivian Marston
    (married 1906–1943)
  • Vera Tattersall Orkow
    (married 1943–1947)

Sidney Toler (born Hooper G. Toler Jr., April 28, 1874 – February 12, 1947) was an American actor, playwright and theatre director. The second non-Asian actor to play the role of Charlie Chan on screen, he is best remembered for his portrayal of the Chinese American detective in 22 films made between 1938 and 1946. Before becoming Chan, Toler played supporting roles in 50 motion pictures and was a highly regarded comic actor on the Broadway stage.

Early life and career[edit]

Hooper G. Toler Jr.—called Sidney Toler from childhood—was born April 28, 1874, in Warrensburg, Missouri.[1][2][3] He showed an early interest in the theater, acting in an amateur production of Tom Sawyer at the age of seven.[2] He left the University of Kansas and became a professional actor in 1892, playing the heavy in a performance of a melodrama called The Master Man in Kansas City.[2][4][5] In 1894 he joined the Corse Payton company and toured for four years. His success in leading roles at the Lee Avenue Academy in Brooklyn brought an invitation to join the company of Julia Marlowe. He toured with her for two years, playing the Duke of Buckingham in When Knighthood Was in Flower.[2][6]

In Brooklyn, Toler played leads with the Columbia Theatre Stock Company and sang baritone with the Orpheum Theatre's operatic stock company. In 1903 he made his Broadway debut in the musical comedy, The Office Boy.[2][7]

Over the next nine years Toler had his own theatre companies in Portland, Maine, and Halifax, Nova Scotia—at one point having 12 stock companies on the road. He began a prolific career as a playwright, writing The Belle of Richmond, The Dancing Master, The House on the Sands and more than 70 other plays. One particular success was a war play called The Man They Left Behind, which was presented by 67 companies in a period of three months and by 18 different companies in a single week.[2][6]

In 1921 Paramount Pictures released two films based on Toler's plays: The Bait, adapted from The Tiger Lady,[8] and A Heart to Let, based on Agatha's Aunt, which Toler adapted from a novel by Harriet Lummis Smith.[9] Three of his plays reached Broadway: The Golden Days (1921), which starred Helen Hayes, The Exile (1923), and Ritzy (1930).[2][7]

Toler earned fame as an actor on the Broadway stage, working for David Belasco for 14 years.[2] He was best known for his comedy roles,[10] from the detective-butler in On the Hiring Line (1919)—a performance that The New York Times called "one of the comedy high spots of the week"[6]—to Cool Kelly the iceman in It's a Wise Child (1929–30).[2]

In 1929 Toler made his first film, Madame X ,[11] and in 1931, after the Boston run of It's a Wise Child, he moved to Hollywood.[2] He played supporting roles in films including White Shoulders (1931), Tom Brown of Culver (1932), Blonde Venus (1932), The Phantom President (1932), The World Changes (1933), Spitfire (1934), Operator 13 (1934), The Call of the Wild (1935), Three Godfathers (1936), The Gorgeous Hussy (1936), Double Wedding (1937) and The Mysterious Rider (1938).[11]

Charlie Chan series[edit]

Sidney Toler as Charlie Chan in Dangerous Money (1946)

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]

On August 29, 1906, Toler married actress Vivian Marston (born Josephine Gasper) of Boston, Massachusetts.[12][13][14] She died in Hollywood on October 7, 1943, after an illness of seven months.[15] Four weeks later he married sculptor Vera Tattersall Orkow,[16] a British-born actress credited as Viva Tattersall when she and Toler performed together and co-wrote the plays Dress Parade (1929) and Ritzy (1930).[17][18] Their marriage lasted until Toler's death in 1947.

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, from intestinal cancer.[2] Monogram continued the series with actor Roland Winters who appeared in six more feature films as Charlie Chan.


Year Title Role Notes
1929 Madame X Merivel [11]
1929 Gay Nineties; or, The Unfaithful Husband, TheThe Gay Nineties; or, The Unfaithful Husband Vitaphone Varieties release 811[19]:37
1929 In the Nick of Time Vitaphone Varieties release 897–898[19]:45
1930 Devil's Parade, TheThe Devil's Parade Vitaphone Varieties release 992[19]:52
1931 White Shoulders Sothern, WilliamWilliam Sothern [11]
1931 Strictly Dishonorable Mulligan [11]
1932 Strangers in Love McPhail, DetectiveDetective McPhail [11]
1932 Radio Patrol Koegh, TomTom Koegh [11]
1932 Is My Face Red? Mugatti, TonyTony Mugatti [11]
1932 Tom Brown of Culver Wharton, MajorMajor Wharton [11]
1932 Speak Easily Stage director [11]
1932 Blondie of the Follies Pete [11]
1932 Blonde Venus Wilson, DetectiveDetective Wilson [11]
1932 Phantom President, TheThe Phantom President Aikenhead [11]
1932 Over the Counter Drake, Mr.Mr. Drake Short film[20]
1932 He Learned About Women Wilson [11]
1933 Billion Dollar Scandal, TheThe Billion Dollar Scandal Moore, Carter B.Carter B. Moore [11]
1933 King of the Jungle Forbes, NeilNeil Forbes [11]
1933 Narrow Corner, TheThe Narrow Corner [11]
1933 Way to Love, TheThe Way to Love Pierre [11]
1933 World Changes, TheThe World Changes Hodgens [11]
1934 Massacre Shanks, ThomasThomas Shanks [11]
1934 Dark Hazard Bright, JohnJohn Bright [11]
1934 Spitfire Sawyer, JimJim Sawyer [11]
1934 Registered Nurse Sylvestrie, FrankieFrankie Sylvestrie [11]
1934 Trumpet Blows, TheThe Trumpet Blows Sancho, PepePepe Sancho [11]
1934 Upperworld Moran [11]
1934 Operator 13 Pinkerton, Major AllanMajor Allan Pinkerton [11]
1934 Here Comes the Groom Weaver, Lieutenant DetectiveLieutenant Detective Weaver [11]
1935 Romance in Manhattan Police sergeant [11]
1935 Daring Young Man, TheThe Daring Young Man Palmer, WardenWarden Palmer [11]
1935 Champagne for Breakfast Judge [11]
1935 Orchids to You Corsini, NickNick Corsini [11]
1935 Call of the Wild, TheThe Call of the Wild Groggins, JoeJoe Groggins [11]
1935 This Is the Life Breckenridge, Professor Lafcadio F.Professor Lafcadio F. Breckenridge [11]
1936 Three Godfathers Snape, ProfessorProfessor Snape [11]
1936 Give Us This Night Carabiniere, 1st1st Carabiniere [11]
1936 Gorgeous Hussy, TheThe Gorgeous Hussy Webster, DanielDaniel Webster [11]
1936 Longest Night, TheThe Longest Night Holt, CaptainCaptain Holt [11]
1936 Our Relations captain, Ship'sShip's captain [11]
1937 That Certain Woman Neely, DetectiveDetective Neely [11]
1937 Double Wedding Keogh [11]
1938 Gold Is Where You Find It McCooey, HarrisonHarrison McCooey [11]
1938 Wide Open Faces Sheriff [11]
1938 One Wild Night Lawton [11]
1938 Mysterious Rider, TheThe Mysterious Rider Kilburn, FrostyFrosty Kilburn [11]
1938 If I Were King Turgis, RobinRobin Turgis [11]
1938 Up the River Mitchell, JeffreyJeffrey Mitchell [11]
1938 Charlie Chan in Honolulu Chan, CharlieCharlie Chan [11]
1939 Disbarred Mardeen, G. L. "Mardy"G. L. "Mardy" Mardeen [11]
1939 King of Chinatown Ling, Dr. ChangDr. Chang Ling [11]
1939 Kid from Kokomo, TheThe Kid from Kokomo Bronson, JudgeJudge Bronson [11]
1939 Charlie Chan in Reno Chan, CharlieCharlie Chan [11]
1939 Heritage of the Desert Nosey [11]
1939 Charlie Chan at Treasure Island Chan, CharlieCharlie Chan [11]
1939 Law of the Pampas Ramiriez, FernandoFernando Ramiriez [11]
1939 City in Darkness Chan, CharlieCharlie Chan [11]
1940 Charlie Chan in Panama Chan, CharlieCharlie Chan [11]
1940 Charlie Chan's Murder Cruise Chan, CharlieCharlie Chan [11]
1940 Charlie Chan at the Wax Museum Chan, CharlieCharlie Chan [11]
1940 Murder Over New York Chan, CharlieCharlie Chan [11]
1941 Dead Men Tell Chan, CharlieCharlie Chan [11]
1941 Charlie Chan in Rio Chan, CharlieCharlie Chan [11]
1942 Castle in the Desert Chan, CharlieCharlie Chan [11]
1942 Night to Remember, AA Night to Remember Hankins, InspectorInspector Hankins [11]
1943 Adventures of Smilin' Jack, TheThe Adventures of Smilin' Jack Ling, General KaiGeneral Kai Ling Serial[20]
1943 Isle of Forgotten Sins Krogan [11]
1943 White Savage Wong [11]
1944 Charlie Chan in the Secret Service Chan, CharlieCharlie Chan [11]
1944 Chinese Cat, TheThe Chinese Cat Chan, CharlieCharlie Chan [11]
1944 Black Magic Chan, CharlieCharlie Chan [11]
1945 Jade Mask, TheThe Jade Mask Chan, CharlieCharlie Chan [11]
1945 It's in the Bag! Sully, DetectiveDetective Sully [11]
1945 Scarlet Clue, TheThe Scarlet Clue Chan, CharlieCharlie Chan [11]
1945 Shanghai Cobra, TheThe Shanghai Cobra Chan, CharlieCharlie Chan [11]
1946 Red Dragon, TheThe Red Dragon Chan, CharlieCharlie Chan [11]
1946 Dark Alibi Chan, CharlieCharlie Chan [11]
1946 Shadows Over Chinatown Chan, CharlieCharlie Chan [11]
1946 Dangerous Money Chan, CharlieCharlie Chan [11]
1946 Trap, TheThe Trap Chan, CharlieCharlie Chan [11]


  1. ^ Sidney Toler. and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. 1880 United States Federal Census [database online]. Provo, Utah: Operations Inc., 2010. Retrieved 2016-09-28.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k "Sidney Toler Dies". The New York Times. February 13, 1947. Retrieved 2016-09-28. 
  3. ^ Sidney Toler., U.S., World War I Draft Registration Cards, 1917–1918 [database online]. Provo, Utah: Operations Inc., 2005. Retrieved 2016-09-28.
  4. ^ Katz, Ephraim (1998). Klein, Fred; Nolen, Ronald Dean, eds. The Film Encyclopedia (3rd ed.). New York: HarperPerennial. pp. 1362–1363. ISBN 0-06-273492-X. 
  5. ^ Hanaford, Harry Prescott; Hines, Dixie, eds. (1914). Who's who in Music and Drama. New York: H. P. Hanaford. p. 303. OCLC 21786350. 
  6. ^ a b c "Who's Who on the Stage". The New York Times. November 2, 1919. Retrieved 2016-09-29. 
  7. ^ a b "Sidney Toler". Internet Broadway Database. Retrieved 2016-09-28. 
  8. ^ "The Bait". AFI Catalog of Feature Films. American Film Institute. Retrieved 2016-09-29. 
  9. ^ "A Heart to Let". AFI Catalog of Feature Films. American Film Institute. Retrieved 2016-09-29. 
  10. ^ Toler, Sidney (May 1930). "There's an Urge in Acting". Theatre Magazine. p. 36. 
  11. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z aa ab ac ad ae af ag ah ai aj ak al am an ao ap aq ar as at au av aw ax ay az ba bb bc bd be bf bg bh bi bj bk bl bm bn bo bp bq br bs bt bu bv bw bx by "Sidney Toler". AFI Catalog of Feature Films. American Film Institute. Retrieved 2016-09-28. 
  12. ^ Josephine Gaspar., New York, New York, Marriage Index 1866–1937 [database online]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations Inc., 2014. Retrieved 2016-09-28.
  13. ^ Briscoe, John (1908). The Actors' Birthday Book. New York: Moffat, Yard and Company. p. 54. 
  14. ^ Hooper G. Toler Jr., U.S., Consular Registration Certificates, 1907–1918 [database online]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations Inc., 2013. Retrieved 2016-09-28.
  15. ^ "Mrs. Sidney Toler". The New York Times. October 9, 1943. Retrieved 2016-09-28. 
  16. ^ "Sidney Toler of Screen Weds". The New York Times. November 12, 1943. Retrieved 2016-09-28. 
  17. ^ "Gossip of the Rialto". The New York Times. January 19, 1930. Retrieved 2016-09-28. 
  18. ^ "Viva Tattersall". Internet Broadway Database. Retrieved 2016-09-28. 
  19. ^ a b c Liebman, Roy (2003). Vitaphone Films: A Catalogue of the Features and Shorts. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc. ISBN 978-0786446971. 
  20. ^ a b "Sidney Toler". BFI Film & TV Database. British Film Institute. Retrieved 2016-09-29. 

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