Hand color tinted photo of Clark Gable riding a motorcycle
William Clark Gable (February 1, 1901 – November 16, 1960) was an American film actor, nicknamed “The King of Hollywood” in his heyday. In 1999, the American Film Institute named Gable seventh among the greatest male stars of all time.
Gable’s most famous role was Rhett Butler in the 1939 Civil War epic film Gone with the Wind, in which he starred with Vivien Leigh. His performance earned him his third nomination for the Academy Award for Best Actor; he won for It Happened One Night (1934) and was also nominated for Mutiny on the Bounty (1935). Later performances were in Run Silent, Run Deep, a submarine war film, and his final film, The Misfits (1961), which paired Gable with Marilyn Monroe in her last screen appearance.
In his long film career, Gable appeared opposite some of the most popular actresses of the time. Joan Crawford, who was his favorite actress to work with, was partnered with Gable in eight films, Myrna Loy was with him seven times, and he was paired with Jean Harlow in six productions. He also starred with Lana Turner in four features, and with Norma Shearer in three. Gable was often named the top male star in the mid-30s, and was second only to the top box-office draw of all, Shirley Temple.
Gable was born in Cadiz, Ohio to William Henry “Bill” Gable, an oil-well driller, and Adeline (née Hershelman), who was of German and Irish descent. He was mistakenly listed as a female on his birth certificate. His original name was probably William Clark Gable, but birth registrations, school records and other documents contradict one another. “William” would have been in honor of his father. “Clark” was the maiden name of his maternal grandmother. In childhood he was almost always called “Clark”; some friends called him “Clarkie,” “Billy,” or “Gabe”.
When he was six months old, his sickly mother had him baptized Roman Catholic. She died when he was ten months old, probably of an aggressive brain tumor. Following her death, Gable’s father’s family refused to raise him as a Catholic, provoking enmity with his mother’s side of the family. The dispute was resolved when his father’s family agreed to allow Gable to spend time with his mother’s Catholic brother, Charles Hershelman, and his wife on their farm in Vernon, Pennsylvania.
In April 1903, Gable’s father Will married Jennie Dunlap, whose family came from the small neighboring town of Hopedale. Gable was a tall shy child with a loud voice. After his father purchased some land and built a house, the new family settled in. Jennie played the piano and gave her stepson lessons at home; later he took up brass instruments. She raised Gable to be well-dressed and well-groomed; he stood out from the other kids. Gable was very mechanically inclined and loved to strip down and repair cars with his father. At thirteen, he was the only boy in the men’s town band. Even though his father insisted on Gable doing “manly” things, like hunting and hard physical work, Gable loved language. Among trusted company, he would recite Shakespeare, particularly the sonnets. Will Gable did agree to buy a seventy-two volume set of The World’s Greatest Literature to improve his son’s education, but claimed he never saw his son use it. In 1917, when Gable was in high school, his father had financial difficulties. Will decided to settle his debts and try his hand at farming and the family moved to Ravenna, just outside of Akron. Gable had trouble settling down in the area. Despite his father’s insistence that he work the farm, Gable soon left to work in Akron’s B.F. Goodrich tire factory.
At seventeen, Gable was inspired to be an actor after seeing the play The Bird of Paradise, but he was not able to make a real start until he turned 21 and inherited money. By then, his stepmother Jennie had died and his father moved to Tulsa to go back to the oil business. He toured in stock companies and worked the oil fields and as a horse manager. Gable found work with several second-class theater companies and worked his way across the Midwest to Portland, Oregon, where he found work as a necktie salesman in the Meier & Frank department store. While there, he met actress Laura Hope Crews, who encouraged him to go back to the stage and into another theater company. His acting coach was a theater manager in Portland, Oregon, Josephine Dillon (seventeen years his senior). Dillon paid to have his teeth repaired and his hair styled. She guided him in building up his chronically undernourished body, and taught him better body control and posture. She spent considerable time training his naturally high-pitched voice, which Gable slowly managed to lower, and he gained better resonance and tone. As his speech habits improved, Gable’s facial expressions became more natural and convincing. After the long period of rigorous training, she eventually considered him ready to attempt a film career.
Stage and silent films
In 1924, with Dillon’s financial aid, the two went to Hollywood, where she became his manager and first wife. He changed his stage name from W. C. Gable to Clark Gable. He found work as an extra in such silent films as The Plastic Age (1925), which starred Clara Bow, and Forbidden Paradise, plus a series of two-reel comedies called The Pacemakers. He also appeared as a bit player in a series of shorts. However, Gable was not offered any major roles and so he returned to the stage, becoming lifelong friends with Lionel Barrymore, who in spite of his bawling Gable out for amateurish acting at first, urged Gable to pursue a career on stage. During the 1927-28 theater season, Gable acted with the Laskin Brothers Stock Company in Houston, where he played many roles, gained considerable experience and became a local matinee idol. Gable then moved to New York and Dillon sought work for him on Broadway. He received good reviews in Machinal; “He’s young, vigorous and brutally masculine,” said the Morning Telegraph. The start of the Great Depression and the beginning of talking pictures caused a cancellation of many plays in the 1929-30 season and acting work became harder to get.
In 1930, after his impressive appearance as the seething and desperate character Killer Mears in the play The Last Mile, Gable was offered a contract with MGM. His first role in a sound picture was as the villain in a low-budget William Boyd western called The Painted Desert (1931). He received a lot of fan mail as a result of his powerful voice and appearance; the studio took notice.
In 1930, Gable and Josephine Dillon were divorced. A few days later, he married Texas socialite Ria Franklin Prentiss Lucas Langham. After moving to California, they were married again in 1931, possibly due to differences in state legal requirements.
“His ears are too big and he looks like an ape,” said Warner Bros. executive Darryl F. Zanuck about Clark Gable after testing him for the lead in Warner’s gangster drama Little Caesar (1931). After several failed screen tests for Barrymore and Zanuck, Gable was signed in 1930 by MGM’s Irving Thalberg. He became a client of well-connected agent Minna Wallis, sister of producer Hal Wallis and very close friend of Norma Shearer.
Gable’s timing in arriving in Hollywood was excellent as MGM was looking to expand its stable of male stars and he fit the bill. Gable then worked mainly in supporting roles, often as the villain. MGM’s publicity manager Howard Strickland developed Gable’s studio image, playing up his he-man experiences and his ‘lumberjack in evening clothes’ persona. To bolster his rocketing popularity, MGM frequently paired him with well-established female stars. Joan Crawford asked for him as her co-star in Dance, Fools, Dance (1931). He built his fame and public visibility in such movies as A Free Soul (1931), in which he played a gangster who slapped the character played by Norma Shearer (Gable never played a supporting role again after that slap). The Hollywood Reporter wrote “A star in the making has been made, one that, to our reckoning, will outdraw every other star… Never have we seen audiences work themselves into such enthusiasm as when Clark Gable walks on the screen”. He followed that with Susan Lenox (Her Fall and Rise) (1931) with Greta Garbo, and Possessed (1931), in which he and Joan Crawford (then married to Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.) steamed up the screen with some of the passion they shared for decades to come in real life. Adela Rogers St. John later dubbed the relationship as “the affair that nearly burned Hollywood down.” Louis B. Mayer threatened to terminate both their contracts and for a while they kept apart and Gable shifted his attentions to Marion Davies. On the other hand, Gable and Garbo disliked each other. She thought he was a wooden actor while he considered her a snob.
Gable was considered for the role of Tarzan but lost out to Johnny Weissmuller’s better physique and superior swimming prowess. Gable’s unshaven lovemaking with bra-less Jean Harlow in Red Dust (1932) made him MGM’s most important star. After the hit Hold Your Man (1933), MGM recognized the goldmine of the Gable-Harlow pairing, putting them in two more films, China Seas (1935) and Wife vs. Secretary (1936). An enormously popular combination, on-screen and off-screen, Gable and Jean Harlow made six films together, the most notable being Red Dust (1932) and Saratoga (1937). Harlow died of kidney failure during production of Saratoga. Ninety percent completed, the remaining scenes were filmed with long shots or doubles; Gable would say that he felt as if he were “in the arms of a ghost”.
According to legend, Gable was lent to Columbia Pictures, then considered a second-rate operation, as punishment for refusing roles; however, this has been refuted by more recent biographies. MGM did not have a project ready for Gable and was paying him $2000 per week, under his contract, to do nothing. Studio head Louis B. Mayer lent him to Columbia for $2500 per week, making a $500 per week profit.
Gable was not the first choice to play the lead role of Peter Warne in It Happened One Night. Robert Montgomery was originally offered the role, but he felt that the script was poor. Filming began in a tense atmosphere, but both Gable and Frank Capra enjoyed making the movie.
A persistent legend has it that Gable had a profound effect on men’s fashion, thanks to a scene in this movie. As he is preparing for bed, he takes off his shirt to reveal that he is bare-chested. Sales of men’s undershirts across the country allegedly declined noticeably for a period following this movie. Gable won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his 1934 performance in the film. He returned to MGM a bigger star than ever.
The unpublished memoirs of animator Friz Freleng mention that this was one of his favorite films. It has been claimed that it helped inspire the cartoon character Bugs Bunny. Four things in the film may have coalesced to create Bugs: the personality of a minor character, Oscar Shapely and his penchant for referring to Gable’s character as “Doc”, an imaginary character named “Bugs Dooley” that Gable’s character uses to frighten Shapely, and most of all, a scene in which Clark Gable eats carrots while talking quickly with his mouth full, as Bugs does.
Gable also earned an Academy Award nomination when he portrayed Fletcher Christian in 1935’s Mutiny on the Bounty. Gable once said that this was his favorite film of his own, despite the fact that he did not get along with his co-stars Charles Laughton and Franchot Tone.
In the following years, he acted in a succession of enormously popular pictures, earning him the undisputed title of “King of Hollywood” in 1938. The title ‘King’ was first offered by Spencer Tracy, probably in jest but soon Ed Sullivan started a poll in his newspaper column and more than 20 million fans voted Gable ‘King’ and Myrna Loy ‘Queen’ of Hollywood. Though the honorific certainly helped his career, Gable grew tired of it and later stated, “This ‘King’ stuff is pure bullshit…I’m just a lucky slob from Ohio. I happened to be in the right place at the right time”. Throughout most of the 1930s and the early 1940s, he was arguably the world’s biggest movie star.
Gone with the Wind
Despite his reluctance to play the role, Gable is best known for his performance in Gone with the Wind (1939), which earned him an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor. Carole Lombard may have been the first to suggest that he play Rhett Butler (and she play Scarlett) when she bought him a copy of the bestseller, which he refused to read.
Gable was an almost immediate favorite for the role of Rhett with both the public and producer David O. Selznick. But as Selznick had no male stars under long-term contract, he needed to go through the process of negotiating to borrow an actor from another studio. Gary Cooper was Selznick’s first choice. When Cooper turned down the role, he was quoted as saying, “Gone With the Wind is going to be the biggest flop in Hollywood history. I’m glad it’ll be Clark Gable who’s falling flat on his nose, not me.” By then, Selznick was determined to get Gable, and eventually found a way to borrow him from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Gable was wary of potentially disappointing a public who had decided no one else could play the part. He later conceded, “I think I know now how a fly must react after being caught in a spider’s web.” It was his first film in Technicolor. Also appearing in Gone With The Wind in the role of “Aunt Pittypat” was Laura Hope Crews, the friend in Portland who had coaxed Gable back into the theater.
During filming, Vivien Leigh complained about his bad breath, which was apparently caused by false teeth. They otherwise got along well. His most famous line was his closing, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.”
Gable also reportedly was friends with African-American actress Hattie McDaniel, and even slipped her a real drink during the scene they were supposed to be celebrating the birth of Scarlett and Rhett’s daughter. Gable also tried to boycott the Atlanta premiere because McDaniel was not allowed to attend, and only attended after she pleaded for him to go. He remained friends with McDaniel and always attended her Hollywood parties, especially when she was fundraising for the World War II effort.
Gable didn’t want to shed tears for the scene after Scarlett (Leigh) has a miscarriage. Olivia de Havilland made him cry, later commenting, “… Oh, he would not do it. He would not! Victor (Fleming) tried everything with him. He tried to attack him on a professional level. We had done it without him weeping several times and then we had one last try. I said, “You can do it, I know you can do it and you will be wonderful …” Well, by heaven, just before the cameras rolled, you could see the tears come up at his eyes and he played the scene unforgettably well. He put his whole heart into it.”
Decades later, Gable said that whenever his career would start to fade, a re-release of Gone with the Wind would instantly revive everything, and he continued as a top leading man for the rest of his life. In addition, Gable was one of the few actors to play the lead in three films that won an Academy Award for Best Picture.
Gone with the Wind was given theatrical re-releases in 1947, 1954, 1961, 1967 (in a widescreen version), 1971, 1989, and 1998.
Marriage to Carole Lombard
Gable’s marriage in 1939 to his third wife, successful actress Carole Lombard, was the happiest period of his personal life. As an independent actress, her annual income exceeded his studio salary until Gone with the Wind brought them to rough parity. From their pairing, she gained personal stability and he thrived being around her youthful, charming, and blunt personality. She went hunting and fishing with him and with his cronies and he became more sociable. Most times, she tolerated his philandering. He famously stated, “You can trust that little screwball with your life or your hopes or your weaknesses, and she wouldn’t even know how to think about letting you down.” They purchased a ranch at Encino and once Gable had become accustomed to her often blunt way of expressing herself, they found they had much in common, despite Gable being a conservative Republican and Lombard a liberal Democrat. Their efforts to have a child were unsuccessful; Lombard conceived once in 1940, but lost the child.
On January 16, 1942 Lombard was a passenger on TWA Flight 3. She had just finished her 57th film, To Be or Not to Be, was on a tour to sell war bonds when the twin-engine DC-3 operating the flight crashed into a mountain near Las Vegas, killing all aboard including Lombard’s mother and MGM staff publicist Otto Winkler (best man at Gable’s wedding to Lombard). Gable flew to the site and saw the forest fire ignited by the burning plane. Lombard was declared the first war-related female casualty the U.S. suffered in World War II and Gable received a personal condolence note from Franklin D. Roosevelt. The CAB investigation cited ‘pilot error.’
Gable returned to their empty house and a month later to the studio to work with Lana Turner on Somewhere I’ll Find You. Gable was devastated by the tragedy for many months and drank heavily but managed to perform professionally on the set. Gable was seen to break down for the first time in public when Lombard’s funeral request note was given to him. For a while, Joan Crawford returned to his side to offer support and friendship.
Gable resided the rest of his life at the couple’s Encino home, made twenty-seven more movies, and married twice more. “But he was never the same,” said Esther Williams. “His heart sank a bit.” World War II
In 1942, following Lombard’s death, Gable joined the U.S. Army Air Forces. Before her death, Lombard had suggested Gable enlist as part of the war effort, but MGM was obviously reluctant to let him go, and until her death he resisted the suggestion. Gable made a public statement after Lombard’s death that prompted Commanding General of the AAF Henry H. Arnold to offer Gable a “special assignment” in aerial gunnery. Gable, despite earlier expressing an interest in officer candidate school (OCS), enlisted on August 12, 1942, with the intention of becoming an enlisted gunner on an air crew. MGM arranged for his studio friend, cinematographer Andrew McIntyre, to enlist with and accompany him through training.
However shortly after his enlistment he and McIntyre were sent to Miami Beach, Florida, where they entered USAAF OCS Class 42-E on August 17, 1942. Both completed training on October 28, 1942, commissioned as second lieutenants. His class of 2,600 fellow students (of which he ranked 700th in class standing) selected Gable as their graduation speaker, at which General Arnold presented them their commissions. Arnold then informed Gable of his special assignment, to make a recruiting film in combat with the Eighth Air Force to recruit gunners. Gable and McIntyre were immediately sent to Flexible Gunnery School at Tyndall Field, Florida, followed by a photography course at Fort George Wright, Washington, and promoted to first lieutenants upon completion.
Gable reported to Biggs Air Force Base on January 27, 1943, to train with and accompany the 351st Bomb Group to England as head of a six-man motion picture unit. In addition to McIntyre, he recruited screenwriter John Lee Mahin; camera operators Sgts. Mario Toti, Robert Boles, and sound man Lt.Howard Voss to complete his crew. Gable was promoted to captain while with the 351st at Pueblo Army Air Base, Colorado, for rank commensurate with his position as a unit commander (as first lieutenants he and McIntyre had equal seniority).
Gable spent most of the war in the United Kingdom at RAF Polebrook with the 351st. Gable flew five combat missions, including one to Germany, as an observer-gunner in B-17 Flying Fortresses between May 4 and September 23, 1943, earning the Air Medal and the Distinguished Flying Cross for his efforts.During one of the missions, Gable’s aircraft was damaged by flak and attacked by interceptors which knocked out one of the engines and shot up the stabilizer. In the raid on Germany, in which one crewman was killed and two others wounded, flak went through Gable’s boot and narrowly missed his head. When word of this reached MGM, studio executives began to badger the Army Air Forces to reassign their valuable screen property to non-combat duty. In November 1943, he returned to the United States to edit the film, only to find that the personnel shortage of aerial gunners had already been rectified. He was allowed to complete the film anyway, joining the 1st Motion Picture Unit in Hollywood.
In May 1944, Gable was promoted to major. He hoped for another combat assignment but when D-Day came and passed in June without further orders, he requested and was granted a discharge. He completed editing of the film, Combat America, in September 1944, providing the narration himself and making use of numerous interviews with enlisted gunners as focus of the film.
Adolf Hitler esteemed Gable above all other actors; during the Second World War he offered a sizable reward to anyone who could capture and bring Gable unscathed to him.
After World War II
Immediately after his discharge from the service, Gable returned to his ranch and rested. He resumed a pre-war relationship with Virginia Grey and dated other starlets. He introduced his golf caddie Robert Wagner to MGM casting. Gable’s first movie after World War II was the 1945 production of Adventure, with his ill-matched co-star Greer Garson. It was a critical and commercial failure despite the famous teaser tagline “Gable’s back and Garson’s got him”. After this film, Gable’s career as a top star in Hollywood abruptly ended.
After Joan Crawford’s third divorce, she and Gable resumed their affair and lived together for a brief time. Gable was acclaimed for his performance in The Hucksters (1947), a satire of post-war Madison Avenue corruption and immorality. A very public and brief romance with Paulette Goddard occurred after that. In 1949, Gable married Sylvia Ashley, a British divorcée and the widow of Douglas Fairbanks. The relationship was profoundly unsuccessful; they divorced in 1952. Soon followed Never Let Me Go (1953), opposite Gene Tierney. Tierney was a favorite of Gable and he was very disappointed when she was replaced in Mogambo (due to her mental health problems) by Grace Kelly. Mogambo (1953), directed by John Ford, was a Technicolor remake of his earlier film Red Dust, which had been an even greater success. Gable’s on-location affair with Grace Kelly sputtered out after filming was completed.
Gable became increasingly unhappy with what he considered mediocre roles offered him by MGM, while the studio regarded his salary as excessive. Studio head Louis B. Mayer was fired in 1951 amid slumping Hollywood production and revenue, due primarily to the rising popularity of television. Studio chiefs struggled to cut costs. Many MGM stars were fired or not renewed, including Greer Garson and Judy Garland. In 1953, Gable refused to renew his contract, and began to work independently. His first two films were Soldier of Fortune and The Tall Men, both profitable though only modest successes. In 1955, Gable married his fifth wife, Kay Spreckels (née Kathleen Williams), a thrice-married former fashion model and actress who had previously been married to sugar-refining heir Adolph B. Spreckels Jr.
In 1955, Gable formed a production company with Jane Russell and her husband Bob Waterfield, and they produced The King and Four Queens, Gable’s one and only production. He found producing and acting to be too taxing on his health, and he was beginning to manifest a noticeable tremor particularly in long takes. His next project was Band of Angels, with relative newcomer Sidney Poitier and Yvonne De Carlo; it was a total disaster. Newsweek said, “Here is a movie so bad that it must be seen to be disbelieved.” Next he paired with Doris Day in Teacher’s Pet, shot in black and white to better hide his aging face and overweight body. The film was good enough to bring Gable more film offers, including Run Silent, Run Deep, with co-star and producer Burt Lancaster, which featured his first on screen death since 1937, and which garnered good reviews. Gable started to receive television offers but rejected them outright, even though some of his peers, like his old flame Loretta Young, were flourishing in the new medium. At 57, Gable finally acknowledged, “Now it’s time I acted my age”. His next two films were light comedies for Paramount: But Not for Me with Carroll Baker and It Started in Naples with Sophia Loren (his last film in color). Both received poor reviews and flopped at the box office.
Gable’s last film was The Misfits, written by Arthur Miller, directed by John Huston, and co-starring Marilyn Monroe, Eli Wallach, and Montgomery Clift. This was also the final film completed by Monroe. Many critics regard Gable’s performance to be his finest, and Gable, after seeing the rough cuts, agreed.
Gable was politically conservative, though he never publicly spoke about politics. His third wife Carole Lombard, an activist liberal Democrat, cajoled him into supporting Democratic President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal. In 1944, he became an early member of the right-wing Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, alongside Ronald Reagan, John Wayne, Gary Cooper and other conservative actors and filmmakers. In February 1952 he attended a televised rally in New York where he enthusiastically urged General Dwight D. Eisenhower to run for President. This was when Eisenhower was still being sought by both parties as their candidate. Despite having suffered a severe coronary thrombosis, Gable still managed to vote by post in the 1960 presidential election. It is believed that he probably voted for the Republican candidate, and Eisenhower’s vice-president, Richard Nixon.
Gable had a daughter, Judy Lewis, the result of an affair with actress Loretta Young that began on the set of The Call of the Wild in 1934. In an elaborate scheme, Young took an extended vacation and went to Europe to hide the fact that she was pregnant. After a few months, she came back to California and gave birth to their child in Venice. Nineteen months after the birth, Loretta claimed to have adopted Judy. This ploy got less believable when the child grew up to not only look like her mother, but also Clark Gable. Judy had Gable’s big ears that stuck out as well as his eyes and smile.
According to Lewis, Gable visited her home once, but he didn’t tell her that he was her father. While neither Gable nor Young would ever publicly acknowledge their daughter’s real parentage, this fact was so widely known that in Lewis’s autobiography Uncommon Knowledge, she wrote that she was shocked to learn of it from other children at school. Loretta Young never officially acknowledged the fact, which she said would be the same as admitting to a “venial sin.” However, she finally gave her biographer permission to include it only on the condition the book not be published until after her death.
On March 20, 1961, Kay Gable gave birth to Gable’s son, John Clark Gable, born four months after Clark’s death.
Gable died in Los Angeles, California on November 16, 1960, the result of a heart attack ten days after suffering a severe coronary thrombosis. There was much speculation that Gable’s physically demanding role in The Misfits contributed to his sudden death soon after filming was completed. In an interview with Louella Parsons, published soon after Gable’s death, Kay Gable was quoted as saying “It wasn’t the physical exertion that killed him. It was the horrible tension, the eternal waiting, waiting, waiting. He waited around forever, for everybody. He’d get so angry that he’d just go ahead and do anything to keep occupied.” Monroe said that she and Kay had become close during the filming and would refer to Clark as “Our Man”, while Arthur Miller, observing Gable on location, noted that “no hint of affront ever showed on his face.”
Others have blamed Gable’s crash diet before filming began. The 6’1″ (185 cm) Gable weighed about 190 pounds (86.2 kg) at the time of Gone with the Wind, but by his late 50s, he weighed 230 pounds (104.3 kg). To get in shape for The Misfits, he dropped to 195 lbs (88 kg). In addition, Gable was in poor health from years of heavy smoking (three packs of unfiltered cigarettes a day over thirty years, as well as cigars and at least two bowlfuls of pipe tobacco a day). Until the late 1950s he had been a heavy drinker, especially of whisky.
Gable is interred in The Great Mausoleum at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California beside Carole Lombard.
Doris Day summed up Gable’s unique personality, “He was as masculine as any man I’ve ever known, and as much a little boy as a grown man could be – it was this combination that had such a devastating effect on women.”
Longtime friend, eight time co-star and on-again, off-again romance Joan Crawford concurred, stating on David Frost’s TV show in 1970, “he was a king wherever he went. He walked like one, he behaved like one, and he was the most masculine man that I have ever met in my life.”
Robert Taylor said Gable “was a great, great guy and certainly one of the great stars of all times, if not the greatest. I think that I sincerely doubt that there will ever be another like Clark Gable, he was one of a kind.”