William Gilbert Barron
September 12, 1894
Louisville, Kentucky, U.S.
|Died||September 23, 1971 (aged 77)|
Los Angeles, California, U.S.
|Resting place||Odd Fellows Cemetery|
William Gilbert Barron (September 12, 1894 – September 23, 1971), known professionally as Billy Gilbert, was an American actor and comedian. He was known for his comic sneeze routines. He appeared in over 200 feature films, short subjects and television shows beginning in 1929.
The child of singers with the Metropolitan Opera, he was born in a dressing room at the Hopkins Opera House in Louisville, Kentucky. Gilbert began working in vaudeville at the age of 12, and later played in burlesque on the Columbia and Mutual wheels.
Gilbert was spotted by Stan Laurel, who was in the audience of Gilbert's show Sensations of 1929. Laurel went backstage to meet Gilbert and was so impressed by him he introduced him to comedy producer Hal Roach. Gilbert was employed as a gag writer, actor and director, and at the age of 35 he appeared in his first film for the Fox Film Corporation in 1929.
Gilbert broke into comedy short subjects with the Vitaphone studio in 1930 – he appears without billing in the Joe Frisco comedy The Happy Hottentots (restored and released on DVD). Gilbert's burly frame and gruff voice made him a good comic villain, and within the year he was working consistently for producer Roach. He appeared in support of Roach's comedy stars Laurel and Hardy, Charley Chase, Thelma Todd, and Our Gang. One of his Laurel and Hardy appearances was the Academy Award-winning featurette The Music Box (1932). Gilbert generally played blustery tough guys in the Roach comedies, but could play other comic characters, from fey couturiers to pompous radio announcers to roaring drunks. Gilbert's skill at dialects prompted Roach to give him his own series: big Billy Gilbert teamed with little Billy Bletcher as the Dutch-comic "Schmaltz Brothers." in offbeat musical shorts like "Rhapsody in Brew" (which Gilbert also directed). Gilbert regularly starred in Roach's short-comedy series The Taxi Boys, opposite comedians Clyde Cook, Billy Bevan, Franklin Pangborn, and finally Ben Blue.
Like many other Roach contractees, Gilbert found similar work at other studios. He appears in the early comedies of the Three Stooges at Columbia Pictures, as well as in RKO short subjects. These led to featured roles in full-length films, and from 1934 Gilbert became one of the screen's most familiar faces. In 1944, Billy signed with the prestigious William Morris Agency, which led to starring roles and prominent supporting roles in numerous films.
One of his standard routines had Gilbert progressively getting excited or nervous about something, and his speech would break down into facial spasms, culminating in a big, loud sneeze. He used this bit so frequently that Walt Disney thought of him immediately when casting the voice of Sneezy in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). Gilbert and Disney would later work together again in the "Mickey and the Beanstalk" sequence in Fun and Fancy Free (1947), with Gilbert voicing Willie the Giant in a very similar way to Sneezy. Gilbert did the sneeze routine in a memorable cameo in the Paramount comedy Million Dollar Legs (1932) starring W. C. Fields, Jack Oakie, Susan Fleming, and Ben Turpin.
Gilbert is prominent in most of the movies he appeared in, and he often used dialects. He appeared as "Herring" – a parody of Nazi official Hermann Göring – the minister of war in Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator. He danced with Alice Faye and Betty Grable in Tin Pan Alley; he stole scenes as a dim-witted process server in the fast-paced comedy His Girl Friday; playing an Italian character, he played opposite singer Gloria Jean in The Under-Pup and A Little Bit of Heaven. He was also the soda server to Freddie Bartholomew in Captains Courageous. He was featured in the John Wayne and Marlene Dietrich film Seven Sinners. All of these were choice Gilbert roles, and all filmed within a single year, demonstrating how prolific and talented he was.
Gilbert seldom starred in movies but did have occasional opportunities to play leads. In 1943, he headlined a brief series of two-reel comedies for Columbia Pictures. That same year, Monogram Pictures teamed him with the urbane stage comedian Frank Fay for a comedy series; Fay left the series after the first entry. Gilbert asked his closest friend, vaudeville veteran Shemp Howard, to replace him. Howard had been the original third member of the Three Stooges before leaving to pursue a solo career.
During the late 1940s and early 1950s, Gilbert worked on Broadway in several productions as an actor, writer and director. These include acting roles in Fanny, The Chocolate Soldier, and Gypsy Lady, and directing roles in The Red Mill and other plays. In the 1950s, Billy Gilbert worked frequently in television, including a memorable pantomime sketch with Buster Keaton on You Asked for It. He appeared regularly on the children's program Andy's Gang with Andy Devine, and starred as the giant in the Producers' Showcase TV episode of Jack and the Beanstalk (1956), along with Celeste Holm and Joel Grey as Jack. He retired from the screen following his appearance in the feature Five Weeks in a Balloon (1962).
After an unhappy first marriage, in 1938 Gilbert married Ella McKenzie, whom he affectionately called Lolly. She had appeared as an ingenue in short-subject comedies. Fellow film comedian Charley Chase was the best man. In 1941, Billy and Ella adopted an 11-year-old son, Barry, who died in a 1943 shooting accident.
Ella Baxter McKenzie was an Ulster-Scot whose grandfather John McKenzie was a prominent member of the Orange Order in Ballymena, County Antrim, Northern Ireland. Her father was Robert Baxter McKenzie, who always wore an orange flower on the Twelfth of July, Orangeman's Day in Northern Ireland, in remembrance of the family background and cultural heritage. Ella's sister was film actress Fay McKenzie. The family moved to America and settled in Oregon when he was nine years old. In late 1943, Gilbert appeared with Ella in a USO show, entertaining the US Marines stationed in Derry, Northern Ireland. Ella and Billy visited Ballymena in 1943; an account of their visit is reported in the Larne Times of December 9, 1943.
Gilbert died on September 23, 1971, in North Hollywood at the age of 77, after suffering a stroke. He was cremated and his ashes scattered in the Rose Garden of the Odd Fellows Cemetery, in Los Angeles. A plaque of remembrance was erected in his name nearby.
For his contributions to the motion picture industry, Gilbert has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6263 Hollywood Boulevard.