Richard Semler Barthelmess (May 9, 1895 – August 17, 1963) was an American film actor, principally of the Hollywood silent era. He starred opposite Lillian Gish in D. W. Griffith’s Broken Blossoms (1919) and Way Down East (1920) and was among the founders of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 1927. The following year, he was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor for two films: The Patent Leather Kid and The Noose.
Barthelmess was born in New York City, the son of Caroline W. Harris, a stage actress, and Alfred W. Barthelmess. His father died when he was a year old. Through his mother, he grew up in the theatre, doing “walk-ons” from an early age. In contrast to that, he was educated at Hudson River Military Academy at Nyack, New York and Trinity College at Hartford, Connecticut. He did some acting in college and other amateur productions. By 1919 he had five years in stock company experience.
Russian actress Alla Nazimova, a friend of the family, was taught English by Caroline Barthelmess. Nazimova convinced Richard Barthelmess to try acting professionally, and he made his debut screen appearance in 1916 in the serial Gloria’s Romance as an uncredited extra. He also appeared as a supporting player in several films starring Marguerite Clark.
His next role, in War Brides opposite Nazimova, attracted the attention of director D.W. Griffith, who offered him several important roles, finally casting him opposite Lillian Gish in Broken Blossoms (1919) and Way Down East (1920). He founded his own production company, Inspiration Film Company, together with Charles Duell and Henry King. One of their films, Tol’able David (1921), in which Barthelmess starred as a teenage mailman who finds courage, was a major success. In 1922, Photoplay described him as the “idol of every girl in America.”
Barthelmess had a large female following during the 1920s. An admirer wrote to the editor of Picture-Play Magazine in 1921:
Different fans have different opinions, and although Wallace Reid, Thomas Meighan, and Niles Welch are mighty fine chaps, I think that Richard Barthelmess beats them all. Dick is getting more and more popular every day, and why? Because his wonderful black hair and soulful eyes are enough to make any young girl adore him. The first play I saw Dick in was Boots—Dorothy Gish playing the lead. This play impressed me so that I went to see every play in which he appeared—Three Men and a Girl, Scarlet Days, The Love Flower, and Broken Blossoms, in which I decided that Dick was my favorite. I am looking forward to Way Down East as being a great success, because I know Dick will play a good part.
Barthelmess soon became one of Hollywood’s higher paid performers, starring in such classics as The Patent Leather Kid in 1927 and The Noose in 1928; he was nominated for Best Actor at the first Academy Awards for his performance in both films. In addition, he won a special citation for producing The Patent Leather Kid.
With the advent of the sound era, Barthelmess remained a star for a number of years. He played numerous leads in talkie films, most notably Son of the Gods (1930), The Dawn Patrol (1930), The Last Flight (1931), The Cabin in the Cotton (1932) and Heroes for Sale (1933). He was able to choose his own material and often played in controversial or socially conscious films. However, his popularity began to wane in the 1930s as he was getting too old for the boyish leads he usually played, and in his later films between 1939 and his retirement in 1942, he turned towards character roles – most notably in his supporting role as the disgraced pilot and husband of Rita Hayworth’s character in Only Angels Have Wings (1939).
Barthelmess failed to maintain the stardom of his silent film days and gradually left entertainment. He enlisted in the United States Navy Reserve during World War II, and served as a lieutenant commander. He never returned to film, preferring instead to live off his real estate investments.
On June 18, 1920, Barthelmess married Mary Hay, a stage and screen star, in New York. They had one daughter, Mary Barthelmess, before divorcing on January 15, 1927.
In August 1927, Barthelmess became engaged to Katherine Young Wilson, a Broadway actress. However, the engagement was called off due to Wilson’s stated desire to continue acting, or possibly his affair around this time with the journalist Adela Rogers St. Johns.
On April 21, 1928, Barthelmess married Jessica Stewart Sargent. He later adopted her son, Stewart, from a previous marriage. They remained married until Barthelmess’ death in 1963.
Barthelmess died of throat cancer on August 17, 1963, aged 68, in Southampton, New York. He was interred at the Ferncliff Cemetery and Mausoleum in Hartsdale, New York.