Ben Turpin

Bernard "Ben" Turpin (September 19, 1869[2] – July 1, 1940) was an American comedian and actor, best remembered for his work in silent films. His trademarks were his cross-eyed appearance and adeptness at vigorous physical comedy. Turpin worked with notable performers such as Charlie Chaplin and Laurel and Hardy, and was a part of the Mack Sennett studio team. He is believed to have been the first filmed "victim" of the pie in the face gag. When sound came to films, Turpin chose to retire, having invested profitably in real estate, although he did do occasional cameos.

Ben Turpin
Turpin in the 1920s
Birth nameBernard Turpin
Born(1869-09-19)September 19, 1869
New Orleans, Louisiana, U.S.
DiedJuly 1, 1940(1940-07-01) (aged 70)
Santa Monica, California, U.S.
MediumComedian, actor
Years active1907–1940
GenresSilent films
Carrie Lemieux (m. 19071925)
(her death)[1]
Babette Dietz (m. 19261940)

Personal life

Turpin was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, on September 19, 1869,[2] the son of a candy store owner, [3] Ernest Turpin, and Sarah Buckley.[4]

Turpin and his first wife, actress Carrie Lemieux,[5] were married in Chicago on February 18, 1907.[6] In 1923, Mrs. Turpin became ill with influenza, which caused the loss of her hearing. Heartbroken, Turpin took his seriously ill wife to the Basilica of Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré in Quebec, hoping she would be healed.[7] She eventually became an invalid, with Turpin placing his career on hold to care for her. Carrie died on October 2, 1925.[1] Turpin remarried on July 8, 1926, to Babette Dietz in Los Angeles.[4]

He was a Roman Catholic, and a member of the Good Shepherd Parish and the Catholic Motion Picture Guild in Beverly Hills, California.[8]


Turpin worked in vaudeville, burlesque, and circuses. He had a distinctive appearance, with a small wiry frame, a brush mustache, and crossed eyes. Turpin's famous eyes, he said, only crossed as a young adult after he suffered an accident. He was convinced that the crossed eyes were essential to his comic career; his co-workers recalled that after he received any blow to the head he made a point of looking himself in the mirror to assure himself that they had not become uncrossed. He was a devout Catholic,[9][10] and his workmates occasionally goaded him by threatening to pray that his eyes would uncross, thus depriving him of his livelihood.

Turpin famously bought a $25,000 insurance policy with Lloyd's of London, payable if his eyes ever uncrossed. A 1920 version of the story had his eyes insured for $100,000.[11] How serious this was is open to question; such publicity stunts centered on a performer's "trademark" were common at the time.

He developed a vigorous style of physical comedy, including an ability to stage comic pratfalls that impressed even his fellow workers in the rough-and-tumble world of silent comedy. One of his specialties was a forward tumble he called the "hundred an' eight". It was basically an interrupted forward somersault initiated by kicking one leg up, turning over 180 degrees to land flat on the back or in a seated position.


Turpin first appeared on film in 1907 for Essanay Studios in Chicago in various small parts and comic bits. In addition to his on-screen work, he worked as a carpenter and janitor for Essanay.[12] In the 1909 film Mr. Flip, Turpin receives what is believed to have been the first pie-in-the-face.[13] By 1912 he was an established – if not major – screen personality, giving interviews and writing articles for the new fan magazines (the first of which had started the year before).

Charlie Chaplin joined the Essanay company in 1915, and the studio made Turpin his second banana. Chaplin was maturing as a filmmaker, working slowly and intuitively. Turpin, however, was impatient with Chaplin's methods. The earthy Turpin understood straightforward slapstick more than comic subtlety. The Chaplin–Turpin duo did not last long, with Chaplin abandoning Chicago for California. Turpin does share one additional credit with Chaplin: after Chaplin filmed Burlesque on Carmen in two reels, Essanay filmed new scenes with Turpin to pad the picture into a featurette, doubling its length.

Essanay did not survive Chaplin's departure and remained solvent for only a few more years. Turpin may have been aware of Essanay's instability; he left for the Vogue comedy company, where he starred in a series of two-reel comedies. Former Essanay comedian Paddy McQuire supported him. Many of Turpin's Vogue comedies were re-released under different titles, to cash in on Turpin's subsequent stardom.

Mack Sennett and stardom

In 1917 Ben Turpin joined the leading comedy company, the Mack Sennett studio. Turpin's aptitude for crude slapstick suited the Sennett style perfectly, and Sennett's writers often cast the ridiculous-looking Turpin against type (a rugged Yukon miner; a suave, worldly lover; a stalwart cowboy; a fearless stuntman, etc.) for maximum comic effect. Through the 1920s his roles often spoofed serious actors and celebrities of the time – e.g., "The Shriek" for "The Sheik" – and Turpin became one of film's most popular comics. Turpin appeared in both short subjects and feature films for Sennett. Delighted with his success, he took to introducing himself with the phrase, "I'm Ben Turpin; I make $3,000 a week."

Sennett terminated most of his staff's contracts in 1928, and closed the studio to retool for the new talking pictures. Turpin was signed by the low-budget Weiss Brothers-Artclass company, perhaps the most ambitious coup that Artclass ever attempted. Turpin made two-reel comedies there for one year. Artclass usually traded on his peculiar vision with titles like Idle Eyes and The Eyes Have It.

Turpin in the sound era

1929 saw many silent-film stars uncertain about their future employment, with the new talking pictures requiring new skills and techniques. Ben Turpin chose to retire. He had invested his earnings in real estate, and, being highly successful at this, had no financial need for more work. Producers soon sought him out for gag appearances in films. Turpin's speaking voice was a gritty rasp that retained elements of the New Orleans "Yat" accent of his youth. He commanded a flat fee of $1000 per appearance, regardless of whether it was a speaking role or a fleeting cameo. Among the most memorable of these cameos was in Paramount's Million Dollar Legs (1932) starring W. C. Fields, Jack Oakie, and Susan Fleming.

He starred in only one more film, the short subject Keystone Hotel (Warner Bros., 1935), a reunion of silent-era comedians. His last feature film was Laurel and Hardy's Saps at Sea in 1940, in which his cross-eyed face served as a joke punchline. He was paid his $1000 for one quick shot of his face and just 16 words of dialogue. Death prevented his scheduled appearance in Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator.[14]


Ben Turpin died July 1, 1940 of a heart attack[15] and was interred in the Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Glendale, California, following a Requiem Mass at the Church of the Good Shepherd in Beverly Hills.[10] He was eulogized as "a fine member of his church, strong in his faith" by Father J. P. Concannon. His pallbearers included Andy Clyde, Billy Bevan, James Finlayson, and Charlie Murray.[9]

Turpin had been close friends with Andy Clyde and James Finlayson, with Clyde having been the witness at Turpin's second wedding,[4] and Turpin having been one of the witnesses signing Finlayson's petition for naturalization.[16]

Turpin's crossed eyes

Turpin and Sennett both appeared as themselves (in Technicolor) in Hollywood Cavalcade (1939), a partly fictionalized movie about the silent-film era. This movie contains a sequence in which Turpin reports for work and prepares to go onto the set in character. In the dressing room he picks up a hand mirror and checks his reflection as he deliberately crosses his eyes as extremely as possible. In this sequence, it can be seen that Turpin's left eye was actually normal when he was not performing and that he intentionally crossed it (to match his misaligned right eye) as part of his screen character.

In the film The Comic (1969), Mickey Rooney plays a fictional silent-film comedian named "Cockeye Van Buren", who is genuinely cross-eyed. Although this character does not otherwise resemble Turpin, the handicap given to Rooney's role is clearly inspired by Turpin.


  • 1869 Birth in New Orleans, Louisiana, on September 19
  • 1900 US Census in Houston, Texas, listing birth year as 1869 and living Norma Turpin, his sister (however she lists her parents as born in Ohio). His father was born in Mexico and his mother in Ireland
  • 1907 First movie for Essanay, An Awful Skate (or The Hobo on Rollers)
  • 1907 Marriage to Carrie Le Mieux (1885–1925), aka Catherine of Canada
  • 1910 US Census in Chicago, Illinois
  • 1917 Work for Mack Sennett
  • 1920 US Census in Los Angeles
  • 1925 Announces retirement to care for an ailing wife
  • 1925 Death of Carrie Le Mieux (1885–1925)
  • 1926 Marriage to German-born Babette Dietz, on July 8
  • 1930 US Census
  • 1940 Death

Selected filmography

See also


  1. "Wife of Ben Turpin Is Dead". The Southeast Missourian. October 2, 1925. Retrieved November 23, 2010.
  2. His birth date was given as September 19, 1869, but other years were used at various times in his Hollywood publicity material. In the 1900 United States Census he used the year "1869", and his death certificate used "1869", and that year will be used here. Encyclopædia Britannica wrongly lists the year of his birth as "1874". The New York Times obituary mentions the alternative years as fabrications. His death certificate lists his birthday as "September 19, 1869" and lists his mother's maiden name as "Buckley". The Internet Movie Database lists his birthday properly as "September 19, 1869".
  3. Rydzewski, Steve (2013). For Art's Sake: The Biography & Filmography of Ben Turpin. BearManor Media. p. 446. ISBN 9781593932633.
  4. "California, County Marriages, 1850–1952, Bernard Turpin and Babette Dietz, 08 Jul 1926". FamilySearch. Los Angeles, United States, county courthouses, California; FHL microfilm 2,074,649. Retrieved January 25, 2016.
  5. "Ben Turpin's Wife Dies". Reading Eagle. October 2, 1925. Retrieved November 23, 2010.
  6. "Illinois, Cook County Marriages, 1871–1920, Bernard Turpin and Carrie Lemieux, 18 Feb 1907". FamilySearch. Chicago, Cook, Illinois, 451712, Cook County Courthouse, Chicago; FHL microfilm 1,030,417. Retrieved January 25, 2016.
  7. "Longs For Tragic Roles". Montreal Gazette. April 12, 1924. Retrieved November 23, 2010.
  8. Church of the Good Shepherd: Our History
  9. "Veterans of Films Honor Ben Turpin". Prescott Evening Courier. July 4, 1940. Retrieved November 23, 2010.
  10. "Ben Turpin Funeral Will Be Tomorrow". Toledo Blade. July 2, 1940. Retrieved November 23, 2010.
  11. author, p. 6.
  12. author, p. 1.
  13. "A Very Brief History of Slapstick". Splat TV. 2003. Archived from the original on February 24, 2009. Retrieved January 29, 2009.
  14. Rydzewski, p. 358.
  15. Ginibre, Jean-Louis (2005). Ladies or Gentlemen. New York City: Filipacchi Publishing.
  16. National Archives and Records Administration; Washington, D.C.; Naturalization Records of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California, Central Division (Los Angeles), 1887–1940; Microfilm Serial: M1524. Accessed on 2016-01-22 via

Selective bibliography

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