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Sidney Toler
Born Sidney Hooper Toler
April 28, 1874(1874-04-28)
Warrensburg, Missouri, U.S.
Died February 12, 1947 (aged 72)
Beverly Hills, California, U.S.
Occupation Actor, playwright, theatre director
Years active 1903–1947
Spouse(s) Vivian Toler (1925-1943)
Viva Tattersall (1943-1947)

Sidney Hooper Toler (April 28, 1874 – February 12, 1947) was an American actor, playwright, and theatre director. Primarily Scottish ancestry, he was the second non-Asian actor to play the role of Charlie Chan.


Early life and career

Born in Warrensburg, Missouri, Toler showed a very early interest in the theater, acting in an amateur production of Tom Sawyer at the age of seven. Following his graduation from college, he became a professional actor in Kansas City, and then worked for a touring company during the late 1890s. For three decades, he acted on the stage in New York City, working with such future stars as Edward G. Robinson, John Barrymore, Katharine Hepburn, and Humphrey Bogart. In 1921, he co-wrote and directed Golden Days, a comedy starring Helen Hayes. Throughout the 1920s, Toler had an active role in co-writing or directing several other plays including The Exile (1923), Bye, Bye, Barbara (1924), and Ritzy (1930).

In 1929, Toler worked in his first Hollywood film, playing an Englishman in Madame X. For nearly ten years he worked in roles that supported well-known stars in films such as Blonde Venus (1932), starring Marlene Dietrich, The Phantom President (1932), with George M. Cohan, and Trigger (1934), featuring Clark Gable.

Charlie Chan series

Following the death of Warner Oland, Twentieth Century-Fox began the search for a new Charlie Chan. Thirty-four actors were tested before the studio decided on Sidney Toler. Twentieth Century-Fox announced its choice on October 18, 1938, and filming began less than a week later on Charlie Chan in Honolulu, which had been originally scripted for Warner Oland and Keye Luke. Toler's portrayal of the Chinese detective in Charlie Chan in Honolulu was very well received. Besides Toler, there was another change in the series. Sen Yung, as Number Two Son Jimmy, replaced Number One Son Lee, who had been played by Keye Luke. Toler's Chan, rather than merely mimicking the character that Oland had portrayed, had a somewhat sharper edge that was well suited for the rapid changes of the times, both political and cultural. When needed, Charlie Chan now displayed overt sarcasm, usually toward his son Jimmy.

Through four years and eleven films, Toler played Charlie Chan for Twentieth Century-Fox. However, in 1942, following the completion of Castle in the Desert, Fox concluded the series. The wartime collapse of the international film market may have been a factor, but the main reason was that Fox was curtailing virtually all of its low-budget series; Fox's other "B" series (Jane Withers, Michael Shayne, The Cisco Kid) also ended that year. (Only Laurel and Hardy remained in Fox's "B" unit, until it shut down at the end of 1944.)

Sidney Toler immediately sought the screen rights to the Charlie Chan character from Eleanor Biggers Cole, the widow of Chan's creator, Earl Derr Biggers. He had hoped that Fox would distribute new Charlie Chan films, starring himself, if he could find someone willing to finance the productions. Fox declined, but Toler sold the idea to Monogram Pictures, a lower-budget film studio. Phil Krasne, a Hollywood lawyer who invested in film productions, partnered with James Burkett to produce the Monogram Chans.

With the release of Charlie Chan in the Secret Service (1944), the effects of a more limited budget were somewhat apparent. Production values were no match for those of Fox; Monogram's budgets were typically about 40% of what Fox's had been. In fairness to Monogram, the films did gradually improve, with The Chinese Cat, The Shanghai Cobra, and Dark Alibi often cited as favorites by fans. Cast changes were again made: Sen Yung's Jimmy was replaced by Benson Fong as Number Three Son Tommy, and Mantan Moreland played the ever-present and popular Birmingham Brown, who brought comedy relief (and black audiences) to the series. Monogram's Charlie Chan films boasted tricky screenplays with many surprise culprits and murder devices, and were profitable and successful.

Personal life

Toler was married twice; he married first wife Vivian in 1925. After her death in 1943, Toler married actress Viva Tattersall, to whom he remained married until his death in 1947.

Later years and death

By the end of 1946, age and illness were affecting Sidney Toler. Diagnosed with cancer, the 72-year-old Toler was so ill during the filming of Dangerous Money (1946) and Shadows over Chinatown (1946, released 1947) that he could hardly walk. Monogram hired Toler's original foil, "Number Two Son" Victor Sen Young, for Toler's last two films, quite probably to ease the burden on Toler. Toler mustered enough strength to complete his last film, The Trap, in August 1946. (Young and Moreland relieve Toler of much of the action in The Trap). Toler's Monogram output matched his Fox output: 11 films for each studio.

Sidney Toler died on February 12, 1947, in Los Angeles, California from intestinal cancer. Monogram continued the series with actor Roland Winters.

Selected filmography

Year Title Role Notes
1929 Madame X Dr. Merivel Alternative title: Absinthe
1930 The Devil's Parade Satan
1931 Strictly Dishonorable Patrolman Mulligan
1932 The Phantom President Professor Aikenhead
1933 The Narrow Corner Ryan, the Go-Between
1934 Spitfire Mr. Jim Sawyer
1935 Romance in Manhattan Police Sergeant
1936 The Gorgeous Hussy Daniel Webster
1937 That Certain Woman Detective Lieutenant Neely
1938 If I Were King Robin Turgis
1939 Disbarred G.L. "Hardy" Mardsen
1940 Murder Over New York Charlie Chan
1940 Charlie Chan at the Wax Museum Charlie Chan
1940 Charlie Chan in Panama Charlie Chan
1941 Charlie Chan in Rio Charlie Chan
1942 Castle in the Desert Charlie Chan
1943 A Night to Remember Inspector Hawkins
1944 Charlie Chan in the Secret Service Charlie Chan
1945 It's in the Bag! Detective Sully Alternative title: The Fifth Chair
1946 Dark Alibi Charlie Chan
1947 The Trap Charlie Chan


  • Playthings (1918)
  • The Bait (1921)
  • A Heart to Let (1921)

External links



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