04 February, 2009

Raymond Massey

Raymond Hart Massey was a Canadian-born American actor.

Massey was born in Toronto, Ontario, the son of Anna (née Vincent) and Chester Daniel Massey, the wealthy owner of the Massey-Ferguson Tractor Company. Massey's family could trace their ancestry back to the American Revolutionary War. He attended secondary school briefly at Upper Canada College, before transferring to Appleby College in Oakville, Ontario, and graduated from university at University of Toronto where both he and his brother were active members in the Kappa Alpha Society, and Balliol College, Oxford.

At the outbreak of World War I, he joined the Canadian Army, serving with the artillery on the Western Front. He returned to Canada suffering shell-shock and was engaged as an army instructor for American officers at Yale. In 1918, he was sent to serve at Siberia, where he made his first stage appearance, entertaining American troops on occupation duty. Severely wounded in action in France, he was sent home, where he eventually worked in the family business, selling farm implements.

Drawn to the theater, in 1922, he appeared on the London stage. His first movie role was High Treason in 1927. He played Sherlock Holmes in The Speckled Band in 1931, the first sound film version of the story. In 1936, he starred in H. G. Wells' Things to Come. Despite being Canadian, Massey became famous for his quintessential American roles such as abolitionist John Brown in 1940's Santa Fe Trail and again as John Brown in the 1955 low-budget film Seven Angry Men. His second portrayal of Brown was much more sympathetic, presenting him as a well-intentioned, but misguided figure, while in Santa Fe Trail he was presented as a wild-eyed lunatic.

Although there was a great outcry when a Canadian was cast as an American president, he scored a great triumph on Broadway in Robert E. Sherwood's play Abe Lincoln in Illinois, and repeated his role in the 1940 film version (for which he was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor). Massey again portrayed Lincoln in the 1956 production of The Day Lincoln Was Shot on Ford Star Jubilee, and (a wordless appearance this time) in 1962's How the West Was Won.

On stage in the 1953 dramatic reading of Stephen Vincent Benét's John Brown's Body, Massey, in addition to narrating along with Tyrone Power and Judith Anderson, took on both the roles of John Brown and Abe Lincoln in the same work.

Massey portrayed the character of "Jonathan Brewster" in the film version of Arsenic and Old Lace. The character had originally been played by Boris Karloff for the stage version and the character was written to resemble Karloff (an ongoing joke in the play and film). Massey and Karloff had appeared together in the 1932 James Whale suspense film The Old Dark House.

He rejoined the Canadian Army for World War II, though he would eventually be released from service and return to acting work. Following the war, he became an American citizen. Massey became well-known on television in the 1950s and 1960s, especially as Doctor Gillespie in the popular series Dr. Kildare.

He and his son, Daniel, were cast as father and son in 1961's The Queen's Guards.

Massey played a Canadian on screen only once, in Forty-Ninth Parallel (1941). He became a naturalized citizen of the United States in 1944.

He died of pneumonia on July 29, 1983 (the same day as his The Prisoner of Zenda and A Matter of Life and Death co-star David Niven) in Los Angeles, California, at the age of 86, and is buried in New Haven, Connecticut's Beaverdale Memorial Park.

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