Friday, November 6, 2015

Born Today November 6: Francis Lederer


November 6 Prague, Bohemia, Austria-Hungary--May 25 Palm Springs, CA, USA

Lederer was born Frantisek Lederer in Prague in what was then Bohemia in the Austro-Hungarian Empire (now the capital of the Czech Republic) into a modest home and a Austrian German speaking family, where his father was a leather merchant.  He had a number of small jobs when he was a young man, including working in a department store in various capacities--mostly as a delivery boy.  He fell in love with acting at a young age.  He eventually found himself studying at the Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts in Prague.  Before he was able to make his debut on the public stage, he went into service in the Austro-Hungarian Imperial army during World War I.  When his service was up, he made his debut as a walk-on, and there after toured with a company around central Europe.  He became a matinee idol and eventually graduated to more sophisticated roles, including Shakespeare.  This took up most of his life during the 1920's. Because of his good looks, it was not surprising that he was eventually lured into film work, making his film debut in Refuge in 1928 as Franz Lederer.  He was brought into the project by the star of the film Henny Porten and her husband who was a producer.  The film was directed by Carl Froelich.  He next appeared in the German Die seltsame Nacht der Helga Wangen that same year, which was produced by Germany National-Film, already showing signs of the propaganda machine that it would became under the Nazi regime.  He next landed a part in a film to be directed by G. W. Pabst (a student of Froelich's) that was much more main stream and crossed continents.  The film was the nearly two hour long Pandora's Box (1929) starring Louise Brooks.  This was a breakthrough moment for him; it marked the first time that he was taken on his acting merits in the press.  He had several small roles after this, but his turn in German language all sound Atlantik marked him as a very bankable actor and he subsequently became a talent in demand in Europe. (Atlantik, by the way, was the continental version of it's sister production in the US Atlantic --the story of the Titanic's sinking fictionalized, the French version Atlantis came out in 1930 and, just to have all bases covered, there was also a silent version; the whole was under the direction of German director Ewald André Dupont.)  His transition to sound was eased greatly by his stage experience.  In addition to his work in European cinema, Lederer still worked heavily on the stage.  In 1932 he made his Broadway debut in play that had become a hit on the London stage.  The play toured major cities in the U.S., eventually making it's way to Los Angeles.  His performance brought him numerous offers for Hollywood film roles.  It was with reluctance (some at least) that he accepted work in Hollywood; he would later cite the political unrest in Europe as his major reason for doing so.  As a result, he was acted in his first film in the United States in 1934 in Man Of Two Worlds a film in which he stretchingly plays an "Eskimo" (Inuit) in a story loosely (very loosely) based on a true story.  This would be his first film appearance since 1931.  His billing in the film is when "Frances Lederer" was first used.  His star and fame rose quickly in the U.S., prompted in no small part by his looks (Americans love a pretty boy!), but he also possessed a prodigious acting talent.  By 1939, he had become an American citizen.  Throughout his acting career, he never fully gave up the stage and at one point was a student of Elia Kazan's in New York.  By the late 1930's he had expanded the his role types from romantic lead to other more demanding parts, even becoming a go to villain.  In 1950, he made his television debut in a episode of The Philco-Goodyear Television Playhouse.  This started a long career of appearing on "the small screen."  In fact it would be a television appearance on the horror/fantasy anthology Night Gallery that would be his last acting job.  He appeared in A Question Of Fear/The Devil Is Not Mocked in "The Devil Is Not Mocked" portion of the episode playing "The Count"--reprising his turn as Count Dracula from the 1958 The Return Of Dracula.  The episode dates from the 27th of October, 1971.  Lederer then retired from acting and retreated to his unique estate, also a working ranch (the house and surroundings are a national landmark still in the his family).  He wasn't completely away from the business however.  His ranch was used as a filming location several times and he also taught acting.  Many famous actors also boarded their horses at his stables.  He became deeply involved with his community as well.  Lederer was said to have been working on his horse ranch up to 1 week before his death at the age of 100.  He passed away on the 20th of May in the year 2000.  At the time, he was one of the last World War I veterans, though after the war took the life of his older brother, he had become a pacifist--a stance that later led him into activism.  He was interred the Cathedral City location of the Forest Lawn Memorial Park.

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