Webb Parmelee Hollenbeck was born today, November 19, 1889. Known professionally as Clifton Webb, he was an American actor, dancer, and singer known for his Oscar-nominated roles in such films as Laura (1944), The Razor's Edge (1946), and Sitting Pretty (1948). He was known for his stage appearances in the plays of Noël Coward, notably Blithe Spirit, as well as appearances on Broadway in a number of very successful musical revues.
Webb was born in Indianapolis, Indiana. In 1892, Webb's mother moved to New York City with her beloved "little Webb", as she called him for the remainder of her life.
By the age of 19, using the name Clifton Webb, he had become a professional ballroom dancer, often partnering with "exceedingly decorative" star dancer Bonnie Glass (she eventually replaced him with Rudolph Valentino), and performed in about two dozen operettas before debuting on Broadway as Bosco in The Purple Road. His next musical was an Al Jolson vehicle, Sigmund Romberg's Dancing Around. Later that year, Webb was in the all-star revue Ned Wayburn's Town Topics, which boasted 117 famous performers, including Will Rogers. In 1916, he had another short run with Cole Porter's short-lived comic opera See America First.
The year 1917 proved to be better, with a 233-performance run of Jerome Kern's Love O' Mike. Webb's final show of the 1910s, the musical Listen Lester, had the longest run, 272 performances. Webb appeared with other Broadway stars in National Red Cross Pageant (1917), a 50-minute film of a stage production held to benefit the American Red Cross.
The 1920s had Webb in no fewer than eight Broadway shows, numerous other stage appearances, including vaudeville, and a handful of silent films.
Webb's mainstay was the Broadway theatre. Between 1913 and 1947, the tall and slender performer who sang in a clear, gentle tenor, appeared in 23 Broadway shows, starting with major supporting roles and quickly progressing to leads. He introduced Irving Berlin's "Easter Parade" and George and Ira Gershwin's "I've Got a Crush on You" in Treasure Girl (1928).
Most of Webb's Broadway shows were musicals, but he also starred in Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, and his longtime friend Noël Coward's Blithe Spirit and Present Laughter.
Webb was in his mid-fifties when actor/director Otto Preminger chose him over the objections of 20th Century Fox chief Darryl F. Zanuck to play the elegant but evil radio columnist Waldo Lydecker, who is obsessed with Gene Tierney's character in the 1944 film noir Laura. Zanuck reportedly found Webb too effeminate as a person and an actor; Preminger wanted someone who would surprise the audience.
Webb's performance won him wide acclaim, and he received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor in a Supporting Role. Despite Zanuck's original objection, Webb was signed to a long-term contract with Fox. He worked for them solely for the rest of his career.
His first film under it was The Dark Corner (1946), a film noir directed by Henry Hathaway where he gave a version of his Laura performance. He was then reunited with Tierney in another highly praised role as the elitist Elliott Templeton in The Razor's Edge (1946). He received another Academy Award nomination for Best Actor in a Supporting Role.
Webb was promoted to star in Sitting Pretty, playing Mr. Belvedere, a snide, know-it-all babysitter. It was a huge hit and Webb received an Oscar nomination for Best Actor in a Leading Role.
Fox promptly put Webb in a sequel, Mr. Belvedere Goes to College (1949) where Belvedere has to complete his college degree and acts as matchmaker. It was another box office success.
In the 1950 film Cheaper by the Dozen, Webb and Myrna Loy played Frank and Lillian Gilbreth, real-life efficiency experts of the 1910s and 1920s, and the parents of 12 children. It resulted in Webb's third hit in a row and led to exhibitors voting him the seventh biggest star in the US.
In 1953, Webb had his most dramatic role as the doomed but brave husband of unfaithful Barbara Stanwyck in Titanic. Writer Walter Reisch says this movie was created in part as a vehicle for Webb by Fox, who wanted to push Webb into more serious roles.
The following year he played the (fictional) novelist John Frederick Shadwell in Three Coins in the Fountain (1954), romancing Dorothy McGuire. It was a huge hit.
The 1956 British film The Man Who Never Was had Webb playing the part of Royal Navy Lt. Cmdr. Ewen Montagu in the true story of Operation Mincemeat, the elaborate plan to deceive the Axis powers about the Allied invasion of Sicily during World War II.
Webb's final film role was an initially sarcastic, but ultimately self-sacrificing Catholic priest in Leo McCarey's Satan Never Sleeps. The film, which was set in China, showed the victory of Mao Tse-tung's armies in the Chinese Civil War, which ended with his ascension to power in 1949.
Webb never married and had no children. He lived with his mother until her death at age 91 in 1960, leading Noël Coward to remark, apropos Webb's grieving, "It must be terrible to be orphaned at 71."
Actor Robert Wagner, who co-starred with Webb in the films Stars and Stripes Forever and Titanic and considered the actor one of his mentors, stated in his memoirs, Pieces of My Heart: A Life, that "Clifton Webb was gay, of course, but he never made a pass at me, not that he would have."
Because of health problems, Webb spent the last 5 years of his life as a recluse at his home in Beverly Hills, California, eventually dying of a heart attack at the age of 76 on October 13, 1966.