Roscoe Conkling “Fatty” Arbuckle was an American illustrated song slide “model,” silent film actor, comedian, director, and screenwriter. Starting at the Selig Polyscope Company he eventually moved to Keystone Studios where he worked with Mabel Normand and Harold Lloyd. He mentored Charlie Chaplin and discovered Buster Keaton and Bob Hope. He was one of the most popular silent stars of the 1910s, and soon became one of the highest paid actors in Hollywood, signing a contract to make $1 million a year in 1918.
In 1921 Arbuckle threw a party during Labor Day weekend. Bit player Virginia Rappe became ill at the party and died days later. Soon Arbuckle was accused of raping and accidentally killing Rappe, enduring three widely publicized trials for manslaughter. His films were subsequently banned, his career was ruined, and he was publicly ostracized. Though he was acquitted by a jury and received a written apology, the trial’s scandal has mostly overshadowed his legacy as a pioneering comedian. Though the ban on his films was eventually lifted, Arbuckle only worked sparingly through the 1920s. In 1932 he began a successful comeback, which he briefly enjoyed before his death in 1933.
Born in Smith Center, Kansas, one of nine children born to Mollie and William Goodrich Arbuckle who were of Scottish descent. Roscoe Arbuckle weighed in excess of at birth and as both parents had slim builds this resulted in his father not believing the child was his own offspring. This disbelief led him to name the child after a politician whom he despised, Republican senator Roscoe Conkling. The birth was traumatic for Mollie and resulted in chronic health problems which contributed to her death 12 years later.
Arbuckle had a “wonderful” singing voice and was extremely agile. At the age of eight his mother encouraged him to perform in theatres which he enjoyed until she died in 1899 when he was 12. His father, who had always treated him harshly, now refused to support him and Arbuckle got work doing odd jobs in a hotel. Arbuckle was in the habit of singing while he worked and was overheard by a customer who was a professional singer. The customer invited him to perform in an amateur talent show. The show consisted of the audience judging acts by clapping or jeering with bad acts pulled off the stage by a shepherd’s crook. Arbuckle sang, danced and did some clowning around but did not impress the audience. He saw the crook emerge from the wings and to avoid it somersaulted into the orchestra pit in obvious panic. The audience went wild and he not only won the competition but began a career in vaudeville.