Sidney Toler

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Sidney Toler
Sidney Toler.jpg
BornHooper G. Toler, Jr.
(1874-04-28)April 28, 1874
Warrensburg, Missouri, U.S.
DiedFebruary 12, 1947(1947-02-12) (aged 72)
Beverly Hills, California, U.S.
OccupationActor, playwright, theatre director
Years active1903–1947
Spouse(s)Vivian Marston (1907-1943) (her death)
Viva Tattersall (1943-1947) (his death)
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Sidney Toler
Sidney Toler.jpg
BornHooper G. Toler, Jr.
(1874-04-28)April 28, 1874
Warrensburg, Missouri, U.S.
DiedFebruary 12, 1947(1947-02-12) (aged 72)
Beverly Hills, California, U.S.
OccupationActor, playwright, theatre director
Years active1903–1947
Spouse(s)Vivian Marston (1907-1943) (her death)
Viva Tattersall (1943-1947) (his death)

Sidney Hooper Toler (April 28, 1874 – February 12, 1947) was an American actor, playwright, and theatre director. Of primarily Scottish ancestry, he was the second non-Asian actor to play the role of Charlie Chan.

Early life and career[edit]

Born Hooper G. Toler, Jr. in Warrensburg, Missouri, Toler showed a very early interest in the theater, acting in an amateur production of Tom Sawyer at the age of seven. Following his graduation from college, he became a professional actor in Kansas City, and then worked for a touring company during the late 1890s. For three decades, he acted on the stage in New York City, working with such future stars as Edward G. Robinson, John Barrymore, Katharine Hepburn, and Humphrey Bogart. In 1921, he co-wrote and directed Golden Days, a comedy starring Helen Hayes. Throughout the 1920s, Toler had an active role in co-writing or directing several other plays including The Exile (1923), Bye, Bye, Barbara (1924), and Ritzy (1930, co-written with Viva Tattersall).

In 1929, Toler worked in his first Hollywood film, playing as an Englishman in Madame X. For nearly ten years, he worked in roles that supported well-known stars in films such as Blonde Venus (1932), starring Marlene Dietrich, The Phantom President (1932), with George M. Cohan, and Call of the Wild (1935), featuring Clark Gable.

Charlie Chan series[edit]

Following the death of Warner Oland, Twentieth Century-Fox began the search for a new Charlie Chan. Thirty-four actors were tested before the studio decided on Sidney Toler. Twentieth Century-Fox announced its choice on October 18, 1938, and filming began less than a week later on Charlie Chan in Honolulu, which had been originally scripted for Warner Oland and Keye Luke. Toler's portrayal of the Chinese detective in Charlie Chan in Honolulu was very well received. Besides Toler, there was another change in the series. Sen Yung, as Number Two Son Jimmy, replaced Number One Son Lee, who had been played by Keye Luke. Toler's Chan, rather than merely mimicking the character that Oland had portrayed, had a somewhat sharper edge that was well suited for the rapid changes of the times, both political and cultural. When needed, Charlie Chan now displayed overt sarcasm, usually toward his son Jimmy.

Through four years and eleven films, Toler played Charlie Chan for Twentieth Century-Fox. However, in 1942, following the completion of Castle in the Desert, Fox concluded the series. The wartime collapse of the international film market may have been a factor, but the main reason was that Fox was curtailing virtually all of its low-budget series; Fox's other "B" series (Jane Withers, Michael Shayne, The Cisco Kid) also ended that year. (Only Laurel and Hardy remained in Fox's "B" unit, until it shut down at the end of 1944.)

Sidney Toler immediately sought the screen rights to the Charlie Chan character from Eleanor Biggers Cole, the widow of Chan's creator, Earl Derr Biggers. He had hoped that Fox would distribute new Charlie Chan films, starring himself, if he could find someone willing to finance the productions. Fox declined, but Toler sold the idea to Monogram Pictures, a lower-budget film studio. Phil Krasne, a Hollywood lawyer who invested in film productions, partnered with James Burkett to produce the Monogram Chans.

With the release of Charlie Chan in the Secret Service (1944), the effects of a more limited budget were somewhat apparent. Production values were no match for those of Fox; Monogram's budgets were typically about 40% of what Fox's had been. In fairness to Monogram, the films did gradually improve, with The Chinese Cat, The Shanghai Cobra, and Dark Alibi often cited as favorites by fans. Cast changes were again made: Sen Yung's Jimmy was replaced by Benson Fong as Number Three Son Tommy, and Mantan Moreland played the ever-present and popular Birmingham Brown, who brought comedy relief (and black audiences) to the series. Monogram's Charlie Chan films boasted tricky screenplays with many surprise culprits and murder devices, and were profitable and successful.

Personal life[edit]

Toler's first wife was Vivian Marston, an American actress of Spanish and Canadian ancestry, whom he married in 1907 and who occasionally used the surname Marston-Toler professionally.[1][2][3] She died in 1943. The couple had no children.

In 1943, Toler married Viva Tattersall (née Vera Tattersall, 1898-1989), a British-born actress who also co-wrote several plays with Toler, including Ritzy (1930) and Dress Parade (1929).[4] Their marriage lasted until Toler's death in 1947. The couple had no children.

Later years and death[edit]

By the end of 1946, age and illness were affecting Sidney Toler. Diagnosed with cancer, the 72-year-old Toler was so ill during the filming of Dangerous Money (1946) and Shadows over Chinatown (1946) that he could hardly walk. Monogram hired Toler's original foil, "Number Two Son" Victor Sen Young, for Toler's last two films, quite probably to ease the burden on Toler. Toler mustered enough strength to complete his last film, The Trap, which was filmed in July-August 1946 and released in November that same year. (Young and Moreland relieve Toler of much of the action in The Trap). Toler's Monogram output matched his Fox output: 11 films for each studio.

Sidney Toler died on February 12, 1947, at his home in Los Angeles, California from intestinal cancer. Monogram continued the series with actor Roland Winters who appeared in six more feature films as Charlie Chan.

Selected filmography[edit]

1929Madame XDr. MerivelAlternative title: Absinthe
1930The Devil's ParadeSatan
1931White ShouldersWilliam Sothern
Strictly DishonorablePatrolman Mulligan
1932Blondie of the FolliesPete
Blonde VenusDet. Wilson
The Phantom PresidentProfessor Aikenhead
Speak EasilyStage Director
1933The Narrow CornerRyan, the Go-Between
1934Dark HazardJohn Bright
SpitfireMr. Jim Sawyer
The Trumpet BlowsPepi Sancho
Upper WorldOfficer Moran
1935Romance in ManhattanPolice Sergeant
The Call of the WildJoe Groggins
1936Three GodfathersProf. Amos Snape
The Gorgeous HussyDaniel Webster
Our RelationsCaptain of SS Periwinkle
1937That Certain WomanDetective Lieutenant Neely
Double WeddingMr. Keough
1938Gold Is Where You Find ItHarrison McCooey
The Mysterious RiderFrosty Kilburn
If I Were KingRobin Turgis
Up the RiverJeffrey Mitchell
Charlie Chan in HonoluluCharlie Chan
1939DisbarredG.L. "Hardy" Mardsen
Charlie Chan in City in DarknessCharlie Chan
1940Charlie Chan in PanamaCharlie Chan
Charlie Chan's Murder CruiseCharlie Chan
Charlie Chan at the Wax MuseumCharlie Chan
Murder Over New YorkCharlie Chan
1941Charlie Chan in RioCharlie Chan
Dead Men TellCharlie Chan
1942Castle in the DesertCharlie Chan
1943A Night to RememberInspector Hankins
White SavageWong
Isle of Forgotten SinsKrogan/CarruthersAlternative title Monsoon
1944Charlie Chan in the Secret ServiceCharlie Chan
The Chinese CatCharlie ChanAlternate title Murder in the Funhouse
Black MagicCharlie ChanAlternate title Meeting at Midnight
1945It's in the Bag!Detective SullyAlternative title: The Fifth Chair
The Shanghai CobraCharlie Chan
The Jade MaskCharlie Chan
The Red DragonCharlie Chan
The Scarlet ClueCharlie Chan
1946Dark AlibiCharlie Chan
Shadows Over ChinatownCharlie Chan
Dangerous MoneyCharlie Chan
The TrapCharlie Chan



  1. ^ Marriage year and ancestry cited in 1910 U. S. Federal Census for Massachusetts, accessed online at on 25 September 2011
  2. ^ Career outlined in Johnson Briscoe, "The Actors' Birthday Book" (Moffat, Yard & Company, 1908), page 54
  3. ^ Surname Marston-Toler given in "The Green Book Album: A Magazine of the Passing Show", January 1910, page 429
  4. ^ "Catalogue of Copyright Entries", US Government Printing Office, 1929, page 6

External links[edit]