Johan Mandt Kvalen
December 8, 1899
Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada
|Died||September 12, 1987 (aged 87)|
Torrance, California, U.S.
|Resting place||Forest Lawn Memorial Park, Glendale, California, U.S.|
Great Mausoleum, Sanctuary of Reliance, Crypt 9632
|Other names||John M. Qualen|
John T. Qualen
John Qualen (born Johan Mandt Kvalen, December 8, 1899 – September 12, 1987) was a Canadian-American character actor of Norwegian heritage who specialized in Scandinavian roles.
Qualen was born in Vancouver, British Columbia, the son of immigrants from Norway; his father was a Lutheran minister and changed the family's original surname, "Kvalen", to "Qualen" – though some sources give Oleson, later Oleson Kvalen as Qualen's earlier surnames. His father's ministering meant many moves and John was 20 when he graduated from Elgin (Illinois) High School in 1920. For four years, Qualen attended the University of Toronto, but he left there to join a Toronto-based traveling troupe as an actor.
In a Milwaukee Journal interview he said he needed to start working and did so with the Chautauqua Circuit. He drove stakes for the tent used for presentations until a night in Ripon, Wisconsin, when the scheduled principal lecturer did not arrive. Qualen replaced the missing man after he showed the Chautauqua manager a medal he had won for oratory as a high school student. Not long after that, he formed his own troupe, The Qualen Concert Company. At the conclusion of a tour following his marriage, Qualen and his wife, Pearle, formed the company to produce plays. The group's stops in a two-year tour included Boston, Chicago, and New Orleans. The Qualens' income was low enough that he sold cookware in New York for additional funds. Using a handcart to move the merchandise, he made more money from sales than from his acting.
Eventually reaching Broadway, he gained his big break there in 1929, when he was cast as the Swedish janitor Carl Olsen in Elmer Rice's play Street Scene. His movie career began when he re-created the role two years later in the film adaptation of the stage production. That screen performance was followed by his appearance in John Ford's Arrowsmith (1931), which began a more than 35-year membership in the director's "stock company", with supporting roles in The Searchers (1956), Two Rode Together (1961), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) and Cheyenne Autumn (1964).
Appearing in well over one hundred films, and acting on television into the 1970s, Qualen performed many of his roles with various accents, usually Scandinavian, often intended for comic effect. Three of his more memorable roles showcase his versatility. Qualen assumed a Midwestern dialect as Muley, who recounts the destruction of his farm by the bank in Ford's The Grapes of Wrath (1940), in a performance so powerful it reportedly reduced director Ford to tears; and as the confused killer Earl Williams in Howard Hawks' classic comedy His Girl Friday (1940). As Berger, the jewelry-selling Norwegian resistance member in Michael Curtiz' Casablanca (1942), he used a light Scandinavian accent, but put on a thicker Mediterranean accent as the homeward-bound fisherman Locota in William Wellman's The High and the Mighty (1954)
Qualen was also a flautist, having begun to play at age eight. He continued his musical education while at the University of Toronto and went on to play with some professional orchestras, including the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra.
Qualen was treasurer of The Authors Club and historian of The Masquers, Hollywood's social group for actors.
In 1924, after he became an actor, Qualen married Pearle Larson, whom he had known in high school. She joined him in the Toronto-based traveling troupe when he left university, becoming the troupe's costume mistress. The couple remained together for over 60 years, until 1987, when Qualen died at age 87 of heart failure in Torrance, California.