Richard “Dick” Semler Barthelmess was an Oscar-nominated silent film star.
The son of an actress, Barthelmess was educated at Hudson River Military Academy at Nyack and Trinity College at Hartford, Connecticut. His father died when he was a baby and his mother earned her living on stage, so he worked in theatres in his early days, between schooling, doing “walk-ons”. This led to acting in college, doing amateur productions. Russian actress Alla Nazimova, a friend of the family, had been taught English by Barthelmess’s mother. Nazimova in return convinced Barthelmess to try acting professionally and he made his first film appearance in 1916 in the serial Gloria’s Romance as an extra. His next role, in War Brides opposite Alla Nazimova, attracted the attention of legendary director D. W. Griffith, who offered him several important roles, finally casting him opposite Lillian Gish in Broken Blossoms and Way Down East. In the coming years, he was one of Hollywood’s highest paid performers, starring in such classics as The Patent Leather Kid and The Noose ; he was nominated for Best Actor at the first Academy Awards for his performance in both these films, and he won a Special Citation for producing The Patent Leather Kid. He also founded his own production company, Inspiration Film Company, together with Charles Duell and Henry King. One of their films, Tol’able David, in which Barthelmess starred as a teenage mailman who finds courage, was a major success, and is considered by many to be his finest performance.
With the advent of the sound era, Barthelmess’ fortunes changed. He made several films in the new medium, most notably Son of the Gods, The Dawn Patrol, The Last Flight, and The Cabin in the Cotton, Central Airport, and a supporting role as Rita Hayworth’s character’s husband in Only Angels Have Wings. However, he failed to maintain the stardom of his silent film days and gradually left entertainment. He enlisted in the Naval Reserve in World War II, served as a lieutenant commander, and never returned to film, preferring instead to live off his investments. He died of cancer in 1963 and was interred at the Ferncliff Cemetery and Mausoleum in Hartsdale, Westchester County, New York, USA.