Roscoe Arbuckle

Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle

Roscoe Conkling Arbuckle (1887–1933) American Actor, Composer, Writer and Director. Roscoe Arbuckle, one of nine children, was the baby of the family who weighed a reported 16 pounds at birth. Born in Smith Center, Kansas, on March 24, 1887, his family moved to California when he was a year old. At age eight he appeared on the stage. His first part was with the Webster-Brown Stock Company. From then until 1913, Roscoe was on the stage, performing as an acrobat, clown and singer. His first real professional engagement was in 1904, singing illustrated songs for Sid Grauman at the Unique Theater in San Jose, CA, at $17.50 a week. He later worked in the Morosco Burbank stock company and traveled through China and Japan with Ferris Hartman. His last appearance on the stage was with Hartman in Yokahama, Japan, in 1913, where he played the Mikado.

Back in Hollywood, Arbuckle went to work at Mack Sennett's Keystone film studio at $40 a week. For the next 3-1/2 years he never starred or even featured, but appeared in hundreds of one-reel comedies. He would play mostly policemen, usually with the Keystone Kops, but he also played different parts. He would work with Mabel Normand, Ford Sterling, Charles Chaplin, among others, and would learn about the process of making movies from Henry Lehrman, who directed all but two of his pictures. Roscoe was a gentle and genteel man off screen and always believed that Sennett never thought that he was funny.

Roscoe never used his weight to get a laugh. He would never be found stuck in a chair or doorway. He was remarkably agile for his size and used that agility to find humor in situations. By 1914 he had begun directing some of his one-reelers. The next year he had moved up to two-reelers, which meant that he would need to sustain the comedy to be successful--as it turned out, he was. Among his films were Fatty Again (1914), Mabel, Fatty and the Law (1915), Mabel and Fatty's Wash Day (1915), Mabel and Fatty Viewing the World's Fair at San Francisco (1915), Fatty's Reckless Fling (1915), and many more. For "Mabel and Fatty Viewing the World's Fair at San Francisco", Keystone took the actors to the real World's Fair to use as background; the studio's cost was negligible, while the San Francisco backgrounds made the picture look expensive.

By 1917 Roscoe formed a partnership with Joseph M. Schenck, a powerful producer who was also the husband of Norma Talmadge. The company they formed was called Comique and the films that Roscoe made were released through Famous Players on a percentage basis, and soon Arbuckle was making over $1,000 a week. With his own company Roscoe had complete creative control over his productions. He also hired a young performer he met in New York by the name of Buster Keaton. Keaton's film career would start with Roscoe in The Butcher Boy (1917). Roscoe wrote his own stories first, tried them out and then devised funny little twists to generate the laughs. His comedy star was second only to Charles Chaplin. With the success of Comique, Paramount asked Roscoe to move from two-reel shorts to full-length features in 1919. Roscoe's first feature was The Round-Up (1920) and it was successful. It was soon followed by other features, including Brewster's Millions (1921) and Gasoline Gus (1921).

Ufortunately, tragedy struck on Labor Day in September 1921 with the arrest and trial of Roscoe Arbuckle on manslaughter charges. Roscoe's roommate had thrown a party in their San Francisco hotel suite, which was crashed by a "starlet" named Virginia Rappe, who fell seriously ill and died three days later from a ruptured bladder. The newspapers, led by William Randolph Hearst's group, made this incident Hollywood's first truly major scandal. Roscoe was tried not once but three times for the criminal charges; the trials began in November 1921 and lasted until April 1922; the first two ended with hung juries (the decision in the second trial was reached on February 22, the day Arbuckle's friend and fellow Paramount director William Desmond Taylor was found murdered, and Arbuckle was visibly affected by the news). At his third and final trial in April of 1922, the jury not only returned a "not guilty" verdict but excoriated the prosecution for pursuing what they said was a flimsy case with no evidence of Arbuckle having committed any crime; several jury members walked to Arbuckle after the verdict was read and hugged him and shook his hand.

For Arbuckle, however, the acquittal marked the end of acting career. Unable to return to the screen, he later found work as a comedy director for Al St. John, Buster Keaton and others under the pseudonym "William Goodrich". In 1932 producer Samuel Sax signed Roscoe to appear in his very first sound comic short films for Warner Brothers, starting with Hey, Pop! (1932). He completed six shorts and showed the magic and youthful spirit that he had a decade before. With the success of the shorts Warner Brothers signed Roscoe to a feature film contract, but he died in his sleep on June 29, 1933 , at age 46, the night after he signed the contract.

Alternate Names: Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle | Roscoe Arbuckle | William Goodrich


Obese comic actor whose career was ended by a scandal.

Directed under the name William Goodrich. He let it be known that his alternate pseudonym of Will B. Good was evidence of his pledge to walk the straight and narrow.

After his career was ruined, Buster Keaton personally supported him as repayment for giving him his break into film.

Weighed 300 pounds.

Was tried three times for rape and manslaughter of Virginia Rappe. The first trial (November 14-December 4, 1921) ended with the jury deadlocked 10 to 2 in favor of acquittal. The second trial (January 11-February 3, 1922) also ended in a hung jury; this time the majority had ruled against Roscoe - 10 to 2 for conviction. The third trial (March 13-April 12, 1922) finally ended with an acquittal after the jury deliberated for less than 5 minutes compared with 43 hours straight in the first trial and 44 hours in the second trial.

Cousin of actor Andrew Arbuckle and actor/writer Macklyn Arbuckle.

Uncle of Al St. John

It is often reported that Arbuckle's career as an actor ended with the rape trials and that he died forgotten. In fact, Arbuckle was in the midst of starring in a series of successful shorts and was on his way back up when he died.

Biography in: "Who's Who in Comedy" by Ronald L. Smith; pg. 21-22. New York: Facts on File, 1992. ISBN 0816023387

An excellent breakdown of the rape/murder scandal is "Frame-Up!: the Untold Story of Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle", by Andy Edmonds.

He was the very first actor to be paid a million dollars a year.

A screenplay about his life floated around Hollywood for years but never got sold. At one point John Belushi was considered for the part, then John Candy, then Chris Farley. All three died suddenly and the script has been shelved indefinitely.

The legend that his box office clout faltered after the scandal is not entirely true. Actually his films were making just as much money as they had been before the scandal, the problem was that with all the scathing headlines about him, studios were reluctant about putting him under contract and so he had problems getting work.

It was written in his contract that his weight remain above 250 pounds and that he would be given a healthy yearly bonus if he exceeded that by 50 to 100 pounds. During his career he kept it well over 300.

Biography in: "American National Biography". Supplement 1, pp. 11-13. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Some filmographies credit him as co-director of the film Sherlock Jr. (1924). The confusion comes from the fact that Buster Keaton did originally hope to have Arbuckle work as his co-director on the film, but ultimately Arbuckle was still too depressed over the scandal that had nearly ended his career three years earlier, and had become difficult to work with, so Keaton went ahead as the sole director of the film. The claim that Arbuckle was a co-director on the film was substantiated by Minta Durfee; however, her claims lose credibility when she also stated that Arbuckle was the sole screenwriter of the film. The script was definitely written by Joseph A. Mitchell, Jean C. Havez and Clyde Bruckman, Keaton's usual team of gag-men from this era. Historians agree there is no credibility to the claim that Arbuckle ever directed so much as a frame of the movie.

Met Buster Keaton accidentally one day while strolling down Broadway in New York City with vaudeville veteran Lou Anger. Anger, who was an old stage acquaintance of Keaton's, introduced them. Arbuckle immediately invited Keaton to visit the Colony Studio where he was about start a series of two-reel comedies for Joseph M. Schenck. The famous duo was thusly formed.

Started his movie career in 1909 with the Selig Polyscope Company.

It the subject of the novel "I, Fatty" by Jerry Stahl.

Joined Keystone as a Keystone Kop in 1913.

Arbuckle is the only person to have the three top silent film comedians, Charles Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd appear in supporting roles in his films; Chaplin assists Arbuckle in The Knockout (1914) Lloyd is his co-star in Miss Fatty's Seaside Lovers (1915) and Keaton supported him in at least 14 shorts.

Although he divorced his first wife Minta Durfee in 1925, they did in fact separate as early as in 1917. They had two sons together.

Salary in 1921, $1,000,000.

Once owned a quarry in southern California. Two months after he sold it, oil was discovered on the property.

Began his career as an entertainer in vaudeville at the age of 12 in order to survive, after his mother died and his alcoholic father had abandoned him.

In 1924, he hired Bob Hope as a "cheap act" for his traveling vaudeville show. After seeing Hope perform at the Bandbox Theater in Cleveland, Arbuckle sensed he would be a major star if he just had the right break. He contacted some friends in Los Angeles and instructed Hope to do the same. Hope eventually followed his advice and headed west.

Arbuckle hated the nickname "Fatty" and insisted that his friends and acquaintances always address him by his real first name, Roscoe.

The first movie star in America to systematically direct his own films. He directed most of his output from 1914 and onwards.

Profiled in "American Classic Screen Profiles" by John C. Tibbets and James M. Welch.

He fathered two sons, born to him by Minta Durfee.

He was one of the very first, if not first person to actually own his films. As the studios, at the time, saw no reason to keep movies, since they would only be shown in cinemas once, Roscoe decided to own the films himself. This has subsequently made his heirs very rich.

In 1927, he was engaged to direct and star a series of comedy shorts for producer Abe Carlos. The films were to be shot in Berlin and distributed internationally, and Arbuckle's then wife Doris Deane was to star with him. The films were never produced, and it's unknown if Arbuckle saw any financial gain from the deal.

Half-brother of Clyde Arbuckle.

A fictionalized version of the events that destroyed Arbuckle's career appears in James Ivory's 1975 film "The Wild Party" starring James Coco as a silent film star based on the comedian.

Personal QuotesEdit

[during his sex-and-murder scandal in 1921] I don't understand it. One minute I'm the guy everybody loves, the next I'm the guy everybody loves to hate.

[when he was called "Fatty" offscreen, a nickname he hated] I got a name, you know.

A good the most worthwhile thing in life.

I shall produce nothing that will offend the proprieties whether applied to children or grownups. My pictures are turned out with clean hands and therefore with a clear conscience which, like virtue, is its own reward. Nothing would grieve me more than to have mothers say, "Let's not go there [in cinema] today, Arbuckle is playing and he isn't fit for children to see." I want them to think always otherwise for me, for as long as I can please the kiddies, I don't care who entertains their elders.

[on Charles Chaplin] I have always regretted not having been his partner in a longer film than these one-reelers we made so rapidly. He is a complete comic genius, undoubtedly the only one of our time and he will be the only one who will be still talked about a century from now.

I don't believe there is any finer mission on earth than just to make people laugh.

My birth and a cyclone blew Smith Center [Kansas] off the map.

You only star in movies from picture to picture. If two or three pictures are bad, you're not a star any more. It's a constant worry. That's why movie people are temperamental. It's a terrible strain!

I've never used my weight to get a laugh. That is, used my size as the subject for humor. You never saw me stuck in a door-way or stuck in a chair. If you'll analyze my pictures you'll see that they're humorous in themselves, except, of course, that the audience remarks about the agility on account of the weight. Titles and trademarks don't count. They're no good unless the picture is funny.

How did I become a star? I don't know how it happened. When I look at my old pictures I can't tell how it happened!

Community content is available under CC-BY-SA unless otherwise noted.