John Carradine was an American actor, best known for his roles in horror films and Westerns as well as Shakespearean theater. He was one of the most prolific character actors in Hollywood history and the patriarch of an acting dynasty that includes four of his sons and four of his grandchildren.
John Carradine was born Richmond Reed Carradine in the Greenwich Village section of New York City, the son of Genevieve Winifred, a surgeon, and William Reed Carradine, a correspondent for the Associated Press. William Carradine was the son of evangelical author Beverly Carradine. The family lived in Peekskill and Kingston, New York. William died from tuberculosis when John was two years old. John’s mother remarried “a Philadelphia paper manufacturer named Peck, who thought the way to bring up someone else’s boy was to beat him every day just on general principle.” John attended the Christ Church School in Kingston]]. and the Episcopal Academy in Merion, Pennsylvania where he developed his diction and his memory while memorizing portions of the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer as a punishment.
Carradine’s son, David, recalled that his father ran away when he was 14 years old. He returned at some point, as he studied sculpture at Philadelphia’s Graphic Arts Institute. John lived with his uncle, Peter, in New York City for a while, working in the film archives of the public library. David further said that while still a teenager, his father went to Richmond, Virginia, where he served as apprentice to Daniel Chester French, the sculptor who created the statue of Abraham Lincoln for Lincoln Monument. He then traveled for a time, supporting himself painting portraits. “If the sitter was satisfied, the price was $2.50,” he once said. “It cost him nothing if he thought it was a turkey. I made as high as $10 to $15 a day.” During this time he was arrested for vagrancy. While in jail Carradine was beaten, suffering a broken nose that did not set correctly. This contributed to “the look that would become world famous.”
David Carradine said, “My dad told me that he saw a production of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice when he was eleven years old and decided right then what he wanted to do with his life”. He made his stage debut in 1925 in New Orleans in a production of Camille and worked for a time in a New Orleans Shakespeare company. Carradine joined a tent repertory theater under the management of R. D. MaClean, who became his mentor. In 1927, he took a job escorting a shipment of bananas from Dallas, Texas to Los Angeles, where he eventually picked up some theater work under the name of Peter Richmond, in homage to his uncle. He became friends with John Barrymore, and began working for Cecil B. DeMille as a set designer. Carradine, however, did not have the job long. “DeMille noticed the lack of Roman columns in my sketches,” Carradine said. “I lasted two weeks.” Once DeMille heard his baritone voice, however, he hired him to do voice-overs. Carradine said, “.the great Cecil B. De Mille saw an apparition – me – pass him by, reciting the gravedigger’s lines from ‘Hamlet,’ and he instructed me to report to him the following day.” He became a member of DeMille’s stock company and his voice was heard in several DeMille pictures, including The Sign of the Cross .