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He's the one on the left, and his role as a down and out boxer in 1931's The Champ won him an Oscar. More bull than man, Wallace Beery left home at age 16 in 1901 to join the Ringling Brothers Circus, traveling the country for a couple of years as an assistant to elephant trainer. After a leopard nearly mangled his arm, he left the circus and landed in New York on the Broadway stage before making his way to Hollywood in 1913.

Beery flourished in the world of silents, including a reprisal of his stage role of Sweedie the maid, in drag, for the 1915 film Sweedie Goes to College. Other important comedic appearances were as the burly foil to Laurel and Hardy, as well as Buster Keaton. For drama, he dons loin cloth for Indian role in Last of the Mohicans (1920), tights as Richard the Lionhearted in Robin Hood (1922), and sails the oceans in The Sea Hawk (1924).

As auditory films superceded the silents in the 1920's, producers worried that Beery's low-toned, graveled and slow-drawling voice would crash his rapidly-rising star, but audiences seemed to embrace him even more. This was proven with the release of prison film The Big House in 1930, a box office smash that garnered Beery his first Oscar nomination. That same year, Min and Bill elevated him to super-star status, which was followed by The Champ and his Oscar win.

There's a swagger to this man. He physically dominates the screen with his barreled chest and massive arms, but there's also a vulnerable quality to him, as though he's pining for someone to take him in their arms and give a squeeze. He's a big, lovable mug, and audiences in the Great Depression clamored to see a simple man take on the powerful and defeat them every time. His real-life persona was far from what we see on the screen, but Wallace Beery, the thick-skulled protector of the downtrodden continued to headline films until his death in 1949. And, oh yes, that Wallace Beery wrestling film for which Barton Fink was hired to write the screenplay? That was one of the first movies directed by John Ford, titled Flesh and released in 1932.


Click to see slideshow of Wallace Beery movie covers