Richard Cromwell (born LeRoy Melvin Radabaugh, also known as Roy Radabaugh; (1910-01-08)January 8, 1910 – (1960-10-11)October 11, 1960) was an American actor. His career was at its pinnacle with his work in Jezebel (1938) with Bette Davis and Henry Fonda and again with Fonda in John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln (1939). Cromwell’s fame was perhaps first assured in The Lives of a Bengal Lancer (1935), sharing top billing with Gary Cooper and Franchot Tone.
That film was the first major effort directed by Henry Hathaway and it was based upon the popular novel by Francis Yeats-Brown. The Lives of a Bengal Lancer earned Paramount Studios a nomination for Best Picture in 1935, though Mutiny on the Bounty instead took the top award at the Academy Awards that year.
Leslie Halliwell in The Filmgoer’s Companion, summed up Cromwell’s enduring appeal when he described him as “a leading man, [the] gentle hero of early sound films.”
Cromwell was born LeRoy Melvin Radabaugh in Long Beach, California, the second of five children, to his mother Fay B. (née Stocking) and his father, Ralph R. Radabaugh, who was an inventor. Among Ralph’s patented creations was the amusement-park swing ride called the “Monoflyer”, a variation of which is still in use at many carnivals today. In 1918, when young “Roy” was still in grade school, his father died suddenly, one of the millions of people who perished during the “Spanish flu” pandemic.
Later, while enrolled as a teenager in the Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles on a scholarship, young Roy helped to support his family with odd jobs. The school was the precursor of the California Institute of the Arts, and it was there where he met fellow classmate Edith Posener. Posener, later known as Edith Head, would become one of the leading costume designers in American film history.
Cromwell ran a shop in Hollywood where he sold pictures, made lampshades, and designed colour schemes for houses. As Cromwell developed his talents for lifelike mask-making and oil painting, he formed friendships in the late 1920s with various film starlets who posed for him and collected his works, including Tallulah Bankhead, Joan Crawford, Greta Garbo, Claire Dubrey and Ann Sothern. Actress and future Academy Award-winner Marie Dressler was also a friend; the two would later share top-billing in the early talkie film Emma.
Still known as “Roy Radabaugh”, he had just two days in film extra work on the side, and can be seen in King of Jazz (1930), along with the film’s star, Paul Whiteman and his orchestra. On a whim, friends encouraged Roy to audition in 1930 for the remake of the Richard Barthelmess silent: Tol’able David (1930). Radabaugh won the role over thousands of hopefuls, and in storybook fashion, Harry Cohn gave him his screen name and launched his career. Cromwell earned $75 per week for his work on Tol’able David. Noah Beery Sr. and John Carradine co-starred in the film. Later, Cohn signed Cromwell to a multi-year contract based on the strength of his performance and success in his first venture at the box-office. Amidst the flurry of publicity during this period, Cromwell toured the country, even meeting President Herbert Hoover in Washington, D.C.
Cromwell by then had maintained a deep friendship with Marie Dressler, which continued until her death from cancer in 1934. Dressler was nominated for a second Best Actress award for her 1932 portrayal of the title role in Emma.
With that film, Dressler demonstrated her profound generosity to other performers: Dressler personally insisted that her studio bosses cast Cromwell on a loan-out in the lead opposite her — it was another break that helped sustain his rising status in Hollywood. Emma also starred Myrna Loy in one of her earlier screen performances. After production on Emma was completed, Director Clarence Brown tested Cromwell for the male lead in his next feature: The Son-Daughter, which was set to star Helen Hayes. However, the part of the oriental prince ultimately went to Ramón Novarro, and Cromwell never again worked at MGM.
Cromwell’s next role in 1932 was on loan to RKO and was as Mike in Gregory La Cava’s, The Age of Consent, co-starring Eric Linden and Dorothy Wilson. Cromwell is also remembered during this period in Hoop-La (1933), where he is seduced by Clara Bow. This film is considered the swan song of Bow’s career. Next, the much in demand Cromwell starred in Tom Brown of Culver that year, as well.
Around this period in his career in the early to mid-30s, Cromwell also did some print ads and promotional work for Lucky Strike brand cigarettes. According to his niece, Joan Radabaugh, Cromwell was a very heavy smoker. Nevertheless, at his home he was always the gracious host, as his niece related, and as such he took great care to empty the ashtrays regularly, almost to the point of obsession.
Next up, was an early standout performance by Cromwell in the role as the leader of the youth gang in Cecil B. DeMille’s now cult-favorite, This Day and Age (1933). To ensure that Cromwell’s character used current slang, DeMille asked high school student Horace Hahn to read the script and comment (at the time, Hahn was senior class president at Los Angeles High School). While again on loan from Columbia, Cromwell’s by then salary of $200 per week was paid by Paramount Pictures, DeMille’s studio. Diana Serra Cary, in her biography of Jackie Coogan, relates an episode on the set wherein Cromwell came to the aid of actress Judith Allen:
I watched as he (DeMille) systematically reduced ingenue … Allen to screaming hysterics by calling her every insulting name in the book in front of company and crew simply to bring on tears … Cromwell was the only man on the set who dared confront the tyrannical DeMille. White with rage, Cromwell stopped the scene and threatened to deck him if he didn’t let up on the devastated girl. He (Cromwell) then drove her home himself. After that courageous act the chivalric Cromwell was unanimously praised as a veritable dragon slayer by everyone who had witnessed that scene.
After a promising start, Cromwell’s many early pictures at Columbia Pictures and elsewhere were mostly inconsequential and are largely forgotten today. Cromwell starred with Will Rogers in Life Begins at 40 for Fox Film Corporation in 1935, it was one of Rogers’ last roles and Poppy for Paramount in 1936 wherein Cromwell played the suitor of W.C. Fields’ daughter, Rochelle Hudson. In 1937, he was the young bank-robber in love with Helen Mack and on the lam from Lionel Atwill in The Wrong Road for RKO.
Broadway and network radio
In 1936, Cromwell took a detour in his career to Broadway for the chance to star as an evil cadet in an original play by Joseph Viertel, So Proudly We Hail!. The military drama was directed by future film director Charles Walters, co-starred Edward Andrews and Eddie Bracken, and opened to much fanfare. The reviews of the play at the time called Cromwell’s acting “a striking portrayal” (New York Herald Tribune) and his performance an “astonishing characterization” (New York World Telegram). The New York Times said that in the play, Cromwell “ran the gamut of emotions”. However, the play closed after only 14 performances at the 46th Street Theater.
By now, Cromwell had shed his restrictive Columbia contract, with its handsome $500 per week salary, and pursued acting work as a freelancer in other media as well. On July 15, 1937, Cromwell guest-starred on The Royal Gelatin Hour hosted by Rudy Vallee, in a dramatic skit opposite Fay Wray. Enjoying the experience, Cromwell had his agent secure for him an audition for the role of Kit Marshall, on the soap opera Those We Love, first on NBC Radio and then CBS Radio. As a regular on the Monday night program which ran from 1938 until 1942, Cromwell played opposite Nan Grey who played Kit’s twin sister Kathy. Cromwell as Kit was later replaced by Bill Henry. Rounding out the cast were Robert Cummings and Gale Gordon.
In the late 1930s, Cromwell appeared in Storm Over Bengal, for Republic Pictures, in order to capitalize on the success of The Lives of a Bengal Lancer. Aside from the aforementioned standout roles in Jezebel and The Lives of a Bengal Lancer, Cromwell did another notable turn as defendant Matt Clay to Henry Fonda’s title-performance in Young Mr. Lincoln (1939).
During this period, Cromwell was continuing to enjoy the various invitations coming his way as a member of the A-list Hollywood social circuit. According to Bob Thomas, in his biography of Joan Crawford, Cromwell was a regular at the Saturday Night dinner parties of his former co-star Franchot Tone and then-wife Crawford. Other guests whom Cromwell dined with there included Barbara Stanwyck and then-husband Frank Fay, and William Haines and his partner Jimmie Shields. During the freewheeling heyday of West L.A. nightlife in the late 30s, Cromwell is said by author Charles Higham to have carried on a sometime, though obviously very discreet, affair with aviator and businessman Howard Hughes.
In 1939, Cromwell again tried his luck on the stage in a regional production of Sutton Vane’s play Outward Bound featuring Dorothy Jordan as his co-star. The cast of the production at the Los Angeles Biltmore Theater also included Cora Witherspoon and Reginald Denny.
Cromwell served during the last two years of World War II with the United States Coast Guard, along with fellow actor and enlistee Cesar Romero. Actor Gig Young was also a member of this branch of the service during the war. During this period, Cole Porter rented Cromwell’s home in the Hollywood Hills, where Porter worked at length on Panama Hattie. Director James Whale was a personal friend, for whom Cromwell had starred in The Road Back (1937), the ill-fated sequel to All Quiet on the Western Front. With the war’s end, and upon returning to California from the Pacific after nearly three years of service with the Coast Guard, Cromwell acted in local theater productions. He also signed on for live performances in summer stock in the East during this period.
When in town, Cromwell was a fixture within the Hollywood social scene. According to the book Cut! Hollywood Murders, Accidents and Other Tragedies, Cromwell was a regular at George Cukor’s “boys nights”.
Back in California for good, Cromwell was married once, briefly (1945–1946), to actress Angela Lansbury, when she was 19 and Cromwell was 35. Cromwell and Lansbury eloped and were married in a small civil ceremony on September 27, 1945, in Independence, California. In her authorized biography, Balancing Act, Lansbury recounts her life with Cromwell, as well as the couple’s close friendship with Zachary Scott and his first wife, Elaine. Lansbury and Cromwell have stars within walking distance of each other on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Cromwell made just one statement to the press regarding his wife of nine months and one of her habits: “All over the house, tea bags. In the middle of the night she’d get up and start drinking tea. It nearly drove me crazy.”
According to the biography: Angela Lansbury, A Life on Stage and Screen, Lansbury stated in a 1966 interview that her first marriage, “was a mistake” and that she learned from it. She stated, “I wouldn’t have not done it”, and, “I was too young at 19. [The marriage] shouldn’t have happened.” Articles based on interviews with Lansbury have stated that Cromwell was gay. Cromwell and Lansbury remained friends until his death in 1960.
Before World War II, in the early 1940s, Universal Pictures released Enemy Agent starring Cromwell as a draftsman who thwarts the Nazis. In 1942 he then went on to appear in marginal but still watchable fare such as Baby Face Morgan, which co-starred Mary Carlisle and was produced by Producers Releasing Corporation, one of the “Poverty Row” studios.
Cromwell enjoyed a career boost, if not a critically acclaimed performance, in the film adaptation of the hit radio serial: Cosmo Jones, Crime Smasher (1943), opposite Gale Storm. Next up at Monogram Pictures he was cast as a doctor working covertly for the police department to catch the mobsters in the very forgettable, though endearing Riot Squad, wherein his “fiancée”, Rita Quigley, breaks their engagement. Cromwell’s break from films due to his stint in the Service meant that he was not much in demand after the War’s end, and he retired from films after his comeback fizzled. His last role was in a noir flick of 1948, Bungalow 13. All told, Cromwell’s film career spanned 39 films.
In the 1950s, Cromwell went back to artistic roots and studied ceramics. He built a pottery studio at his home. The home still stands today and is located in the hills above Sunset Boulevard on North Miller Drive. There, he successfully designed coveted decorative tiles for himself and for his industry friends, which, according to his niece, Joan Radabaugh, he marketed under his stage name.
Around this time, Baby Peggy Montgomery (a.k.a. Diana Serra Cary), who had appeared in This Day and Age with Cromwell many years earlier, recalled visiting Cromwell at his home along with her late husband during this period to see his “beautiful ceramic screen which had won him a prize at the L.A. County Fair.” His original tiles as well as his large decorative art deco-style wall paintings of Adam and Eve can still be seen today in the mezzanine off the balcony of the restored Pantages Theatre in Hollywood, which is today considered a noted architectural landmark.
Under the name Radabaugh, Cromwell wrote extensively, producing several published stories and an unfinished novel in the 1950s. After years of heavy drinking with a social circle of friends that included the likes of Christopher Isherwood, Cromwell ultimately changed his ways and became an early participant and supporter of Alcoholics Anonymous in the Los Angeles Area.
Death and legacy
In July 1960, Cromwell signed with producer Maury Dexter for 20th Century Fox’s planned production of The Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come, co-starring Jimmie Rodgers, Bob Dix (son of Richard Dix), and Neil Hamilton who replaced Cromwell in the film. Cromwell became ill and died on October 11, 1960 in Hollywood of liver cancer, at the age of 50. He is interred at Fairhaven Memorial Park in Santa Ana, California.
Cromwell’s legacy is preserved today by his nephew Dan Putnam, and his cousin Bill Keane IV, both of the Conejo Valley in Southern California, as well as the family of his late niece, Joan Radabaugh, of the Central Coast. In 2005, Keane donated materials relating to Cromwell’s radio performances to the Thousand Oaks Library’s Special Collection, “The American Radio Archive”. In 2007, Keane donated memorabilia relating to Cromwell’s film career and ceramics work to the AMPAS Margaret Herrick Library in Beverly Hills.
Cromwell was mentioned in Gore Vidal’s satirical novel Myra Breckinridge (1968) as “the late Richard Cromwell, so satisfyingly tortured in Lives of a Bengal Lancer”.
|1930||King of Jazz||cowboy (walk-on)||Cromwell can be seen in the Song of the Dawn number.|
|1930||Tol’able David||David||Directed by John Blystone, starred opposite Noah Beery Sr. Silent star Richard Barthelmess, who gave his blessing to Cromwell’s portrayal, was the original David in the 1921 classic directed by Henry King. Gary Cooper was also originally offered this role and very interested but Adolph Zukor at Paramount Pictures refused to loan out his top star to Columbia, then perceived as a “lower-class” studio (according to Larry Swindell’s bio of Cooper, The Last Hero, Doubleday, 1980).|
|1931||Fifty Fathoms Deep||Pinky Caldwell||First of several pairings with Jack Holt for Columbia.|
|1931||Shanghaied Love||The Boy||Third feature for Columbia, co-starred Sally Blane and again, Noah Beery Sr.|
|1931||Maker of Men||Bob Dudley||Jack Holt co-starred and a very young Marion Morrison aka John Wayne appeared with his Trojan Football teammates; Gridiron scenes filmed at USC.|
|1932||The Age of Consent||Mike||Cromwell’s first loanout to RKO; this film was directed by Gregory LaCava and was the screen debut, in an uncredited role, for Mildred Shay.|
|1932||Emma||Ronnie||Cromwell was on loan out to MGM for director Clarence Brown; this production’s cast also included Jean Hersholt.|
|1932||Tom Brown of Culver||Robert Randolph III||Universal’s William Wyler directed Cromwell here along with H.B. Warner, Slim Summerville, Tom Brown, Ben Alexander, and Sidney Toler. Also, Tyrone Power’s first onscreen appearance is as a bit player in a scene opposite Cromwell in this film.|
|1932||The Strange Love of Molly Louvain||James “Jimmy” Cook, the bellhop||Director: Michael Curtiz for Warner Bros., with Ann Dvorak, Lee Tracy, Guy Kibbee, and Charles Middleton.|
|1932||That’s My Boy||Tommy Jefferson Scott||Another football flick wherein Cromwell plays opposite Mae Marsh, Dorothy Jordan, and Douglass Dumbrille.|
|1933||This Day and Age||Steve Smith||For DeMille at Paramount Pictures, Cromwell stars with Charles Bickford and Judith Allen.|
|1933||Hoop-La||Chris Miller||Directed by Frank Lloyd for Fox pictures. Final major starring role for Clara Bow. Cromwell co-starred with Preston Foster and James Gleason.|
|1934||Carolina||drugstore clerk||Opposite Janet Gaynor, originally entitled: “The House of Connelly.”|
|1934||Name the Woman||Clem Rogers|
|1935||Life Begins at 40||Lee Austin||Opposite Will Rogers and Rochelle Hudson, this was one of Rogers’ last films.|
|1935||Lives of a Bengal Lancer||Lt. Stone||Cromwell’s favorite role.|
|1935||Star Night at The Cocoanut Grove||as himself||MGM Technicolor Short showing celebs at play in Hollywood. Cromwell is seated at a table with Gary Cooper.|
|1936||Poppy||Billy Farnsworth||One of many pairings for Cromwell opposite Rochelle Hudson.|
|1937||The Road Back||Ludwig||Very large cast including Noah Beery Jr.—Cromwell was one of the few actors to work with both Beery Sr. and Jr. Fine camera work was done here by cinematographer John J. Mescall.|
|1937||The Wrong Road||Jimmy||Cromwell’s director here was James Cruze. Other members of the cast were Marjorie Main, Joseph Crehan, Arthur Horst, and Rex Evans. Costumes were by Eloise.|
|1938||Jezebel||Ted Dillard||Cromwell’s second role in a William Wyler-directed film.|
|1938||Storm Over Bengal||Neil Allison|
|1939||Young Mr. Lincoln||Matt Clay||Henry Fonda, who played Lincoln, was quoted in an interview that he had a professional admiration for the “always dependable Richard Cromwell.”|
|1940||Enemy Agent||Jimmy Saunders||Exactly one hour in length, this film has Cromwell in the role of a draftsman who is wrongly accused of crimes perpetrated by Nazi spies. Jack Carson stands out in an early role as a G-Man feigning drunkenness to help thwart the crooks who’ve stolen aircraft factory blueprints.|
|1940||The Villain Still Pursued Her||Edward Middleton||Co-starring Buster Keaton, this take-off of the long-running Los Angeles stage hit The Drunkard, also co-starred Margaret Hamilton. It was recently re-released on DVD.|
|1941||Riot Squad||Doctor Tom Brandon|
|1942||Baby Face Morgan||Edward “Baby Face” Morgan||This is the best of the several of Cromwell’s “B” efforts for PRC. Cromwell’s co-star here was Robert Armstrong, of King Kong fame. Cromwell and Armstrong had also worked together in Enemy Agent.|
|1948||Bungalow 13||Patrick Macy||Cromwell’s comeback that never was.|
Henry Fonda, who played Lincoln, was quoted in an interview that he had a professional admiration for the “always dependable Richard Cromwell.”