Billy Gilbert

William Gilbert Barron (September 12, 1894 – September 23, 1971) was an American comedian, actor, writer and film director known for his comic sneeze routines. He appeared in over 200 feature films, short subjects and television shows starting in 1929.

Billy Gilbert
Gilbert in 1954
William Gilbert Barron

(1894-09-12)12 September 1894
DiedSeptember 23, 1971(1971-09-23) (aged 77)
Los Angeles, California, U.S.
Resting placeOdd Fellows Cemetery
OccupationActor, comedy writer, film director
Years active1929–1962
Ella McKenzie (m. 1938)


Early life and vaudeville career

Born in Kentucky, the child of singers with the Metropolitan Opera, he was born in a dressing room at the Hopkins Opera House in Louisville, Kentucky.[1] Gilbert began working in vaudeville at the age of 12.

Big break in films

Gilbert was spotted by Stan Laurel, who was in the audience of Gilbert's show Sensations of 1929. Laurel went backstage to meet Gilbert and was so impressed by him he introduced him to comedy producer Hal Roach. Gilbert was employed as a gag writer, actor and director, and at the age of 35 he appeared in his first film for the Fox Film Corporation in 1929.

Gilbert broke into comedy short subjects with the Vitaphone studio in 1930 – he appears without billing in the Joe Frisco comedy The Happy Hottentots, recently restored and released on DVD. Gilbert's burly frame and gruff voice made him a good comic villain, and within the year he was working consistently for producer Roach. He appeared in support of Roach's comedy stars Laurel and Hardy, Charley Chase, Thelma Todd, and Our Gang. One of his Laurel and Hardy appearances was the 1932 Academy Award-winning featurette The Music Box. Gilbert generally played blustery tough guys in the Roach comedies, but could play other comic characters, from fey couturiers to pompous radio announcers to roaring drunks. Gilbert's skill at dialects prompted Roach to give him his own series: big Billy Gilbert teamed with little Billy Bletcher as the Dutch-comic "Schmaltz Brothers." in offbeat musical shorts like "Rhapsody in Brew". Gilbert also directed these.

Like many other Roach contractees, Gilbert found similar work at other studios. He appears in the early comedies of the Three Stooges at Columbia Pictures, as well as in RKO short subjects. These led to featured roles in full-length films, so that from 1934 on Gilbert became one of the screen's most familiar faces.

Feature films

One of his standard routines had Gilbert progressively getting excited or nervous about something, and his speech would break down into facial spasms, culminating in a big, loud sneeze. He used this bit so frequently that Walt Disney thought of him immediately when casting the voice of Sneezy in 1937's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Gilbert and Disney would later work together again in Mickey and the Beanstalk,[1] with Gilbert voicing Willie the Giant in a very similar way to Sneezy. Gilbert did the sneeze routine in a memorable cameo in the Paramount comedy Million Dollar Legs (1932) starring W. C. Fields, Jack Oakie, Susan Fleming, and Ben Turpin.

Gilbert is prominent in most of the movies he appeared in, and he often used dialects. He appeared as "Herring" – a parody of Nazi official Hermann Göring – the minister of war in Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator.[1] He danced with Alice Faye and Betty Grable in Tin Pan Alley; he stole scenes as a dim-witted process server in the fast-paced comedy His Girl Friday; playing an Italian character, he played opposite singer Gloria Jean in The Under-Pup and A Little Bit of Heaven. He was also the soda server to Freddie Bartholomew in Captains Courageous. He was featured prominently in the John Wayne and Marlene Dietrich film Seven Sinners. All of these were choice Gilbert roles, and all filmed the same year (1940), demonstrating how prolific and talented he was.

Gilbert seldom starred in movies but did have occasional opportunities to play leads. In 1943, he headlined a brief series of two-reel comedies for Columbia Pictures. That same year, Monogram Pictures teamed him with the urbane stage comedian Frank Fay for a comedy series; Fay left the series after the first entry. Gilbert asked his closest friend, vaudeville veteran Shemp Howard, to replace him. Howard had been the original third member of the Three Stooges before leaving to pursue a solo career.

Later years

In the 1950s, Billy Gilbert worked in television, including a memorable pantomime sketch with Buster Keaton on You Asked for It. He appeared regularly on the children's program Andy's Gang with Andy Devine. He retired from the screen in 1962, following his appearance in the feature Five Weeks in a Balloon.

Personal life, and death

After an unhappy first marriage, Gilbert married Ella McKenzie in 1938. She had appeared as an ingenue in short-subject comedies. Fellow film comedian Charley Chase was the best man. In late 1943, Gilbert appeared with his wife in a USO show, entertaining the US Marines stationed in Derry, Northern Ireland.

Ella Baxter McKenzie was an Ulster-Scot whose grandfather John McKenzie was a prominent member of the Orange Order in Ballymena, County Antrim, Northern Ireland. Her father was Robert Baxter McKenzie, who always wore an Orange flower on the Twelfth of July, Orangeman's Day in Northern Ireland, in remembrance of the family background and cultural heritage. The family moved to Oregon in the USA when he was nine years old. Ella and Bill visited Ballymena in 1943 when they were in Northern Ireland to entertain US forces. An account of their visit is given in the Larne Times of December 9, 1943.

Gilbert died on September 23, 1971 in North Hollywood after suffering a stroke at the age of 77.[1] He was cremated and his ashes scattered in the Rose Garden of the Odd Fellows Cemetery, in Los Angeles. A plaque of remembrance was erected in his name nearby.


For his contributions to the motion picture industry, Gilbert has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6263 Hollywood Boulevard.[2] The jealous husband character that Gilbert frequently played in Hal Roach shorts may have inspired Jackie Gleason's Ralph Kramden character on the TV show The Honeymooners.

Selected filmography

See also

  • Biography portal


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