George Arliss was an English actor, author, playwright and filmmaker who found success in the United States. He was the first British actor to win an Academy Award.
Born George Augustus Andrews in London, England and educated at Harrow, he started work in his father’s publishing office but left age eighteen to go on the stage. He began his acting career on the stage in the English provinces in 1887. By 1900, he was playing London’s West End, the equivalent of New York’s Broadway, in supporting roles. He embarked for a tour of America in 1901 in Mrs Patrick Campbell’s troupe. Intending to remain in the U.S. only for the length of the tour, Arliss stayed for twenty years, eventually becoming a star in 1908 in The Devil. Producer George Tyler commissioned Louis Napoleon Parker in 1911 to write a play specifically tailored for Arliss and the actor toured in Disraeli for five years, eventually becoming closely identified with the 19th century British prime minister.
He began his film career with The Devil, followed by Disraeli and four other silent films. Today, only The Devil, $20 a Week and The Green Goddess, based on the hit stage play in which he had starred, are known to have survived. He remade Disraeli in sound, converting successfully at the age of 61 from a star of the legitimate theater, then silent films, to the talkies.
Arliss made ten sound films exclusively for Warner Bros. under a contract that gave the star an unusual amount of creative control over his films. Curiously, his casting of actors and rewriting of scripts were privileges granted him by the studio that are not even mentioned in his contract. One of these films, The Man Who Played God, was Bette Davis’ first leading role. Until the end of Davis’ life, she would credit Arliss for personally insisting upon her as his leading lady and giving her a chance to show her mettle. The two also co-starred in The Working Man in 1933.