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Historically Speaking

Historically Speaking: Hollywood’s Utility Comedian and Oldest Freshman

By Tom Morrow

Anyone who loves old movies, especially comedies and mello-dramas made during the 1930s and 1940s, will recognize the comedy and “second-banana” roles of Jack Oakie. Nearly forgotten today, however true movie buffs are sure to know the name, if not the face as one of Hollywood’s favorite “go-to” guy for comedic “pal” to the lead actor roles.

Oakie was born as Lewis Delaney Offield in Sedalia, Mo., on Nov. 12, 1903. His father was a grain dealer and his mother a psychology teacher. When he was five years old the Offield family moved to Muskogee, Ok., the source of his adopted “Oakie” name. His first name, “Jack,” was the name of the first character he played on stage.

After growing up, Oakie worked as a runner on Wall Street in New York City. He narrowly escaped being killed in the Wall Street bombing of Sept. 16, 1920. While in New York, he started appearing in amateur theatre as a mimic and a comedian, finally making his professional debut on Broadway in 1923, as a chorus boy in a production of George M. Cohan’s “Little Nellie Kelly.”

Oakie worked in various musicals and comedies on Broadway from 1923 to 1927, when he moved to Hollywood to work in movies at the end of the silent film era. Oakie appeared in five silent films during 1927 and 1928. As the age of the “talkies” began, he signed with Paramount Pictures, making his first talking film, “The Dummy,” in 1929.

A little-known fact about Oakie, even to most film directors: he was partially deaf. Evidence of this can be seen in most of his film as he usually is facing fellow actors so he could read their lips.

When his contract with Paramount ended in 1934, Oakie decided to freelance. He was remarkably successful, appearing in 87 films, most made in the 1930s and 1940s. In the film “Too Much Harmony” (1933), the part of Oakie’s on-screen mother was played by his real mother, Mary Evelyn Offield.

During the 1930s, Oakie was known as “The World’s Oldest Freshman,” as a result of appearing in numerous films with a collegiate theme. He also was known for refusing to wear screen make-up of any kind, and his most famous trait was the frequent use of double-take.

Oakie is probably most notable for his portrayal of Benzino Napaloni, the boisterous dictator of Bacteria, in Charlie Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator” (1940), for which he received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. This role was a broad parody of the fascist then-dictator of Italy, Benito Mussolini. Late in his career he appeared in various episodes of a number of television shows, including “The Real McCoys” (1963, “Daniel Boone” (1966), and “Bonanza” (1966).

Oakie was married twice. First to Venita Varden in 1936 ended in a 1938 divorce. They reconciled, but divorced again in 1944. (She died in 1948 in a United Airlines flight in Pennsylvania). His second marriage was to actress Victoria Horne in 1950, with whom he lived at his San Fernando Valley “Oakridge” estate until his death in 1978.

Jack Oakie died on Jan. 23, 1978, in Los Angeles at the age of 74 from an aortic aneurysm. He’s buried at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Los Angeles.

Victoria Oakie continued to live there after her husband’s death and bequeathed the estate to the University of Southern California. In 2009, Oakridge was acquired by the City of Los Angeles. Oakridge is considered to be one of the last remnants of the large Northridge equestrian estates, famed for former thoroughbred breeding. The city plans to use the property as a park and community event center.

In 1981, the “Jack Oakie Lecture on Comedy in Film” was established as an annual event of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. At the inaugural presentation, Oakie was described as “a master of comic timing and a beloved figure in the industry.”

Jack Oakie’s star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame is at 6752 Hollywood Boulevard, and his hand and footprints can be found at Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood.


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