Joe E. Brown

Joseph Evans Brown (July 28, 1891 – July 6, 1973) was an American actor and comedian, remembered for his amiable screen persona, comic timing, and enormous elastic-mouth smile.[1] He was one of the most popular American comedians in the 1930s and 1940s, with films like A Midsummer Night's Dream (1935), Earthworm Tractors (1936), and Alibi Ike (1935). In his later career Brown starred in Some Like It Hot (1959), as Osgood Fielding III, in which he utters the famous punchline, "Well, nobody's perfect."

Joe E. Brown
Brown in 1945
Joseph Evans Brown

(1891-07-28)July 28, 1891
DiedJuly 6, 1973(1973-07-06) (aged 81)
Years active1928–1964
Spouse(s)Kathryn Francis McGraw (1915–1973; his death)

Early life

Brown was born on July 28, 1891, in Holgate, Ohio, near Toledo, into a large family largely of Welsh descent. He spent most of his childhood in Toledo. In 1902, at the age of ten, he joined a troupe of circus tumblers known as the Five Marvelous Ashtons, who toured the country on both the circus and vaudeville circuits. Later he became a professional baseball player. Despite his skill, he declined an opportunity to sign with the New York Yankees to pursue his career as an entertainer. After three seasons he returned to the circus, then went into Vaudeville and finally starred on Broadway. He gradually added comedy to his act, and transformed himself into a comedian. He moved to Broadway in the 1920s, first appearing in the musical comedy Jim Jam Jems.

Film career

In late 1928, Brown began making films, starting the next year with Warner Bros. He quickly became a favorite with child audiences,[1] and shot to stardom after appearing in the first all-color all-talking musical comedy On with the Show (1929). He starred in a number of lavish Technicolor Warner Brothers musical comedies including: Sally (1929), Hold Everything (1930), Song of the West (1930), and Going Wild (1930). By 1931, Brown had become such a star that his name was billed above the title in the films in which he appeared.

He appeared in Fireman, Save My Child (1932), a comedy in which he played a member of the St. Louis Cardinals, and in Elmer, the Great (1933) with Patricia Ellis and Claire Dodd and Alibi Ike (1935) with Olivia de Havilland, in both of which he portrayed ballplayers with the Chicago Cubs.

In 1933 he starred in Son of a Sailor with Jean Muir and Thelma Todd. In 1934, Brown starred in A Very Honorable Guy with Alice White and Robert Barrat, in The Circus Clown again with Patricia Ellis and with Dorothy Burgess, and with Maxine Doyle in Six-Day Bike Rider.

Brown was one of the few vaudeville comedians to appear in a Shakespeare film; he played Francis Flute in the Max Reinhardt/William Dieterle film version of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream (1935) and was highly praised for his performance.[1] He starred in Polo Joe (1936) with Carol Hughes and Richard "Skeets" Gallagher, and in Sons o' Guns. In 1933 and 1936, he became one of the top ten earners in films. He was sufficiently well known internationally by this point to be depicted in comic strips in the British comic Film Fun for twenty years from 1933.

He left Warner Brothers to work for producer David L. Loew, starring in When's Your Birthday? (1937). In 1938, he starred in The Gladiator, a loose film adaptation of Philip Gordon Wylie's 1930 novel Gladiator that influenced the creation of Superman.[2] He gradually switched to making "B" pictures.

World War II

In 1939, Brown testified before the House Immigration Committee in support of a bill that would allow 20,000 German Jewish refugee children into the US. He later adopted two refugee children.[3]

Aged 50 when the US entered World War II, Brown himself was too old to enlist. Both of his biological sons served in the military during the war. In 1942, Captain Don E. Brown, was killed when his Douglas A-20 Havoc crashed near Palm Springs, California.[4]

Even before the USO was organized, Brown spent a great deal of time traveling, at his own expense, to entertain troops in the South Pacific, including Guadalcanal, New Zealand and Australia, as well as the Caribbean and Alaska. He was the first to tour in this way and before Bob Hope made similar journeys. Brown also spent many nights working and meeting servicemen at the Hollywood Canteen.[1] He wrote of his experiences entertaining the troops in his book Your Kids and Mine. On his return to the US, Brown brought sacks of letters, making sure they were delivered by the Post Office Department. He gave shows in all weather conditions, many in hospitals, sometimes doing his entire show for a single dying soldier. He would sign autographs for everyone. For his services to morale, Brown became one of only two civilians to be awarded the Bronze Star during World War II.

Postwar work

His concern for the troops continued into the Korean War, as evidenced by a newsreel featuring his appeal for blood donations to aid the US and UN troops there that was featured in the season 4 episode of M*A*S*H titled "Deluge".[5]

In 1948, he was awarded a Special Tony Award for his work in the touring company of Harvey.[1][6]

He had a cameo appearance in Around the World in 80 Days (1956), as the Fort Kearney stationmaster talking to Fogg (David Niven) and his entourage in a small town in Nebraska. In the similarly epic film It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963), he cameoed as a union official giving a speech at a construction site in the climactic scene. On television, he was the mystery guest on What's My Line? during the January 11, 1953, episode.

His best known postwar role was that of aging millionaire Osgood Fielding III in Billy Wilder's 1959 comedy, Some Like It Hot. Fielding falls for Daphne (Jerry), played by Jack Lemmon in drag; at the end of the film, Lemmon takes off his wig and reveals to Brown that he is a man, to which Brown responds: "Well, nobody's perfect", one of the most celebrated punchlines in film history.

Another of his notable postwar roles was that of "Cap'n Andy Hawks" in MGM's 1951 remake of Show Boat, a role that he reprised onstage in the 1961 New York City Center revival of the musical and on tour. The musical film version included such prominent costars as Ava Gardner, Howard Keel, and Kathryn Grayson. Brown performed several dance routines in the film, and famed choreographer Gower Champion appeared along with first wife Marge. Brown's final film appearance was in The Comedy of Terrors (1964).

Brown was a sports enthusiast, both in film and personally. Some of his best films were the "baseball trilogy" which consisted of Fireman, Save My Child (1932), Elmer the Great (1933) and Alibi Ike (1935). He was a television and radio broadcaster for the New York Yankees in 1953. His son, Joe L. Brown, inherited an interest in baseball, becoming the general manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates for more than twenty years. Brown spent Ty Cobb's last days with him, discussing his life.

Brown's sports enthusiasm also led to him becoming the first president of PONY Baseball and Softball (at the time named Pony League) when the organization was incorporated in 1953. He continued in the post until late 1964, when he retired. Later he traveled additional thousands of miles telling the story of PONY League, hoping to interest adults in organizing baseball programs for young people. He was a fan of Thoroughbred horse racing, a regular at Del Mar Racetrack and the races at Santa Anita.

He was caricatured in the Disney cartoons Mickey's Gala Premiere (1933), Mother Goose Goes Hollywood (1938), and The Autograph Hound (1939); all of them contain a scene in which he is seen laughing so loud that his mouth opens extremely wide. According to the official autobiography Daws Butler: Characters Actor, Daws Butler used Joe E. Brown as inspiration for the voices of two Hanna-Barbera cartoon characters: Lippy the Lion (1962) and Peter Potamus (19631966).[7]

Later life and family

Brown married Kathryn Francis McGraw in 1915. The marriage would last until his death in 1973. The couple had four children: two sons, Don Evan Brown (December 25, 1916 October 8, 1942; Captain in the United States Army Air Force, who was killed in the crash of an A-20B Havoc bomber while serving as a ferry pilot)[8] and Joe LeRoy "Joe L." Brown (September 1, 1918 August 15, 2010), and two daughters, Mary Katherine Ann (b. 1930) and Kathryn Francis (b. 1934). Both daughters were adopted as infants.

Joe L. Brown shared his father's love of baseball, serving as general manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates from 1955 to 1976, and briefly in 1985, also building the 1960 and 1971 World Series champions. Brown's '71 Pirates featured baseball's first all-black starting nine.

Death and legacy

Brown began having heart problems in 1968, after suffering a severe heart attack, and underwent cardiac surgery. He died from arteriosclerosis on July 6, 1973,[9][10][11] at his home in Brentwood, Los Angeles, California, three weeks before his 82nd birthday.[1] He is interred at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California.

For his contributions to the film industry, Brown was inducted into the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1960 with a motion pictures star located at 1680 Vine Street.[12]

In 1961, Bowling Green State University renamed the theatre in which Brown appeared in Harvey in the 1950s as the "Joe E. Brown Theatre". It was closed in 2011.[13]

Holgate, Ohio, his birthplace, has a street named Joe E. Brown Avenue. Toledo, Ohio, has a city park named "Joe E. Brown Park" at 150 West Oakland Street.

Rose Naftalin's popular 1975 cookbook includes a cookie named the "Joe E. Brown".[14][15] Brown was a frequent customer of Naftalin's Toledo restaurant.

Flatrock Brewing Company in Napoleon, Ohio offers several brown ales such as Joe E. Coffee And Vanilla Bean Brown Ale, Joe E. Brown Hazelnut, Chocolate Peanut Butter Joe E. Brown, Joe E Brown Chocolate Pumpkin, and Joe E. (Brown Ale).

Selected filmography

Television roles

Books published

  • Your Kids and Mine (1944)
  • Laughter is a Wonderful Thing (1956)


  1. "Joe E. Brown, Comedian Of Movies and Stage, Dies". New York Times. July 7, 1973. Retrieved August 21, 2007. Joe E. Brown, the beloved elastic-mouth comedian, died at his home here today. He was 81 years old. Mr. Brown was incapacitated by a stroke several years ago, and he had also suffered from severe arthritis.
  2. Jones, Gerard. Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters, and the Birth of the Comic Book. New York: Basic Books, 2004 (ISBN 0465036562), p. 80. Also see Moskowitz, Sam Explorers of the Infinite: Shapers of Science Fiction, Cleveland, Ohio: The World Publishing Co., 1963 (ISBN 0-88355-130-6), pp.278–295
  3. The Holocaust Chronicle. Publications International Ltd., 2000 (ISBN 0-7853-2963-3), p. 162
  4. "Capt. Don Brown, Actor's Son, Dies In Bomber Crash". Chicago Tribune. October 9, 1942. Retrieved April 17, 2008.
  5. ""M*A*S*H" Deluge (TV Episode 1976)".
  6. "1948 Tony Award Winners (". Retrieved April 11, 2015.
  7. Daws Butler, Characters Actor: Ben Ohmart, Joe Bevilacqua: 9781593930158: Books. ASIN 1593930151.CS1 maint: ASIN uses ISBN (link)
  8. Associated Press, "Flying Son Of Film Star Crash Victim", The San Bernardino Daily Sun, San Bernardino, California, Friday 9 October 1942, Volume 49, page 1.
  9. California Deaths, 1940–1997 Joe E. Brown
  10. The Grave of Joe E. Brown, separate monument and family monument
  11. Los Angeles Times
  12. "Hollywood Walk of Fame – Joe E. Brown". Hollywood Chamber of Commerce. Retrieved December 28, 2017.
  13. Joe E. Brown Theatre closes after 50 years of entertainment (December 14, 2011). Retrieved July 16, 2015.
  14. Naftalin, Rose (1975). Grandma Rose's Book of Sinfully Delicious Cakes, Cookies, Pies, Cheese Cakes, Cake Rolls & Pastries. New York: Random House, Inc. p. 102. ISBN 0-394-49492-X.
  15. Powell, Mary Alice (July 8, 1981). "Grandma Rose Just as Sweet as Ever". The Blade. Toledo, Ohio. p. 17.
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