Everyone wants to be Cary Grant. Even I want to be Cary Grant.
– Cary Grant
Born Archibald Alexander Leach on January 18, 1904, Cary Grant was widely considered one of Hollywood’s definitive leading men. Born in Bristol, England, Grant had a largely unhappy childhood with an alcoholic father and a mother who suffered from depression. Her hostility was seen as a result of losing a child, which Grant in a sense replaced, and he would go on to resent her for most of his life. Eventually his father placed her in an institution, telling the then nine year old Grant that she had gone away on holiday and later declared she had died. It was not until he was thirty-one that he would learn the truth about his mother which his father confessed to him just before he died. In this time his father had remarried and started a new family that did not include Grant.
A fan of the theatre, he befriended a troupe of acrobats, known as The Penders, at the age of six and began to perform with them. When his father remarried he left his son in the care of the troupe and Grant began touring with the group. Developing a love of comedy, he sailed to New York on March 5, 1911, returning to England in September. In 1914 he was awarded a scholarship to attend Fairfield Grammar School in Bristol, however he was expelled four years later in 1918 with various explanations floating around as to why. He re-joined the troupe and in 1920, at the age of sixteen, commenced a two year tour through the United States. It was on this trip that Grant fell in love with Manhattan and when the rest of the troupe returned to England he decided to stay on in America and pursue a stage career.
He became part of the vaudeville world, touring the United States with Parker and Rand. The group split at the end of the tour in 1925 and Grant returned to New York. It was his work with the troupe and vaudeville that would give the star his physical grace and comedic timing, which would serve him well in Hollywood.
His break came through his role in Nikki (1931) where he starred opposite Fay Wray as a soldier named Cary Lockwood. Ed Sullivan praised the ‘young lad from England’ who he predicted had ‘a big future in the movies’. This review got him an un-credited role in Singapore Sue (1932) a short film by Casey Robinson. It was Robinson who would introduce Grant to Jesse L. Lasky and B. P. Schulberg – the co-founder and general manager of Paramount Pictures. He was signed with a starting salary of $450 a week, with a request that he change his name from Archibald Leach to something that sound ‘more all – American’. While having dinner with Fay Wray, she asked he change his name to his character from their film Nikki – Cary Lockwood – Schulberg liked ‘Cary’ but asked the actor to choose a surname from a list the Paramount publicity department had compiled – he chose ‘Grant’ and Cary Grant was born.
His feature film debut was in This is the Night (1932) but, although praised by critics, Grant so disliked his role that he decided to quit Hollywood. It was Australian costume designer, and Grants close friend, Orry – Kelly who talked him out of it. He would go on to make six more films in 1932 – Sinner and the Sun, Blonde Venus, Merrily We Go To Hell, Devil and the Deep, Hot Saturday and Madame Butterfly – while these films didn’t make Grant a star, they did cement him as part of a new crop of emerging young talent.
In 1933 he received attention for his roles in She Done Him Wrong and I’m No Angel opposite Mae West, with She Done Him Wrong nominated for Best Picture. This saw Grant’s salary increased from $450 to $750 a week. Paramount put the actor in a series of less successful films up until 1935 when he was loaned out to RKO Pictures. It was here that he starred in Sylvia Scarlett (1935) opposite Katherine Hepburn, marking the beginning of what would become a long and successful collaboration with the actress. They would go on to star in Bringing Up Baby (1938) Holiday (1938) and The Philadelphia Story (1940). While Sylvia Scarlett was a commercial failure, Grant was praised by the critics for practically stealing the film and this lead to a joint contract with RKO and Columbia Pictures, allowing him more freedom to choose his roles.
It was his role in The Awful Truth (1937) which established him as a comedic leading man and a master of screwball comedies. This began what would later be recognised as the greatest run ever for an actor in American pictures. During the next four years Grant appeared in Holiday (1938), Bringing Up Baby (1938), Gunga Din (1939), Only Angels Have Wings (1939), The Philadelphia Story (1940), His Girl Friday (1940), My Favourite Wife (1940), Penny Serenade (1941) and Suspicion (1941) – which would mark Grant’s first collaboration with Alfred Hitchcock. He also stared in Hitchcock’s Notorious (1946), To Catch a Thief (1955) and North by Northwest (1959), and was considered a favourite of the Director’s, who called him ‘the only actor I ever loved in my whole life.’ On June 26, 1942, Grant became an American citizen and legally changed his name to Cary Grant.
In 1952 Grant starred in Monkey Business opposite Ginger Rogers and Marilyn Monroe and in the mid – fifties he formed his own production company, Grant Productions, producing numerous films distributed by Universal such as Operation Petticoat (1959), Indiscreet (1958), That Touch of Mink (1962) and Father Goose (1964). Grant was originally sought for the role of James Bond in Dr. No (1962) but was discarded when it became clear he would only commit to one feature film and could not be more involved in the franchise. In 1957 he starred opposite Deborah Kerr in An Affair to Remember – often viewed as one of his most memorable performances – and 1963 saw the actor star opposite Audrey Hepburn in Charade.
Grant was one of the first actors to become independent by not renewing his contract and effectively leaving the studio system. He was now able to decide what roles he took, often had a choice as to directors and co-stars and was able to negotiate a share of the gross revenue – unheard of at this time. The actor received more than $700,000 for his 10% of the gross for To Catch a Thief, while Hitchcock received less than $50,000 for directing and producing the film. The actor was nominated for two Academy Awards for Penny Serenade (1941) and None But the Lonely Heart (1944), and five times for a Golden Globe Award for Best Actor. In 1970 he received an Academy Award for Lifetime Achievement and in 1981 was accorded the Kennedy Centre Honours.
Grant was one of the wealthiest stars in Hollywood. Immaculately dressed and sophisticated in appearance, he often came across as cocky and vulgar. The actor was married five times – to Virginia Cherrill on February 10, 1934, divorced March 26, 1935 with claims that he had hit her, Barbara Hutton in 1942, divorced in 1945, Betsy Drake on December 25, 1949, this would prove to be his longest marriage with the couple divorcing on August 14, 1962 after staring in two films together. He eloped to Las Vegas with Dyan Cannon on July 22, 1965, with whom he had his only child, Jennifer, born February 26, 1966 and who he referred to as his ‘best production’. They divorced in March 1968. On April 11, 1981 he married Barbara Harris who was forty-seven years his junior. There was much speculation throughout his life that Grant was bisexual and allegedly involved with Australian costume designer Orry – Kelly when he first moved to Manhattan.
It was the birth of his daughter Jennifer, at the age of 62, that saw Grant retire from acting to focus on fatherhood. He remained in good health until October 1984 when he suffered a mild stroke. This setback didn’t stop him, and in the final years of his life he toured the United States performing a one man show – A Conversation with Cary Grant – showing clips from his films and answering questions. On November 29, 1986, as he was preparing to go on stage in Iowa, Grant suffered a cerebral haemorrhage and died later in hospital, he was 82. The bulk of his estate, worth millions, went to his wife Barbara Harris and his daughter.
Grant remained one of Hollywood’s top box – office attractions for almost thirty years and has graced numerous ‘Greatest Movie Stars of All Time’ lists over the years. His early life as a vaudeville performer shaped him into the finest comedic actor of his generation, continuously poking fun at himself with ad – lib lines such as in the film His Girl Friday (1940), when he said ‘Listen, the last man who said that to me was Archie Leach, just a week before he cut his throat.’