Carl Henry Vogt (February 19, 1895 – May 12, 1956), known professionally as Louis Calhern, was an American stage and screen actor. For portraying Oliver Wendell Holmes in the film The Magnificent Yankee (1950), he was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor.
Calhern was born Carl Henry Vogt in Brooklyn, New York, in 1895, the son of Eugene Adolf Vogt and Hubertina Friese Vogt, both of whom immigrated to New York from Germany. He had one known sibling, a sister. His father was a tobacco dealer. His family left New York while he was in elementary school and moved to St. Louis, Missouri, where he was raised. While playing high school football, a stage manager from a touring theatrical stock company noticed the tall, handsome youth, and hired him as a bit player. Another source states “Grace George hired his entire high school football team as supers for a Shakespearean play.” Due to the anti-German sentiment during World War I, he thought it wise to change his Teutonic given name. His stage name is an amalgam of his hometown of St. Louis and his first and middle names, Carl and Henry (Calhern).
Just before World War I, Calhern decided to return to New York to pursue an acting career. He began as a prop boy and bit player with various touring and burlesque companies. He became a matinee idol by virtue of a play titled Cobra.
Calhern’s Broadway credits include:
Calhern’s burgeoning career was interrupted by World War I; he served in France in the 143rd Field Artillery of the United States Army.
Calhern began working in silent films for director Lois Weber in the early 1920s; the most notable being The Blot (1921). A newspaper article commented: “The new arrival in stardom is Louis Calhern, who, until Miss Weber engaged him to enact the leading male role in What’s Worth While?, had been playing leads in the Morosco Stock company of Los Angeles.”
In 1923, Calhern left the movies, deciding to devote his career entirely to the stage, but returned to the screen in the sound era. In films he was primarily cast as a character actor, while he continued to play leading roles on the stage. Among Calhern’s notable portrayals were as the partner in crime to Spencer Tracy and Bette Davis in 20,000 Years in Sing Sing (1932), as Ambassador Trentino in the Marx Brothers comedy Duck Soup (1933), and as the spy boss of Cary Grant in Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious (1946).
Calhern was acclaimed for three diverse roles that he appeared in at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in 1950: a singing role as Buffalo Bill in the film version of the musical Annie Get Your Gun; as a double-crossing lawyer and sugar-daddy to Marilyn Monroe in John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle; and his Oscar-nominated performance as Oliver Wendell Holmes in The Magnificent Yankee (re-creating his role from the Broadway stage). He was also praised for his portrayal of the title role in the John Houseman production of Julius Caesar (adapted from the Shakespeare play) in 1953, directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz.
Calhern played the role of the devious George Caswell, the manipulative board member of Tredway Corporation, in the 1954 production of Executive Suite, followed by the role of a jaded, acerbic high school teacher in The Blackboard Jungle (1955). His performance as Uncle Willie in High Society (1956), a musical remake of The Philadelphia Story, was his final film appearance.
Calhern was married four times: Ilka Chase from 1926 to 1927, Julia Hoyt from 1927 to 1932, Natalie Schafer from 1933 to 1942, and Marianne Stewart from 1946 to 1955. All four marriages ended in divorce.
Calhern battled alcoholism for much of his adult life; as a result, he lost several important screen and stage roles. According to former wife Schafer, Calhern’s inability to overcome his addiction ended their marriage. While he was willing to consult doctors, she said Calhern refused to attend Alcoholics Anonymous because he was an atheist and considered AA to be a religious organization. Calhern ultimately overcame his alcohol addiction by the late 1940s.
Calhern died at age 61 of a sudden heart attack in Nara, Japan, while there to film The Teahouse of the August Moon. He was replaced in the film by Paul Ford, who had played Calhern’s role in the original Broadway production. Calhern was cremated and is interred at Hollywood Forever Cemetery.