On this day in history : 26th April 1880 – The birth of Eric Campbell – the actor who invariably played the part of the bully in Charlie Chaplin’s films – and who’s life came to a tragic end….
Campbell was born in Sale, Cheshire – although it had previously been thought that he was born in Dunoon, Scotland…. His parents were William, a cotton dealer and Jane Campbell – and he was one of four sons…. He began acting as a boy and was later discovered by theatre impresario of the music hall Fred Karno…. Campbell was a gentle giant; at 6ft 5in tall and weighing nearly 20 stone it was his sheer size and baritone voice that impressed Karno….
He married Fanny Gertrude Robotham, a fellow music hall performer, on the 30th of March 1901…. They travelled to New York in 1914 and Campbell was hired by Broadway producer Charles Frohman…. In March 1916 he was acting in George M. Cohen’s play ‘Pom Pom’ when brothers Charlie and Syd Chaplin came across him…. They took him back to Hollywood with them….
Campbell may have been built like a wrestler but he had a comparatively small head – which he kept shaven…. Charlie, by darkening his eyes, exaggerating his eyebrows and getting him to grow a scraggy beard, created Campbell into the prefect villain to play opposite his own ‘Little Tramp’ character…. Campbell’s first film with Chaplin was ‘The Floor Walker’ in 1916 and was followed by a quick succession of other films…. By the summer of 1917 Campbell had become Chaplin’s favourite co-star – he appeared in a total of 11 of his films…. Possibly his best role was in ‘Easy Street’ in 1917….
Chaplin was, at the time, the most famous movie star in the world….and he had many imitators…. However, Campbell also had his fair share, including Oliver Hardy, of Laurel and Hardy fame….
Campbell’s career had really taken off – it looked as if his future was rosy…. Chaplin’s contract with Mutual had ended and he was signed with First National Pictures – a real scoop for him – and he intended on taking Campbell with him…. In the meantime Campbell was working with Mary Pickford, co-founder of Pickford-Fairbanks Studios, with Douglas Fairbanks, on the 1918 film ‘Amarilly of Clothes-Line Alley’…. But tragedy was about to strike Campbell’s life….
On the 9th of July 1917 his wife, Fanny, died suddenly of a heart attack, after they had been out for dinner at a restaurant near to their Santa Monica home…. Then as his 16-year-old daughter, Una, walked to a nearby shop to buy an outfit in which to mourn her mother, she was struck by a car, leaving her with serious injuries….
In September 1917, still grieving, Campbell met comedienne Pearl Gilman at a publicity gathering…. Twice divorced, each time from an extremely wealthy man, Gilman was nothing short of a gold-digger….and she set out to take full advantage of Campbell’s situation…. Five days after they had met the pair were married….two months later Gilman sued for divorce, claiming he was a heavy drinker and had abused her…. Campbell moved out of their home and took a room at the Los Angeles Athletic Club, next door to his best buddy, Charlie Chaplin….
On the 20th of December 1917 Campbell attended a Christmas party – and drowned his sorrows…. At 4am he drunkenly drove towards home – but was involved in a head-on collision – he was killed instantly….
After his cremation his ashes were to remain unclaimed…. His daughter had returned to the UK by now, to live with relatives in Nottingham…. It was to be 30 years before Campbell’s ashes were eventually laid to rest in an unknown site within the Rosedale Cemetery, Los Angeles….